No, Words Do Not “Have Meaning”

In debates about the meanings of texts and public statements, it’s not uncommon for someone at some point to assert that, “Words have meaning!” Most commonly, this comes at a point of frustration when someone’s argument about what some linguistic expression means doesn’t seem to be landing, and it is frequently followed by the assertion that otherwise we would not be able to communicate. Neither claim is true, however. Words objectively do not have meaning.

All meaning associated with communication resides entirely and exclusively within the mind* of the individual articulating a linguistic expression or the individual interpreting a linguistic expression. There is no sense in which ‘meaning” somehow resides within blobs of ink, pixels on a screen, in the light reflecting off of hand signs, or in sound waves. There is no unit of meaning to measure and there is no paper we can rub on a word that will turn pink to indicate a hypothesized meaning is present. The meaning never leaves our mind or enters our mind from somewhere else. All meaning a person ever perceives is constructed entirely within their own mind.

When we create a linguistic expression (whether through signing, speaking, writing, or pantomiming), we are taking a concept or concepts from our mind and assigning the linguistic symbols we understand to most closely or most efficiently approximate them, according to the understanding our experiences have given us of the conventions of a given language. Those symbols are always only approximations. They are never absolutely isometric with the concepts in our minds. When we interpret a linguistic expression, we are taking the symbols expressed, and constructing in our minds the most likely semantic content they are intended to represent, based on our own experiences with the conventions of a given language.

Because the conventions of a given language derive from shared experiences, and because everyone’s experiences are different and constantly changing, the conventions of a given language are understood differently from person to person, and differ from one moment to the next. A simple and small-scale example of this is the word “boot.” Ask a person on the street in San Antonio, Texas, to describe a “boot” in as much detail as possible, and they’ll most likely describe a cowboy boot. Ask a person on the street in London, England, and they’ll most likely describe an army boot, if not the trunk of a car. While these are small differences, they illustrate just how fuzzy the connection of a word may be to the concepts in our heads. When we try to communicate about complex ideas that have different semantic layers, and then factor in non-verbal communication, rhetorical context, and our assumptions about the intentions, motivations, and socio-cultural background of the signer/speaker/writer or the viewer/hearer/reader, the potential for one mind’s reconstruction of the most likely intended meaning of a linguistic expression to be off-target from the symbols constructed by the other mind rises exponentially.

The one fascinating exception to the complete and utter arbitrariness of the assignment of meaning to combinations of sounds and their own assignment to combinations of letters is a small set of very generic conceptual metaphors that seem to be embedded in many people’s intuitive reasoning by the universal (or near-universal) patterns of experience inherent in growing up in a human society. Even these are not consistent across the world, but a famous example is the bouba/kiki effect. Look at the two shapes below. One shape in a given language is called “bouba,” and the other is called “kiki.” Which do you think is which?

The majority of people will say the shape on the left is “kiki,” since the sounds produced by that name are shorter and more abrupt––commonly perceived as “sharp”––while the sounds produced by the name “bouba” are commonly perceived as “round,” more like the shape on the right.

Dictionaries do not establish or adjudicate meaning, they chase after usage and try to reduce words and concepts to necessary and sufficient features, which is frequently distorting, as meaning is almost never built on such features. Think of the word “furniture,” as an example. You probably know precisely what furniture means, but almost all native English speakers have never had to look it up in a dictionary in order to learn what it means, and if asked, couldn’t give anything approximating a useful definition of the word. Look it up in the dictionary and you’ll also find a definition that isn’t very helpful, because in trying to reduce the concept to the shortest list of necessary and sufficient features, it ended up roping lots of things in to the category that are never referred to as “furniture.” You know what furniture is because of all of your years of experience seeing and hearing what kinds of things are referred to as furniture, not because there is some inherent meaning inhabiting the word that magically inserts units of meaning into your brain. If you had lived your whole life seeing people refer to pens and wires as “furniture,” the meaning you would conjure up in your head would have nothing to do with the meaning intended by a signer/speaker/writer. That’s because words do not have meaning, they are just conventionalized indices for meaning that index unique and subjective suites of meanings for every mind that interprets them.

* There is a caveat here. Frameworks like Material Engagement Theory hold that the mind extends throughout the material media that facilitate cognitive acts, including the human body and whatever tools and interfaces with which it engages. According to such frameworks, written, inscribed, or even spoken words could be conceptualized as extensions of the mind. However, given that meaning is still unilaterally confined to a given mind, the process of meaning making described in the rest of the post still obtains for any and all attempts by one mind to find meaning in the linguistic expression of another (or even in one’s own previous linguistic expressions).

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