Tag Archives: Linguists

Envisioning Nouns: Science

Elementary grammar teaches us that nouns fall into two groups:  Concrete Nouns vs. Abstract Nouns.  But the line between these categories is not as fixed as we are told.  We divide up the world for practical reasons but our categories are rarely as fixed (concrete) as we imagine.  “Fruit”, for instance, when used in a botanical sense includes: walnuts, tomatoes, avocados and even wheat.  But for many folks, fruit is suppose to be sweet — like sugar cane?  Yet many of today’s cultivated succulently sweet apples come from ancestors that were amazingly  sour.

As another example, here are some “tables”:

 
 3 legs  2 legs or 4 legs  1 leg / pedestal
     
 1 leg or 3 legs  Japanese Kotatsu  legs or layers

Who’d guess that table’s definition could be a little fuzzy — I mean, how much more concrete can you get than a table?  Fortunately when we move on to something like “love” or “faith”, people will admit that the definitions get a little fuzzy.  But take a word like “science”, and many folks want to concretize it again.  These folks want that word’s definition locked up in a castle, while others are comfortable realizing it is nebulous and defined variously in different contexts and in different circles of people.

   

Some folks want to shout out and tell people what a word really means — they are prescriptionists or word-nazis.  And some folks want to wrestle for the meaning hoping that the victor takes all.

   

Some folks, however, actually work out agreements with other folks so that their words share enough meaning and fit well enough together that they can use the words meaningfully and get things done.  These folks look at words as contracts which, even if temporary, allow groups to form, tools to be made, behaviors to change and all the other things language is used for.  These contractualists aren’t deceived that words live in Plato’s heaven and that we must merely discover their true meaning.  They aren’t deceived to feel words have locked, clearly defined meanings (see: Myth of Definitions).  They understand the nebulous nature of language and that is is our creation which we use to facilitate communication.  Words change, we change with them.  Understanding how words work can help us learn flexibility when trying to share words.

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