Are concepts, and the linkage between words and concepts, completely arbitrary or is there a “natural” connection? Below are some major positions, and theorists
— or actual people — who tend to subscribe to them (these aren’t indicated if they’re too obvious).
“Unexamined Realism” (99% of world’s population)
The world is naturally divided into categories, and each of these has a correct name. Unfortunately, only people who speak <fill in name of your language> use the correct name; barbarians are too stupid. Those darn goat-
herding, no- wine- watering barbarians.
The world is naturally divided into categories because the categories exist in a timeless realm of Truth, which we don’t perceive directly. Whether we assign the right category to those concepts...
well... that’s a different question. True philosophers can perceive the realm of Truth more clearly. And that’s why I’m better than you.
The world is naturally divided into categories because the similarities in form and quality among objects in the perceivable world lead naturally to those categories. What we call them can be arbitrary. The really fun part is setting up a taxonomy, with lots of labels!
“Unexamined Biblical Realism” (That weird preacher guy who yells in the quad)
The world is divided into categories because God made it that way. People started out with the correct name for each category because whatever Adam called things was right, but Babel messed it up. Now if we could only figure out the right words, we could tell reality what to do....
The world is divided into categories because the world is projected by the mind of God, who conceived of those categories. Nobody has the right names for them, though, probably because people are bad. It’s women’s fault, you know.
The world is divided into categories because the world is projected by the mind of God, but our categories are derived from perceiving the world
— we don’t perceive the divine system of categories directly. Names for those categories are arbitrary. Aren’t I nicer than Abelard? Now, when’s lunch?
“Urbedeutungische Realism” (Cast of too many from the 19th and early 20th centuries)
Concepts, and the sounds they’re connected to, are
— in some way that we’re just not going to examine — shaped by the essential characteristics that <insert name of your ethnic group> inherited from their glorious past, when they all belonged to <insert name of ancestral tribal group>. Some signs in your language might be the result of outside corruption, though, and these will probably lead to disease, and the birth of two-headed calves. Now is the time on Sprockets when we invade your country.
“Bioplatonic Realism” (Chomsky)
At least some of the categories we divide the world into are predetermined by being directly encoded into our DNA. Somehow. No, that isn’t a machina ex deorum. Other categories? Oh, those aren’t very interesting.
“Bioaristotelian Nominorealism” (Generic American Functionalism)
DNA determines our perceptual systems and our means of interacting with the world, and those in turn lead to certain conformities in the categories different individuals divide the world into. The noises we assign those categories are arbitrary, within limits. I’ve left myself eight ways to hedge, so don’t even try to refute me.
“Unexamined Nominalism” (Zack, from across the street)
Slice the world up any way you want it, assign noises to each slice any way you want to, and bam! You have language. Now go away and stop telling me I’m mispronouncing things.
“Social Contract Nominalism” (Your comp teacher; Saussure
Categories and the noises we assign to them are both arbitrary, but we’re not going to get what we want unless we use the ones the community has gotten used to. And that’s why you have to pronounce that word the way I tell you.
“Urbedeutungische Nominalism” (Cast of thousands from the 19th century)
Categories and the noises we assign to them are both arbitrary, but they’re useful only if they fit the expectations of the community, and the community norms are the result of strong tendencies of development inherited from the far past, when our ancestors were all from <insert name of tribal group here>, so the sound/
category correspondence encodes thousands of years of history that thereby becomes present in speakers. This would all sound so much better in German. Let’s sing some old folk songs!
“Influenza Nominalism” (Bakhtin)
Categories and the sounds we assign to them are both arbitrary, but they have to fit community norms to be useful
— and since no member of the community really knows what “the norms” are, and everyone wants to be distinctive but not violate expectations too much, speakers are always “catching” and cobbling things together from each other’s language, even if they don’t plan to. Thus, the sound/ category correspondence reflects other people’s sound/ category correspondences from other texts. And that’s why sampling is not just a cheap substitute for creativity. Down with copyright!
“Aphasic Nominalism” (Derrida)
The marginality of ducks: it elides. Where’s my speaker’s fee?
|The complications posed to the comprehension and utterance of the English language with the advent of the influence and infiltration of the invading non-
|Reanalysis of Spanish by Naïve Linguists—Chesterton Wilburfors Gilchrist, Jr.|
|SpecGram Vol CLV, No 1 Contents|