Calling something a ‘tractor’– Language, Meaning, Use, etc.
by Witty Ludwig
Nothing particularly exciting or revelatory here; I have been writing on other subjects, not yet ready, and so in the meantime wanted to record the below.
I revisited an old article from last year written by someone I follow. Not familiar with Wittgensteinian approach to language and meaning, he posed the below to me:
“To take an absurd example, if I looked at animal of the species canis lupus and decided to call it a tractor, would that mean the definition of a tractor has changed, simply by dint of one person? I would posit that it hasn’t, but I’m not sure how you or Ludwig might respond. Is there some kind of linguistic democracy at play, requiring a majority usage?”
I suggested that he would indeed find Wittgenstein’s writings very relevant if he finds these ideas of interest. And I left it there. I’m not sure what possessed me but yesterday lunchtime, I revisited his comments and impulsively jotted some ideas down. These are the below:
Your right hand could give your left hand money, but has a transaction taken place? Have you given a gift or received a payment?
You approach a group, bringing the animal with you, and explain that this is a ‘tractor’. What are the implications, the consequences here? If they are familiar with the animal, they might correct you. If you insisted, they might think you mad. If they aren’t familiar with the animal, they might accept what you say. Some might question how you came to acquire your knowledge on this, assess whether you have the authority to make such a claim. If they are familiar with the use of the word ‘tractor’ but not the animal, some might simply say ‘Ah, how queer that the animal shares the same name as the vehicle!’ and ponder either what the connection is or whether there even is a connection at all!
For the meaning to change, that society would have to adopt it. By majority? This is too simplistic; and by simplistic I mean that this would imply, or assumes, that language is not in fact organic but that it is a mathematical or scientific procedure. In reality, how would the disagreement of the minority manifest? They would simply not use the word in their daily life where others would. Perhaps they openly criticise the others for a time but what else?
Think of how in Nottingham, say, people call each other ‘duck’:
“Mi Duck” is thought to be derived from a respectful Anglo Saxon form of address, “Duka” (Literally “Duke”), and is unrelated to waterfowl. Non-natives of the East Midlands are often surprised to hear men greet each other as ‘Mi Duck.’”
“Mi duck” is what you call folk. It’s rather like calling people “dear”, or “love”.
Now, what is the meaning of duck for these people in their daily use? Are they all aware of the history of the word? And what would it matter if none of them were? Does this mean they are using the word incorrectly? Or rather that it is unique, or better yet, relevant, to their culture. A Nottingham inhabitant might explain the meaning as an affectionate greeting. The majority of the country might (and do) find it bizarre, nonsensical, be unable to explain it unless familiar with the culture. Some might choose to adopt it, passively or actively, some might actively discourage it (especially in the case of children, etc.).
It is a way of life that gives meaning to the words. The meaning isn’t a shadow, a ghost, an object, connected to the word. It does not hang independently for people to consult and to verify. Language is, after all, intrinsically social.