What is Language? What is Meaning?

May 7, 2021

Makes You Think

This is a response for an applied linguistics course taught by Penny Kinnear and Max Antony-Newman at the Universtiy of Toronto Engineering Department. Enjoy :D

Prompt Question: What is ‘language’? What is ‘meaning’? What is the relationship between the two? 


To answer this question, I would like to introduce one more variable to the prompt: ‘thought’. What is ‘thought’? What is the relationship between thought, language and meaning?

Thought, language, and meaning are three phenomena at the core of our existence. Our entire experience as conscious human beings is heavily dominated by the thoughts of our minds. This leads to the fundamental question: What are these thoughts? While studying applied linguistics, and reflecting on my own experience, it has become obvious that our thoughts are tightly linked to the language we use, and if we are to answer anything about thought, we must look towards language. Next up: What is language? Looking past the obvious-- the sounds, the letters, and motions, this question gets more complicated. What is language without sound or letters? The answer to this question arises in the meaning of whatever is being expressed. Behind each artifact of language, there is the fundamental meaning of what is being represented. In studying applied linguistics, we learn that all language has a meaning-- and if not, then it is not language. But meaning to whom? Without meaning, an utterance of what appears to be language is just empty sound waves or scribbles on a page. We use language extensively for almost anything we do. Whether it is to express a statement to a colleague or to internally recite the steps while learning to tie a shoe. As we look to the rest of the animal kingdom, it is obvious that our expressive language gives us unique capabilities unseen from any other carbon lifeform. There are the surface capabilities that language provides, such as declaration and questioning/answering, but I’ve come to question what other capabilities language provides to us. And to me, understanding the outcome of language is necessary to explore the question as to what language is. Not only understanding the outcomes we see today but rather understanding the timeline/evolution of outcomes that have arisen out of our ability to harness our thoughts through language and its related meaning. Over human evolution, our culture, our biology, and our consciousness have adapted and grown with the expressivity of our language use. There is no separation between what we see as humans today, and language. Understanding this connection between our species, and the language we use, I believe is at the core of understanding the universe. We aren’t the first to study this relationship-- our philosophical ancestors were more inclined to answer these questions than anything we can imagine today. One day, I hope to see the sciences and the philosophies come together to tackle this question.

So, what are these ‘thoughts’? It is extremely difficult to imagine life without thought, or without thinking. Our awareness is dependent on this capability for thought. Thoughts can be an inclination or idea, an episodic story, or a fact, and everything in between. In reading Merlin Donald, a Canadian psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist, I get the sense that thought is a neural capability, that exists as a function of the interconnected firing of neurons in our brain. We do a lot with our thoughts. Our thoughts have built the society and environment we see today. They even landed us on the moon.

In order to harness our thoughts, to hear them out loud, structure them in a logical sequence, observe and judge them as right or wrong, they must be represented in some way. Because without a representation, they are just neurons firing in brain matter and chemicals. Donald proposes that the special nature of human consciousness is defined primarily by our special representational skills. It is our ability to represent such neuronal firings, using a system of explicit symbols, he believes is what gives us this special nature. That is what I believe language is: a system of explicit symbols, that are used to represent information that can then be expressed, captured, or observed. Halliday describes this system of explicit symbols as semiotic. For the system to be semiotic, there must be a set of finite choices, where the choices are discrete and oppositional. Bakhtin similarly describes these characteristics of semiotic systems very well. More poetically, he explains that each utterance of language is made against the background of all the other finite linguistic choices that could have been made. Where each choice is discrete and oppositional, Bahktin describes the situation of a “living dialogue” where familiar words encounter the unfamiliar, alien words. We make choices in each “speech act” on what symbols to use to represent what is meant to be represented. Active understanding is then made by those outside the speaker/writer/actor as they interpret the language into their own semiotic conceptual system. It is these characteristics of a semiotic system that describe the characteristics of language.

Without meaning, language is just an empty expression: it is just empty sounds and letters. But what is meaning? That is the toughest question to answer with words. Meaning is what ‘Is’. It is the actualization of any thought. It is just what Is. To describe what is meaning, or what ‘Is’, one would have to describe what the universe is, or what our existence is. In his book titled Maps of Meaning, Jordan Peterson describes the world as something that can be explained as a forum for action, or as a place of things. And I think that is exactly what ‘meaning’ is. Meaning is both the thing, the object, or it is the action, the dynamic. Down to the atomic structure of an object, the meaning of something describes what it is. In the same sense, meaning is what the dynamics are. What it will do, or, how it plays out and unfolds. In a semiotic approach, meaning is broken down into three types: Ideational, Interpersonal, and Textual. Each of these types of meaning describes what something is, or how something has unfolded in its complete context.

