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Ethics / Philosophy

Words Are Arbitrary

In a previous post, I showed that concepts are always expressed by words and words always express concepts. But there is a question that immediately comes to mind. Why is this concept expressed by that word? More particularly, what is the reason that a certain collection of signs expresses the concept that it does? The answer is very simple. That collection of signs expresses the concept that it does purely because we have arbitrarily decided that it will.

A word is defined as a collection of signs that expresses a concept. We know from experience that which concept those collection of signs expresses depends on context. For example, the word ” clear” in the sentence ” The sky was clear” expresses the concept empty, but it expresses the concept transparent in the sentence ” the glass is clear” . Which concept a collection of signs express also depends on the language we use. In English the word ” slip” means to fall, while in German it means underwear. Finally, we cannot assume that English words mean anything at all to someone who knows Hebrew. Since they use different alphabets, one may recognize the other as a collection of signs but fail to recognize any words at all.

There is the further problem that words in English have meant different things over time and in different contexts. The English word ” refill” used to mean fill completely and now means fill again. The British refer to the trunk of their car as the ” boot” , while we call it the ” trunk” . Finally, inside jokes and secret codes all involve giving extra or different meaning to words and phrases. We might use the words ” that thing” to mean the cake hidden in the fridge or use the words ” I didn’ t do it” to mean that I did do it.

All of these examples show that there is no reason to suppose that the assignment of concepts to particular words is anything other than arbitrary. In fact, the assignment of meaning to signs is also arbitrary. That ” a” should be a meaningful symbol rather than an meaningless mark is simply because we human beings choose to give it meaning. When a human society gives something meaning, the thing does not change. An ” a” that is a meaningless mark is exactly the same as one that has a meaning given to it. So the change is not in the ” a” , but in human beings. It is the same with words. They have the meanings they do only because human beings have now decided to see those meanings there. Human beings impose this meaning from the outside. A sign and word are what they are only because human beings have decided to use those words and sign to refer to something else.

The study of language, signs and words can proceed in several ways. We can study particular languages and changes in those languages as a part of history. We can study the human ability to learn language in science. We can study the artifact of language and why those artifacts change in the particular ways they do in sociology. Lastly, we can study language by understanding what it is and why it exists. This is a philosophical understanding of language. It is this last sort of study that I am doing here.

Since all language refers to something, all language is used to communicate. So the next question is how language has intentionality and in what way does it have intentionality.

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