[b-hebrew] Uncancelable meaning

stoneyb stoneyb at touchwood.net
Thu Apr 5 12:50:28 EDT 2007

Rolf -

There are several issues raised - and evaded! - here. Since my customary
colloquial looseness of expression may have contributed to some
misunderstanding, let me make myself a bit clearer:

I do not make the same distinction between pragmatics and semantics that
you and Dr. Nordlander do (I personally and by profession hew to what
might be called the "Tip O'Neil" school, which holds that at bottom all
semantics is pragmatic semantics), but I readily concede that it may be
methodologically desirable to examine whatever residuum of meaning which
abides in a word or morpheme isolated from every conceivable context.
Most of us call this residuum "lexicographic meaning" or "denotation",
but if you and Dr. Nordlander want to call this residuum "semantics",
feel free. 

Having conceded that much of your argument I do not go on to concede
that the methodologically desirable is always methodologically
achievable. Some words and morphemes have a very narrow range of
'meaning values' - "consubstantiation", for instance, or
"deoxyribonucleic". Others, however, have a much broader range, by
accident of history. "Strike", for instance, has been cited on this list
as occurring in an unusually large variety of idioms; while you can
easily demonstrate a genetic relationship between the use of this word
in, say, baseball, oil prospecting, and labor relations, I do not think
you or Dr. Nordlander would suggest that historical etymological
meanings may be read into contemporary meaning. (As I suggested, my own
inclination would be to read these three meanings as belonging to three
different words which happen to be spelled and pronounced the same way,
which seems to me to solve all the problems - but that's not an option
in the current discussion.) ... For the purposes at hand, I think you
could hardly have picked a worse example to work with than "have"!

With this high-level stuff out of the way, let's look at the specifics
of "have dinner". I did not intend to imply that '"have dinner" is
exactly the same thing as "dine".' Of course there are differences.
(Jeez, Rolf, I'm a writer; do you think I'm going to open the door to
being replaced by a computer program by acknowledging that synonymy is
even theoretically possible?) ... "Dine" implies a degree of occasional
and culinary formality absent from "have dinner". One "dines" well, but
"has" a good "dinner." While one may "dine" or "have dinner" on Thursday
or on Market Street, one may not normally "have dinner", as one may
"dine", on roast beef. 

What I meant, and should have said explicitly, is that with respect to
the static/dynamic opposition there is no difference between "have
dinner" and "dine". "Dine" does NOT 'focus on the process', and "have
dinner" does NOT 'focus on the ... state of affairs.' I know Dr.
Norlander says they do; but he's wrong. To the exact extent that the
static/dynamic contrast is meaningful to a speaker of English, the
contrast will be reflected in syntax. If staticity were a
non-cancellable property of "have" it would not be permissible to say "I
am having dinner" or "I am having difficulty" or "I am having a really
good time." Dr. Nordlander, I must insist, is not seeing "subtle
differences" but inventing them. His opinion of what "have" ought to
mean simply does not accord with the facts of how it is used.

But let us be clear - the ONLY thing I'm disputing is his assertion that
staticity is a non-cancellable component of the meaning of "have". I am
not suggesting that staticity cannot be a non-cancellable component of
any other word in any other language - though I warn you and Dr.
Norlander that in English at least such 'non-cancellability' can only be
asserted synchronically, never diachronically!

Stoney Breyer
Writer/Touchwood, Inc.

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