What does a word mean?
Words index  Vivian Cook

It seems easy enough to say what a word means; sun means . But is a picture of the sun, not the real sun; we can look at , but not at the real sun.

This is the same point made by Magritte’s picture of a pipe labelled Ceci n’est pas un pipe. A picture is not the real thing: a map is not the land it represents. When a woman told Magritte that the arm of a woman in one of his paintings was too long, he answered ‘Madam, you are mistaken; that is not a woman, it is a painting’.

Does car then mean an actual car rather than a picture of a car? If car meant a concrete individual car, each separate car in the world would have a unique name rather like the number plate V686 HJN which assigns each car a unique identity. Instead the word car means the concept of a car, i.e. cars in general. What counts is the idea of a car, relating to all cars rather than to any car in particular, so that you can see a Bugatti or a Beetle, a gleaming limousine or an old banger, and say ‘That’s a car’ if they fit your idea of carness.

The word car links something that exists in the world with a concept in our minds. There’s no way of linking the word and the world without the mind. Cars don’t usually come labelled as cars; it’s us that call them cars. The word car shows how a speaker of English organises the world – it’s not a bus and it’s not a bike - by relating a meaning inside their mind to something outside. When we say that a word refers to something – car  refers to – we are taking a short cut that leaves out the mind in between.

The actual object doesn’t have to have a concrete existence. Unicorns and Martians exist only in pictures, but there are words for them and people have a good image of what unicorns look like, or indeed Martians. Words like truth, globalisation and education are abstract; at best we can give examples of true things, of globalisation or of education but we can’t point at something clearly labelled truth. The objects do not even have to pretend to exist – we can after all talk about nought or the square root of minus one, which have no existence at all. Words are clumps of information that represent our mental concept, whether relating to real things or imaginary.

Nor is the physical world cut up into separate objects, each of which has a word to label it. Instead it is parcelled up by the words of our language. Standard English has only two words for grandparents grandmother and grandfather, even if some English dialects do separate your nan from your gran and your grandpa from your granfer. Languages like Swedish have distinct words for your mother’s parents farfar and farmor, and your father’s parents morfar and mormor. Standard English finds less complex family relations than many other languages.

Since all human beings live in rather similar physical worlds, they need many words for roughly the same things. We all need words for the sun and the moon, for food and drink, for mother and son, and so on. The fact that different languages have words for the same things reflects the common ways in which human beings organise their mental worlds. But even common things can be perceived quite differently. Speakers of Hopi, an indigenous American language, don’t have a single word for ‘water’ but have different words for water in a lake kehi, and for water to drink pahe. Japanese doesn’t have a single word for rice but different words for raw rice kome, cooked rice gohan, fried rice yakimeshi  and rice cooked to accompany western dishes raisu.

So there are enormous problems in translating from one language to another. You naturally expect to find a word in another language that is an exact equivalent to yours. But translating English rice into Japanese means deciding whether the rice is raw, cooked or served with western dishes. Many languages have an everyday word for ‘children of the same parent’, Geschwister in German; English only has an academic term sibling rather than an everyday word. So how do you translate Wieviel Geschwistern haben Sie?How many X have you got? Translating it as How many siblings have you got? makes it sound like academic research rather than ordinary conversation. The only real possibility is to change it into How many brothers and sisters have you got? - the closest English can get to it by spelling out the concept in several words.

This came home to me during an experiment which involved people counting backwards aloud in various languages. Some Japanese participants asked me what seemed a curious question ‘What am I supposed to be counting?’ I was soon told that there are different number words in Japanese according to what you are counting. hitotsu ‘one’, futatsu ‘two’, mittsu ‘three’ can be used up to ten for ordinary objects such as books but cannot be used for people. Often you need to add a special counting word according to whether it is an animal, a long thin object and so on.  

The nearest equivalents in English are the names for groups of things – a pride of lions, a pack of wolves, a peal of bells. Mastering counting in Japanese also means learning that the word for four shi has to be avoided as it happens to have the same pronunciation as the word for death.

So even a simple activity like counting reflects the language we speak. Our concepts and our vocabulary have a symbiotic relationship. A new idea needs a new word; the word i-pod wasn’t needed till the gadget was invented. To be more than a sequence of nonsense sounds, a new word needs a meaning; making up the word flink is useless unless I have something to use it for, some meaning to convey for which no existing word will do.

Some concepts are intrinsic to the workings of our mind. A Polish linguist who works in Australia Anna Wierzbicka has spent her life researching universals of meaning that occur in all human languages, coming up with sixty or so elements in fifteen groups. One group is I, you, someone, something, people, body; another is live, die;, another kind of, part of . These are the basic sixty ideas that all human beings share and for which they all need words.

The fact that all human beings share a particular meaning still does not explain why they need it. Why should we all want to talk about I and live? It could be our shared human situation; we all live and die so we all need to talk about the experience. Or it could be hardwired into our brains; we say kind of and part of because our brains work by dividing things up, just as deep underlying the most sophisticated computer routine is a binary sequence of ‘0’s and ‘1’s.

It is almost impossible to decide whether we can think without words. For we necessarily have to turn the thoughts into words to be able to handle them better or to talk to other people. Even if there is a stratum of the mind where concepts are separate from language, how could we tell other people about it without passing through language?

Levels of meaning    Measuring meaning   Cooking with words