What does that word mean? 9 – Meaning Sets

Posted: January 10, 2013 by J in Bible, Linguistics
Tags: , ,

Students encountering the principles of modern linguistics for the first time can find it all a bit bewildering: ‘If words don’t have a core meaning from the origin, if their meaning is flexible and arbitrary, then does any word mean anything at all?’ All this talk about fluid-like meaning can make word meaning sound infinitely fluid. Do all words mean everything and nothing, then?

No, they don’t. Yes, words do mean something. Each term has its particular, unique meaning potential that no other term matches.

As we said in an earlier post,

This is not to say that words can mean anything. There are a range of meanings that any given word is capable of ‘soaking up’ – for other meanings, a different word is needed. There are things which the word ‘Onesimus’ cannot mean, no matter where it is placed.

But if we can’t say a word means a definite thing, then how can we describe its meaning? How can we talk about it in a way that sets it apart from other words’ meanings?

Linguists talk about the range of meanings each word can have. The academic term for this is semantic range. Each word has a number of things it can mean, and it doesn’t mean anything outside this range. Semantic range, then, is a bit like a mathematical set, so we will call this concept a ‘meaning-set’. Meaning-set is the set of meanings any one word can have.

This advantage of this idea of meaning sets over the traditional idea of word-definitions is that it recognises that words in the abstract have meaning-potential, not definite meaning.

Meaning sets can be constructed inductively, by gathering up all the meanings a word has in actual usage, and expressing them together. They can be represented as in the following example:

Screen shot 2013-01-05 at 3.59.22 PM

Meaning sets should not be confused with fields of meaning. A field of meaning is a unified area of meaning which is created by a cluster of buddy-words which like to hang out together. ‘Dental devices’ would be a field of meaning, indicated by a range of words like ‘drill’, ‘filling’, ‘braces’, ‘plate’ etc. A meaning-set is not so unified: it is the range of possible meanings one word could have.  These meanings may be vastly different from each other. The meaning-set for ‘plate’, diagrammatised above, shows a fairly wide range of possible meanings. This difference is difficult to grasp at first, but is pretty important: fields of meaning are inhabited only by words, whereas meaning-sets are inhabited by meanings or concepts, things in the real world.

Something worth knowing about meaning-sets is that they can overlap. It’s like mathematical sets. The set of blue-eyed people in my church overlaps with the set of girls in my church: there are blue-eyed girls there. In a similar way the range of meanings for ‘chair’ overlaps with the range for ‘seat’. Their meaning-sets are not identical, but have common elements in them. There are chairs that are seats.

Screen shot 2013-01-05 at 4.16.45 PM

This overlapping gives rise to the use of words as synonyms. This is where words are used interchangeably, like ‘human’ and ‘person’, or ‘woman’ and ‘lady’. There are no perfect synonyms: no two words are completely interchangeable in every situation. Because no two words have identical meaning-sets. But there are rough synonyms. ‘Chair’ and ‘seat’ are rough synonyms. Identifying synonyms is important for establishing word-meaning.

Another thing to be aware of is that the meaning-set of a word will change over time, as new meanings come to be included, and old ones drop off. Not many people use ‘plate’ to mean ‘silver-coated household items’ any more. This meaning is fading out. The meaning ‘car registration signs’ is a modern addition. So a meaning-set is like a snapshot of usage: it describes a word at a particular time in its history. This reflects the flexibility which all words possess.

Meaning sets not only describe the range of possible meanings a word can have – they also proscribe all other meanings. The word ‘chair’ is not used to mean anything else outside the set. It cannot mean the same as ‘table’. We could say the word ‘chair’ is not available to express these other meanings.

Word-meaning, then, is not definite, in the sense that it cannot be defined precisely in the abstract. (This is the problem James Barr identified in TDNT: it was trying to define words in abstraction.) But word-meaning is limited. Each word has its own range, its own meaning set. The rest of the work of determining word-meaning more precisely, is done by context. Only in a context does a word take on a definite meaning.

Tomorrow: The problem of theology in word studies

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