N.B. This is a chapter in a planned book about epistemology. Chapters are not necessarily released in order. If you read this, the most helpful comments would be on things you found confusing, things you felt were missing, threads that were hard to follow or seemed irrelevant, and otherwise mid to high level feedback about the content. When I publish I'll have an editor help me clean up the text further.

Words have meanings right? When I say the word "cup" you know I'm talking about a cup: a thing to drink out of. But why does the word "cup"—quoted so I can refer to the word apart from its meaning—mean cup—unquoted so I can point directly to the thing referenced by the word? It might seem like a silly question, but in fact it's the gateway to understanding fundamental uncertainty.

Think back to when you were a kid. I'll do the same. If someone had asked me why "cup" meant cup, I would have said something like "because that's what it is". The question wouldn't have registered as interesting, just a boring statement of fact turned into a strange question. Maybe I would have thought someone was playing a joke on me, asking a silly nonsense question. And it would have seemed a totally reasonable response at the time, since I'd never encountered a situation where "cup" meant anything other than cup.

But as I got older I started to realize there was a little space between the word "cup" and actual cups. For example, I have memories of getting into arguments with adults if they handed me a mug and called it a "cup". "No way", I'd say, "this is a mug, not a cup!". "Same difference", the response would come, but that seemed wrong to me. "Mugs" were mugs and "cups" were cups. Yet over time I began to see that "cup" was perhaps not as specific a word as I thought it was. In a certain sense, a mug is a type of cup, and it's totally reasonable that if you ask for a "cup" someone might give you a mug because it serves what they believe to be the purpose of asking for a "cup"—to be able to drink a liquid! So I learned there was more to words than just naming things; the form and function mattered.

At the same time I was learning this, I also learned to play games making up fake names for things. My friends and I could develop a secret language where "bloob" meant "cup" and "blig" meant "water" and "blarg" meant "drink" and we'd collapse into giggles making up silly sentences like "I'm blarging a bloob of blig". So it wasn't just that words had meanings and sometimes there was more to those meanings than directly naming things; words themselves were flexible and I could still get my meaning across so long as the other person knew what the word I used meant.

The "fake name game" got a lot more interesting in middle school when I spent the first of many semesters learning French. But instead of a silly fake name like "bloob" for "cup", French people drank water—"l'eau" actually—from the much more reasonably named "la coupe". And then I made the same mistake most people who start learning a second language after early childhood make: I thought French was just like English except they use different sounds to point at the same concepts, and learning French was only as hard as memorizing a bunch of words to say in place of the "real" English words because French is silly like that.

It didn't take long for me to figure out this wasn't what was going on. I think I first really understood when one day in high school French my teacher told us there was no direct translation for "rude" in French. It's not that there aren't words that can be used in translation—Google Translate tells me it's "impoli"—it's that what "impoli" means in French doesn't exactly match what it means in English. A better translation of "rude", I was told, was "mal élevé", which means something more like "ill-bred" in English, implying that your parents brought you up wrong. But even then the specifics were still off. For example, in English-speaking culture it's generally rude to disagree with someone directly even if you think they're wrong. In French-speaking culture, not disagreeing directly is seen as disingenuous. There was no way to point directly at the English conception of rudeness in French without using a whole phrase explaining that's what you were doing!

There's a lot of words like this. People love to write cute little articles about so-called untranslatable words that have no direct equivalent in English. Some ready examples that come to mind:

  • "hygge", a Danish word meaning something like "the everyday joy of being safe and cozy with people you trust" (in English we're stuck with "cozy")
  • "lagom", a Swedish word meaning something like "just enough; exactly the right amount; nothing too much and nothing lacking" (in English we make due with words like "enough" and "sufficient")
  • "waldeinsamkeit", a German word meaning something like "the feeling of being alone in the forest" (in English we're stuck with the all-purpose "solitude")

Part of the reason there's no direct translation is that the connotations—the implied meanings of the words—are different in each language. This reflects the cultural differences of speakers of different languages. English, French, Danish, Swedish, and German speakers all use words to talk about the world in slightly different ways. In some sense, they cut up the world using different concepts. But how deep does this difference in worldview go?

