What does that word mean? – 3: context circles

Posted: January 3, 2013 by J in Bible, Linguistics

From what we have said already about how words work, we can state these principles:

1. Meaning is not inherent in a word, but is given to the word by social conventions (usage).

2. Meaning is not fixed in a word, but is largely determined by a word’s interaction with its surroundings (context).

This second principle raises a question: if surroundings influence word meaning so much, which surroundings? Each time a word is used, it inhabits more than one context. Which ones are the most important?

Here the idea of contextual circles is helpful. The rule is: the more immediate the context, the more influence is has. So the sentence is a primary context. Then the paragraph, the chapter, the book, the genre, and so on. We can represent this as a series of concentric circles:

Screen shot 2012-12-20 at 9.39.28 AM

A word will ‘absorb’ meaning from each of these co-texts, but the sentence will give it the most meaning, then the paragraph and so on. The genre will also provide meaning, but in more of a ‘big-picture’ way: more distantly and with less detail.

This means that these contextual circles must be considered when assessing word meaning.  You won’t know what the word means this time until you know what the passage is about. However, this methodology has been not been well understood or applied by bible scholars when they do word studies. Often, word-meanings are ‘imported’ and foisted upon a passage which is really about something different. This common practice distorts the Scriptures.

Tomorrow: what are words anyway?

  1. […] of the LXX. These are Jewish writings through and through. If you think in terms of concentric circles of context, the LXX is a close-in circle of context. Other domains, such as pagan/classical usage, are much […]

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