With these three elements: thought, language, and meaning, we have the core elements of our consciousness. All three elements are connected and depend on each other. Vygotsky introduces the relationship between the three as a movement or a transition. He says, “The transition from thought to word leads through meaning”. Additionally, he says, “Thought is not expressed but completed in the word”. It is difficult to imagine a thought, without language, and that is what I think Vygotsky was explaining. Thoughts are not separate from language, thoughts are language, and language is thought. They are on two ends of the same planar spectrum. When we think, we traverse each thought in either words, visualizations or gestures, through egocentric, internal, or external expression. As we are creating new thoughts, and expressing them with words, new thoughts are restructured and birthed out of previous ones, which Vygotsky describes as a developmental process. If without an expression, the thought is lost. In order for a thought to be expressed, it must mean something to the thinker or have an explanatory purpose that can be connected back to the real world. For a thought to be a thought, it must mean something in all planes of its expression. These meanings evolve and adapt over time, but at each timestamp, there is a unit of symbolic meaning that connects thought to symbol. If not, then thought is just a chaotic firing of neurons with no pattern. More specifically, there must be a semiotic system in place to map each thought to a name, or a group of thoughts to names. There is an abundance, and infinitude of meanings. An infinite of units of meaning that we then create connections between through thoughts. We complete these thoughts when we transition them through the planes of our speech and as we express the thoughts. We make a representation with explicit symbols following a semiotic system. For language to accurately represent meaning— that is an art (poetry), or a skill (translating). It is difficult— this is emphasized to me when I’m speaking and can’t come up with the right words, or when coding and can’t write the syntax to represent what I mean for the computer to do.

Our ability to have and use thoughts is tightly connected to our ability to transition our thoughts into language. This is most evident when studying Merlin Donald and Paula Towsey. Donald claims that thought processes such as active recall and attention, or the ability to take ideas and connect them to others, and then formulate a linguistic description of those ideas, all stem from our ability to traverse the planes between thought and expression. Donald’s research shows that children apparently need to construct a model of language in order to gain easier access to their nonverbal knowledge. Paula Towsey’s research of Vygotsky’s Block Test showed that human behavioral processes (capabilities) such as concept formation and choice behavior are included in this list as well.

Then there is evolution, and how we got to be such a fluent language. The best answer to this question is in studying the socio-cultural nature of language. But what is culture and how did we arrive here? My best explanation for culture is that it is the motivator for the entire trinity of thought, language, and meaning. Culture gives us a purpose to use language in the first place. What is the point of communicating? Michael Tomasello describes this as ‘shared intentionality. Shared intentionality describes the cooperative nature of our human communication, which is separate from other animals in the animal kingdom. It is our desire to cooperate with one another-- which is at the core of what culture is. Culture is a social entity that facilitates a lot of functions such as communication, education or sharing knowledge, or even trading, such as “my livestock for your fish”-- which I believe means that language facilitates culture. We can understand this by looking at our human culture, compared to the rest of the animal kingdom.
How or why would other animals partake in a culture? Of course, shared intentionality requires that two parties have shared intentions. But to the best of my knowledge, animals have a lack of social agreements that allow them to do this. eBay is a fascinating platform and it is miraculous that it works. Humans are animals where the lowest spirits lie, steal, and cheat where they can. Yet eBay is a free market where people obey the terms of the agreement. eBay only works because people play by the rules. The rules of eBay explain the terms of the agreement. What these rules mean, is how it applies over time, or what the dynamics are. A dynamic such as “if you lie, I get my money back”. I believe Dwight Bolinger put it perfectly when he said, “Language is not merely the way we express our agreements; language IS our agreements.”
And animals don’t have the ability to make these agreements because they don’t have the expressivity power of a language such as one of our named languages. You need certain abilities to make these agreements. Gesture works and was likely the first. Imagine a monkey gesturing to another monkey the terms of trade between water and banana. But eventually, they would just start fighting anyways, which means their culture is better suited with physical language— the language of posture and fight. The connection between language and culture is strong. Shared intentionality requires one to be aware of their intentions, goals, and motivations. Much like how social agreements are language, I believe you can say the same about goals and motivations: they aren’t described by language, they are language!

As I mentioned, we aren’t the first to study this relationship. Ancient philosophers have been pondering these questions for thousands of years. What is language? What is meaning? In philosophy, this is described as the logos, or in modern terms— logic. The two phenomena, language, and meaning, are described in philosophy/mathematics as syntax and semantics. Where language would be syntax and semantics is meaning. With syntax and semantics, philosophers have found that we can derive reasoning. Philosophers and mathematicians would describe reasoning as making an inference with known information. We are able to use language to infer language. Or more accurately, we use thoughts encoded in language, to infer new thoughts. My favorite experienced example for this is if a dog is stuck around a tree, why can’t it unravel itself? I believe the difference is of course brain size, but more importantly, we reason with our thoughts and language! We take our existing knowledge and create new knowledge out of it. I believe this is partially what Vygotsky was describing when he says, “Thought establishes a relationship between one thing and another. In a word, thought fulfills some function. It resolves some tasks”. The dog cannot establish the relationship between the pole, the leash, and how it got stuck-- but we can.