Thinking with Words

So far we're taken a short stroll through my personal journey to learning that the relationship between words and meaning is more complex than it might seem at first glance. It probably won't surprise you to learn that lots of people for lots of years have gotten confused about what's going on with words and their meanings and have made whole careers of trying to resolve those confusions. One of those confusions is to what extent language shapes the thoughts we can think.

If you like learning about languages you've probably heard of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, also known as linguistic relativity. If not, it's the idea that language determines what thoughts we can think. Its strongest form implies that people literally cannot think thoughts that stretch beyond the bounds of their native language. So, for example, if you grew up speaking a language without a word for the color orange, it implies you have no way to think about the broad color category of orange. Instead you'd think of orange things being shades of red or yellow or half-red, half-yellow but not orange since you have no word for that.

My impression is that most people reject the strongest versions of linguistic relativity today on the grounds that, for example, color categories just seem kind of arbitrary and you can teach people new color categories and they'll use them. For example, teal isn't generally considered to be one of the primary color terms in English, but if I show you a color that's halfway between blue and green and you happen to know the word "teal" you won't have any problem calling nearby shades "teal" also. And artists can learn to make very fine distinctions between shades that I'd lump under one of white, black, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, or purple. So it appears we can easily adapt and learn new words (or make them up!) to talk about things we previously didn't have words for.

Does this mean words are arbitrary labels and our thoughts are independent of the words we use to describe them? The alternative to linguistic relativism is called universalism, the idea being that language is built out of universal or common human features that all humans share. Underneath we all really are capable of thinking the same thoughts, and language just determines how those thoughts get shared with others.

But this doesn't seem quite right, either. For example, in the famous Bible story about Jonah and the whale, the Bible refers to this whale as a "fish", and historically this is not contradictory: ancient peoples just called things with fins that lived in the water "fish". If you tried to say that no, actually, whales aren't fish, they're more closely related to dogs than tuna, they'd have declared that nonsense on multiple counts. They didn't have the modern theory of evolution, so the idea of one species being "more closely related" to another wouldn't have made sense to them, and anyway whales live in the sea, and things that live in the sea are fish, full stop. There'd be no way to convince them, short of teaching them lots of modern biology, that whales are anything other than fish.

So it seems the truth lies somewhere between the extremes. Words can shape our thoughts, yes, but also they don't totally control what thoughts we can think. We can see this if we go back to those so-called untranslatable words we were looking at before, like "hygge" and "lagom". We can explain what these words mean if you didn't grow up speaking Danish or Swedish, but it might takes paragraphs of text and lots of examples to get a full grasp of the concepts these words point at. Knowing these untranslatable words gives you better handles to grab on to certain concepts, and if you're willing to spend a while explaining you can think about things you don't have words for.

The way I like to think about this is that the set of all possible thoughts is like a space that can be carved up into little territories and each of those territories marked with a word to give it a name. These names point to things, concepts, patterns, etc. that we find in the world—over here is a little patch for cups, over there is patch for dinosaurs, and so on. It then seems that words are like little arrows pointing at different bits of the world, and that's quite useful because rather than literally pointing at a cup I can say the word "cup" and you know what I'm talking about.

Only, how do you know that when I saw "cup" I mean "cup"? How did we come to agree on this meaning of "cup", and why have a category for cups at all? It might seem obvious we should have a word for cup, but why have a word for rudeness, hygge, or lagom? How do these words get their meanings, and why those meanings rather than other ones?

Defining Meaning

If you want to know the meaning of a word you don't know, the first place to look is a dictionary. It's a quick way to expand your vocabulary. I distinctly remember needing to use the dictionary a lot when I was a kid because I was a precocious reader. I had to look up all kinds of weird words, like "flotsam" (stuff floating on or washed in by the sea, especially from a wrecked ship), that I'd never seen before just to make it through a book (in this case, Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers). And it generally worked pretty well. If I didn't know a word, the definition was usually enough to figure it out.

