[B-Greek] Where does meaning come from?

Eric Inman eric-inman at comcast.net
Thu Apr 1 17:25:35 EDT 2010


I've pasted in the remarks from Yancy and Iver that I was originally responding to.

In answering your question I want to try make sure that I'm clear about what I meant by "response". I used that term because I believe communication is for more than conveying meaning. When used to convey meaning, the sender is hoping the stimulate in the receiver the response of understanding that meaning. Other responses might be desired as well, such as laughter or some sort of emotion or action, etc. Now perhaps the idea of meaning is meant by some to refer to all of these desired responses, and that's fine, but that's the idea I'm trying to describe.

In coding the communication the sender selects communication elements of various kinds which correlate to the desired responses. The correlation between communication elements and responses is determined by various cultural norms (such as word definitions); mutually shared knowledge and beliefs about various things; and other social, psychological and physiological factors. The correlations (which also can be called mappings) used by the sender when coding will ideally be the same as those used by the receiver when decoding, but differences usually exist at least to some degree. The sender and/or receiver also may try to adjust the correlations used so that they are consistent with those used on the other end.

The received and understood meaning and other resulting responses are thus the product of two things: 1) the communication, and 2) the correlations used for decoding it.

Human communication is highly redundant, which, to keep things simple, means various things are indicated more than once and/or overlap each other. The things indicated redundantly need to be in agreement with each other, and if they aren't we have an indication that an error has occurred somewhere. If there is enough redundancy and the error is not too widespread, the set of things in agreement will outnumber or outweigh those in disagreement and a correction can be safely inferred. The correlations also embed rules (including biases, assumptions, etc. as well as facts) for what constitute valid or invalid communication. In the case of a violation the best way to infer the correction might be to find the smallest and most likely adjustment that would satisfy the rules. The problem of course is that the correlations exist and operate at various levels and include subtle elements for things like surprise, sarcasm, humor, etc. These subtle layers and elements serve to make the actual level of redundancy less than what might initially be apparent, and thus reduce the degree to which we can safely infer corrections.

When someone says that "The original author did not mean this or that", it would have to be demonstrated that it was inconsistent with the correlations the author would have been encoding under or that it involves disagreement among things indicated redundantly.

You say we usually don't know anything about what "reponse" a writer intended to "stimulate," but what I'm saying is that the more we know about the communication and the more we know about the correlations used for coding and decoding, the more we know about the intended meanings and responses.

I'm not really saying anything different than what was already said. The reason I cast things this way is to try to emphasize even more that meaning does not lie in the elements of communication (such as words) nor in the encoding/decoding process using the correlations based on all the cultural norms etc. These are the inputs for inferring the meaning and desired responses. I also wanted to use some concepts from information theory.

Hopefully that answered your question rather than muddying the waters.

Eric Inman

-----Original Message-----
From: b-greek-bounces at lists.ibiblio.org [mailto:b-greek-bounces at lists.ibiblio.org] On Behalf Of Mark Lightman
Sent: Thursday, April 01, 2010 2:26 PM
To: nikolaos.adamou at hotmail.com; drdwilkins at verizon.net
Cc: b-greek at lists.ibiblio.org
Subject: Re: [B-Greek] Where does meaning come from?

Don wrote:
<I cringe whenever I hear, "The original author did not mean
 this or that." We assume what the original author "meant"
 based on what we feel he should or must mean. I.e. we disagree with the author's statement. This is tricky even
 in modern communication, where we often have the opportunity to question the author and hopefully correct any misunderstanding;
 it is far more so when we have only the written text of an author.>
after Eric had written
<Communication, including verbal and nonverbal, is a stimulus for inducing certain responses (cognitive, emotional, etc.) in the recipient.>
Don has a point here.  Eric, since we usually don't know anything about what "response" a writer intended to "stimulate," how can this criteria tell us anything about where meaning comes from?

Mark L


> >>> 
> >>> The first two paragraphs above are adapted from Sperber and Wilson, Relevance: 
> >>> Communication and Cognition.
> >>> 
> >>> Yancy Smith, PhD
> Grice and other cognitive linguists have discussed "where meaning comes from" 
> in a very fruitful way. Verbal communication is a complex form of communication. 
> Linguistic coding and encoding is involved, but linguistic meaning of an 
> uttered sentence falls short of encoding what the speaker means: it merely 
> helps the audience/reader infer what the speaker/writer means. The output of 
> decoding is correctly treated by the audience as a piece of evidence about the 
> communicator's intentions. In other words, the coding-decoding process is 
> subservient to the inferential process that confers meaning.
> Communication is successful not when hearers or readers recognise the 
> linguistic meaning of an utterance, but when they infer the speaker/writer's 
> meaning from it. A simple observation verifies this statement. When a 
> hearer/reader realises that the speaker/writer has misused a word or made a 
> slip of the tongue, they generally discount the wrong meaning. The discounted 
> meaning, however, is not necessarily ill-formed or undecodable; rather, it is 
> wrong only in that it provides misleading evidence about the speaker's 
> intentions. For example, Paul says
> γάλα ὑμᾶς ἐπότισα, οὐ βρῶμα·
> I caused you to drink, no solid food.
> One rightly infers Paul's meaning,
> I gave you milk to drink, and did not feed you solid food.
> There is no reason whatsoever to understand Paul's statement in 1 Tim 6:10 as 
> meaning, in terms of the linguistic meaning, anything different in emphasis 
> from Chariton. However, one readily recognizes that Paul is quoting a proverb, 
> which is an exaggeration at that. Mark is correct to infer that Paul's meaning 
> cannot possibly be that the love of money is actually the root of 100% all 
> evils, despite the fact that the linguistic meaning is precisely that. But we 
> must allow Paul the freedom we give ourselves, to quote and shape and 
> exaggerate and skew linguistic and speaker meaning.
> The first two paragraphs above are adapted from Sperber and Wilson, Relevance: 
> Communication and Cognition.
> Yancy Smith, PhD

That is a very nice short explanation of where meaning comes from. Relevance 
Theory is really helpful in explaining this.

An even shorter explanation would be:
The meaning of the speaker/writer comes from his or her background knowledge and 
is partly expressed (often in words, but sometimes exclusively in non-verbal 
communication). The meaning understood by the hearer/reader is derived/inferred 
from those words (and/or actions) as seen through the lens of the background 
knowledge of the hearer/reader.

Iver Larsen 

More information about the B-Greek mailing list