What words mean

I’ve offered a few definitions on this blog. For those who know I am a linguist by profession, but who don’t know many linguists themselves, I fear this may come across as an attempt to impose definitions by authority of my expertise.

So I thought I’d offer some thoughts on how linguists actually approach language.

I thought I’d spend a thousand or so words giving a brief introduction to terms like “prescriptive” and “descriptive“. Maybe talk about the inexorability of language change. Perhaps I could indulge in some side-notes on how most of the cherished rules of modern grammarians are violated not only by the common speakers and writers of English, but also by the authors the grammarians admire, and also (far too often) by the grammarians themselves, when they’re not paying attention.

I’d indulge in a rant or two here and there, and generally weary everyone into either agreeing with me or walking away.

Then I realized, if people want to be bored by all this stuff, they can bloody well come and take Linguistics 101, pay tuition and help keep me gainfully employed. And anyway, you don’t need all that to see the main point anyway.

It all boils down to this:

  • Linguists are scientists. We want to know how language actually works.
  • Behind everything else, language is about being understood – conveying an idea from one mind to another.
  • Words mean what people use them to mean.

Oh, there’s more. Syntax, morphology, phonetics (oh, sweet phonetics!), semantics … but each of them boils down to that one point.

Words mean what people use them to mean.

That’s what my definitions are about. I want to be clear how I’m using words, so we can communicate as clearly as possible.


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