But sometimes the dictionary can take you in circles, as its definitions depend on you already knowing the meaning of some other words. This usually isn't a problem, but let's imagine a hypothetical person living in the land of Scurvia where no citrus fruits grow. They've never seen or eaten an orange, and for that matter have never seen the color orange (I regret to inform you that the sunsets are very boring in Scurvia). So when they hear about an orange and they look it up in the dictionary, they get a not very helpful definition:

orange (n.) an orange-colored citrus fruit

Okay, what about if we look at the very next entry?

orange (adj.) the color of the orange fruit, see orange (n.)

This dictionary could probably offer better definitions, but this contrived example illustrates the point: all definitions are ultimately circular because words are defined in terms of other words. If you have nothing but a dictionary, and the dictionary has no pictures or translations, then all you have is a set of symbols defined in terms of each other that fail to be grounded in reality.

This is, in essence, the grounding problem, a philosophical problem about how words get their meaning. In order for a dictionary to work, you need to have at least a few seed words you know the meaning of to base the definitions of the rest of them on. In the real world we solve this problem effortlessly: you learn the meaning of a bunch of words as a kid before you can even read, so by the time you can use a dictionary you have a vocabulary of a few thousand words to lean on. But if we were to abstract this problem away, as philosophers do, we're left wondering where any words get their meanings from. Even if we're going to lean on a few words to define all other words in terms of, where do those few words get their meanings from?

A House of Cards

If you've studied a lot of math, you might already have an answer in mind for how words get their meanings: just take a few words as axioms—words we assume to have particular meanings—and define all other words in terms of those. It seems like this should be possible. After all, it works in math, and math is just a special language for talking about numbers. If math can be built by assuming a very short list of obvious things and deducing everything else in terms of those few assumptions, why not all language?

But even just within the realm of math this doesn't work perfectly. If you ever studied geometry you probably learned about Euclid's five axioms: a short list of mathematical ideas he assumed were true with no justification because they were "obvious". He then built his entire theory of geometry from those five assumptions, deducing everything he claimed about lines and shapes from them. His theory stood as the gold standard for over 2000 years, but in the early 1800s mathematicians figured out that you can get different geometry if you make different assumptions! And other geometries are just as correct as Euclid's; they just describe what happens under different conditions!

At the time this created quite a stir. If math could be different and true if we made different assumptions, what else might we be taking for granted? Was everything we believed to be true just a house of cards that would fall down if we pulled out one of the bottom cards? It took about 150 years to work out all the details, but philosophers eventually figured out that the existence of non-Euclidean geometry had far reaching implications for what it meant to say something is true.

But returning to the problem of grounding the meaning of words, if mathematics can't rely on making a few assumptions to create a solid ground, it seems that our much messier everyday language stands no chance of building on such a foundation. Is there an alternative?

Thankfully, yes. We just have to stop philosophizing, stop trying to think our way to a solution, and look at how kids actually learn to talk. 

Baby Talk

As babies we try to make sounds that copy the sounds we hear our parents and other caregivers make. Eventually we say something like "mama" and everyone gets very excited! After a few tries we figured out that if we say "mama" then the nice person who picks us up and feeds us comes. Our brains then repeat this process, matching up sounds to actions: "dada" gets the other person who cares for us, "baba" gets us a bottle when we're hungry, "no" gets something we don't like to stop, "more" gets something we like to keep happening, and so on until we've built up a decent vocabulary of a few hundred basic words.

This seems to work because our brains are amazingly good at noticing patterns. With just a few examples we learn to match a word with an experience. We sometimes get it a bit wrong at first—maybe we think all toys are "balls" for a while—but with more time and experience we sort it out. As adults we continue this same learning process. For example, the first time I went to an Ethiopian restaurant I had no idea what injera was, but the waiter brought some floppy pancake like thing to the table and said "this is injera" and suddenly I had added a new word—"injera"—to my vocabulary with a clear meaning—Ethiopian bread.

