What does that word mean? – 4: What are words, anyway?

Posted: January 4, 2013 by J in Bible, Linguistics
Tags: , , , ,

Acknowledging the primacy of context enables us to define ‘word’ as follows:

Words are arbitrary, flexible symbols.

Let’s unpack that definition, make sure we understand it.

Symbol: words are signs that point to real things in the world. They don’t have much reality themselves, they are just symbols. Words are not the same as the things they refer to. The word ‘Mum’ is not actually my mother, though I use it to indicate her.

Screen shot 2012-12-14 at 10.40.25 AM

This might seem obvious, but it gets tricky in the area of abstract things like ideas and concepts. Even when a word refers to an abstract thing like a concept, the word is still not the same thing as the concept it refers to. Although the concept (say, ‘salvation’) is abstract, it is still a real thing with an objective existence. Salvation is a thing that exists in the real world – it is there whether we agree or not. The word ‘salvation’ is not that concept: it is just a symbol indicating the idea. It only exists because we agree to use that nine-letter symbol. Confusion between word and concept is especially common with abstract concepts and ideas. Theology is a discipline which is full of abstract ideas, and so is an area where this confusion is particularly troublesome. Theologians and bible scholars are often not sure whether they are talking about the concept, or just the word that indicates it. This causes a lot of trouble, and a lot of bad scholarship.

Arbitrary: If ten people each had to make a signboard pointing to the capital city, they would all come up with different designs. There is no correct sign: sign designs are ‘arbitrary’. Words are like that too. You say pig, he says swine, they say hog. All refer to the same beast. None is right or wrong: nor can it be, for signs or symbols are arbitrary. There is no necessary connection between the sign and the thing: they are only connected because we agree that for us, they are.

Screen shot 2012-12-14 at 10.42.03 AM

Flexible: Because the connection between word and thing referred to is an arbitrary and not a necessary one, multiple and various connections can be made. Even new connections: ‘sick’ now means things it did not mean in the past. Words are reusable and flexible. They are noses of wax, ready to be bent in any direction. Just as the one signboard can be reused in different locations, so words can be recycled, used to mean more than one thing (new meanings normally develop over time, in an unplanned way – you probably can’t invent a new meaning for a word and make it stick!).

To return to an earlier image: a sponge can absorb different liquids, and likewise a word is a symbol which can be filled with different meanings depending on where it is placed.

Screen shot 2012-12-14 at 10.49.18 AM

The sponge analogy is limited: words are not infinitely flexible at any given time. There is a range of meanings that any one word is capable of ‘soaking up’ – for other meanings, a different word is needed. But over time, word meaning can change radically (think of what ‘mouse’ now means!).

Let’s say it again:

Words are arbitrary, flexible symbols.

Modern Bible students have been very influenced by a massive, multi-volume German work called Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT). It was a collaborative effort by many of the best scholars of the era. TDNT was set out like a dictionary (or lexicon) with entries about words, arranged in alphabetical order.

However, in the 1960s, James Barr launched a now-famous critique of TDNT. He pointed out that it failed to distinguish between word and concept. Were the entries in TDNT describing words, or describing theological ideas? TDNT never made this clear, and in reality it seemed to think it was doing both at the same time. It tended to comment on broad meanings of a word from its various occurrences. While appearing to be a linguistic study, it was often building up theological concepts – a different thing. In other words, TDNT had failed to realise what words actually are: that they are arbitrary symbols, and not the things themselves.

Barr said this confusion was leading to an error he called ‘illegitimate totality transfer’. This is where the sum of all possible meanings for a word are ‘dumped’ on each individual occurrence of it (Barr 1961, 218). This practice obscures the word’s specific meaning in any given location, and ignores the role of context. It ends up equating the word with the theological construct or concept it is connected with. TDNT had failed to allow for the flexible nature of word-symbols.

The substance of Barr’s critique was that TDNT has a fundamental methodological confusion built into its deep structure: a linguistic error of gigantic proportions. Bible scholars versed in linguistics now tend to give TDNT a wide berth.

Tomorrow: community usage


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