Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Slippery Meaning

What do things mean? Humpty Dumpty said that things meant just whatever he said they did, no more, no less. If I utter a phrase, is my intention relevant to the meaning of the words or do they have independent meaning as they swim around in our common lexical pool? Is there a common pool? Wittgenstein talked of, ‘The familiar face of a word, the feeling that it has assimilated its meaning into itself, that it is a likeness of its meaning’ [Philosophy of Psychology – A Fragment xi §294 (1953 / 2009) Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, UK].

Anyone familiar with the first (Anscombe and Rhees) translations of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations will know that seltsam and merkwürdig are translated as queer, whereas the latest revision to Anscombe's text by Hacker and Schulte give odd, strange, and curious for the former and remarkable, strange, curious or extraordinary for the latter, depending on context. Now I know that Grice talks about intentional meaning within a 'linguistic community', but that notwithstanding, I should have thought that it ought to be possible to translate from one tongue to another without significant loss (or change) of meaning - otherwise where does meaning lie at all?

A case in point is the novel by the Dane, Peter Høeg, which I read (in English) some years ago - and which I found unsatisfactory in many ways. I suspect because it was literature in translation. The original title is Frøken Smillas Fornemmelse for Sne. The UK version was rendered as Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow but in America as Smilla's Sense of Snow. Why should translation be at the cost of nuance?

Eric Baum, building on the ‘mind-as-metaphor’ hypothesis of Lakoff and Johnson in What is Thought? [2004, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA] describes how we use spatial orientation in our metaphorical descriptions of the ‘world’. For example, ‘up’ and ‘down’ regarding our moods. ‘I’m sinking into depression’. We use a conduit metaphor, for example, ‘the meaning is in the words’. But even simple prepositions are slippery. Lakoff and Johnson claim that they have near universal meaning when applied to these spatial metaphors, but do they? I have a small (and essential!) book for Welsh learners called Pa Arddodiad? [Which Preposition?] And it is essential because a straight translation of an English prepositional use (according to dictionary definition) does not always (or even often) lead to the correct prepositional use in Welsh. An example; ‘at the door’ is, in Welsh ‘wrth y drws’, but the preposition ‘wrth’ means, variously, ‘by’, ‘with’ or ‘to’, but not ‘at’. So, there is a slightly fuzzy concept of ‘someone being proximate to the door’ which has slightly different nuances from language to language. It leads one to question whether ‘languages’ are even natural kinds at all, or whether they are as slippery as the biological concept of ‘species’.

Image: Wittgenstein © Tom Tomos 2010

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