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Title:What Words Really Mean: Exploring Possible Worlds in the Real World
Author(s):Ross, Daniel
Cognitive Linguistics
Lexical Semantics
Abstract:Lexical semantics is a notoriously difficult topic, with no consensus yet on the best method for categorization. In his famous Twin Earth thought experiment, Putnam (1975) showed extension by reference can prevail over assumed definitions: if cats were revealed as robots controlled from Mars (and not animals at all), we would likely change our definition of CAT to preserve reference rather than realizing cats do not exist. Thus cats cannot be defined as inherently being animals even in ordinary circumstances. But we need not invoke imaginary possible worlds to investigate the limits of categories. In fact, we can observe real world changes in lexical usage patterns that reveal pre-existing bias in lexical meaning. For example, Putnam mentions two similar examples of words changing meaning following scientific advancement: GOLD and JADE. In the case of GOLD, once methods were discovered to distinguish fool’s gold (pyrite) from GOLD, the narrower meaning prevailed. However, in the case of JADE, mineral analysis revealed that JADE in fact referred to two distinct minerals, and that wider meaning prevailed. We could consider these to be instances of semantic change, but another possibility is to view them as tests of the true, original lexical meaning. When circumstances change in the world, usage patterns adjust, but at least to some extent, it is the original meaning (or at least most salient aspects of that original meaning) that prevails. WHAT IF becomes WHAT NEXT? This paper explores the extent to which we can study lexical meaning by observing changes in usage. By imagining plausible possible worlds, we may even be able to make predictions about future usage. In synchronic usage, even obvious components of definitions may turn out to be optional. Consider HUSBAND, defined in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (1899) as: “a man joined to a woman by marriage. Correlative of WIFE.” Only recently in the OED’s third edition (2016) was the entry updated to account for new usage following legalized gay marriage: “male partner in a marriage.” This paper considers the OED’s first definition inaccurate: HUSBAND has always meant MALE SPOUSE rather than (MALE) SPOUSE OF WOMAN, but recognizing that nuance required changes in culture and law because earlier context did not disambiguate the definition. Similar lexical meanings are presented from the perspective of changing contexts, including a survey of speaker’s judgments to refine assumed definitions, hinting at possible future usage and dictionary definitions.
Issue Date:2017
Publisher:Polish Cognitive Linguistics Association & University of Wrocław
Citation Info:Ross, Daniel. 2017. What Words Really Mean: Exploring Possible Worlds in the Real World. In Jacek Woźny (ed.), Online proceedings of Cognitive Linguistics in Wrocław Web Conference 2017. Wrocław: Polish Cognitive Linguistics Association & University of Wrocław. Published at (site now offline): / Archived version:
Genre:Conference Paper / Presentation
Rights Information:© Daniel Ross 2017
Date Available in IDEALS:2020-11-02

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