Limits on Meaning in Language

by Jan 14, 2014Linguistics, Theology


I received a nice e-mail from an appreciative reader not long ago; I confess it was a big encouragement to know that one of the droplets of water I’ve been spraying into the Internet ocean hit a surfer. Actually, he found me while searching for “God and Linguistics”—no surprise.

He sent me a paper he’d written (I’m sorry—there’s nothing to link to), and it contained a paragraph I found to be genuinely helpful. I wrote back to encourage him. Here’s that paragraph:

The meaning granted to language is only facilitated through communal dynamics, and our participation in a communal dynamic of meaning-making necessitates a negation of freedom in an autonomous sense. The freedom we are afforded in interpretation is of a limited kind and one that is necessarily circumscribed by the presence of others in the various senses of community of which we are a part. While we enjoy a window of freedom in the process of meaning-making, the limitations that restrict the possibility of autonomous meaning-making are exactly those things which connect us to everyone and everything outside ourselves.

Translation: if a word falls in the forest, and there’s no one there to hear it, it’s hard to say that any “meaning” was communicated (of course, God is always there to hear it). But in order to live in a community of meaning-exchangers—like the English-speaking world—you have to give up your complete freedom to say whatever you want. We don’t think of it that way, but it’s true: you can’t arbitrarily mix up the symbols we’ve all agreed upon, or (under normal conditions) invent new symbols. You can’t call a tree a pen, or a pen a frendl. To that degree, you’ve lost autonomous freedom.

The “rules” of English still allow a massive degree of freedom. One of the things that fascinates linguists is that sentences are like snowflakes: no two are alike. Practically every one of the sentences you utter of any length is a creation brand new in the history of the world—and yet people (almost) unfailingly understand you. That’s quite a lot of freedom.

But if there are people out there who balk at the remaining restraints placed upon them by their linguistic community, it is precisely that community they have to give up if they give up the restraints. Humans, by and large, won’t do that. A true idiolect is a solitary confinement into which we are hard-wired—being created in the image of a triune God, a God in community—not to imprison ourselves.

I love language; I marvel at God’s creative power.

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