So it seems we have an answer: words are grounded in our direct experience of what happens when we say a word.

I think there's three interesting things to note about this answer.

The first is that it implies that the meaning of words is fundamentally subjective, or based on personal experience. This is as opposed to words having objective meanings that are independent of individual experience. Words seem to have objective meaning because we're surrounded by people who agree on the meanings, but this is a bit like being a fish and not noticing water because we've never known life outside it. We actually have a fancy word to describe the situation: intersubjectivity. That is, words have meaning based on our personal experience, but because our personal experience is influenced by the personal experience of everyone we meet, and likewise their personal experience is influenced by everyone they meet, our personal experiences exist together in a complex web of interactions that creates a shared sense of reality.

The second is that the meaning of words is grounded not just in matching patterns but in purpose. Notice how our first words were not purely about identifying objects but about achieving goals: getting mom to come, getting fed, making something stop, and so on. This means our language is not only about describing the world, it's fundamentally about shaping our experience of the world. As a result, meanings of words are motivated in what we want, and what we want colors how we see the world. In a very real sense, we each see the world a bit differently depending on what it is we care about.

The third is that because word meanings are subjective and motivated we can't be totally certain everyone means exactly the same thing by the same word. Even if all our experience tells us that everyone else means the same thing that we do when we ask for a "cup", because we can't literally know what it's like to be in someone else's head, caring about the same things they care about, we have no way to be absolutely certain our two concepts of "cup" are really the same. That's okay, they only need to be similar enough to get on with our lives, but that's kind of the point. There's fundamental uncertainty about what words mean, yet we get on with the project of living anyway.

Those are weighty ideas to digest, so we'll return to them in later chapters. For now, though, we're going to continue on and explore another way we encounter fundamental uncertainty. In the next chapter we're going to focus on just two words and really dig into what going on with them: good and bad.

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The way I like to think about this is that the set of all possible thoughts is like a space that can be carved up into little territories and each of those territories marked with a word to give it a name.

Probably better to say something like "set of all possible concepts." Words denote concepts, complete sentences denote thoughts.

I'm curious if you're explicitly influenced by Quine for the final section, or if the resemblance is just coincidental.

Also, about that final section, you say that "words are grounded in our direct experience of what happens when we say a word." While I was reading I kept wondering what you would say about the following alternative (though not mutually exclusive) hypothesis: "words are grounded in our experience of what happens when others say those words in our presence." Why think the only thing that matters is what happens when we ourselves say a word?

Thanks for the suggestions! Wasn't specifically thinking of Quine here, but probably have some influence. My influences are actually more the likes of Heidegger, but philosophy seems to converge when it's on the right tack.

I'm... just surprised it's not all absolutely obvious and needs clarification. Maybe I'm missing something?

Of course we learn the meaning of a lot of words as children, from other people, and from other experiences, how else! 

Of course we build up on the basics by relying on the words we already know, as well as on our experiences outside language. 

Of course the meaning of words is contextual and depends on how we happened to learn them, and so is different for different people, groups, etc. It also changes when a person's context or environment changes.

Of course we think partly in words, partly in formless blobs, partly in images, and who knows how else. Of course different people have different mixes of all of the above, or even the same people in different circumstances.

Of course we don't naturally notice most of the above without actually thinking about it for a time.

The fact that it seems obvious is good. But people get pretty tripped up about this stuff. You don't have to go very far in the literature on linguistics and languages to find all sorts of confusion about how words get their meaning. Some of this is because there people are worried about various edge cases and trying to explore the idea space, but there's lots of folks who take seriously the idea that words can get all their meaning from definitions, and it took some serious effort to show that this doesn't work. So this chapter is mostly to help people notice confusion and unlearn what they thought they knew about how words mean things in order to point them towards how it actually works.

Ah, yeah, that makes sense. People tend to get attached to simple and wrong ideas like that. I mean, it's reasonably accurate to say "some words sometimes get some of their meaning from definitions, but it's far from universal", but not "all words get all their meaning from definitions only".