The Meaning of Words

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Noam Chomsky (the famous modern Linguist is most famous for making up a nonsense sentence. It shows that a sentence can be perfectly grammatical and meaningless at the same time. Is it really completely meaningless? Could it be code?

One view of Semantics is that it is about the relationship between words and reality. One problem with this is that it possible to construct a perfectly grammatical sentence using perfectly ordinary words and make no sense at all; Chomsky’s famous Colorless green ideas sentence seems to have no connection with reality.

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Chomsky was not the first person to try to write nonsense; the famous nonsense poem Jabberwocky appears in Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll, published in 1871.

In Through the Looking Glass, Alice is surprised that her head becomes filled with ideas when reading the nonsense poem Jabberwocky. How can nonsense words fill your head with ideas? It seems that our minds work in creative and imaginative ways to make sense of the words we hear.

Humpty_Dumpty

How can words mean so many different things? Humpty Dumpty offers the answer: we control words to a large extent and make them mean different things depending on context. We cooperate with each other to make sense of things when we speak to each other.

As Humpty Dumpty suggests, we creatively and imaginatively control words to mean different things in different situations. Take a simple sentence like 1 below.

1. I have eaten an apple.

Sentence 1 could suggest different things depending on the situation. If I ask you if you need to eat soon and you reply with 1, it could mean you are not very hungry or it could mean that you actually are a bit (or even very) hungry. It depends how you say it and the body language you use.

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I ask Are you very hungry? and you reply I have eaten an apple. Depending on how you say it, it could mean you are not very hungry, or it could mean that you are very hungry.

If I ask you Why are you looking for your toothbrush? and you reply with 1, it would probably mean that you are worried that your teeth are not very clean.

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I ask Why are you looking for your toothbrush? and you say I have eaten an apple. Now it seems to suggest that you are worried that your teeth are not very clean.

If I tell you The basket of fruit on the table has been poisoned and you reply with 1, it could be taken as an alarm suggesting Help me get to the hospital as quickly as possible. Interestingly, it would still carry this meaning even if there had been no apples in the basket of fruit and that you actually ate some other kind of fruit. In other words, even if 1 is not true, it still carries its important meaning.

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Imagine you are an important politician staying in a hotel and I telephone you and say The basket of fruit on the table has been poisoned. You scream I have eaten an apple! Now the words seem to act as an alarm. Help me get to the hospital quickly! And it does not matter if there were actually no apples in the basket and that you actually ate some other fruit, like a persimmon or a prune. So the sentence carries its important meaning even if it is strictly not true.

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