The Linguist

The Linguist 55,3

The Linguist is a languages magazine for professional linguists, translators, interpreters, language professionals, language teachers, trainers, students and academics with articles on translation, interpreting, business, government, technology

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22 The Linguist Vol/55 No/3 2016 FEATURES HIDDEN MESSAGE Can we hope to understand language without context when people say one thing but mean another? W hat is the relationship between meaning, speakers and their languages? These are big issues but, very broadly speaking, there are two main schools of thought within the philosophy of language. According to one school, which I'll term the Formalist approach, linguistic meaning attaches to formally construed bits of language – things like words and sentences. These, in turn, are to be identified by formal features, such as their spelling or underlying logical form. Formalists do recognise that it is only because there are intentional agents – people with a practice of using symbols in the way that we do – that words and sentences get to mean anything at all, but they talk about what words and sentences mean independently of what any given speaker is trying to do with them. Use-based approaches, on the other hand, worry that any kind of formal approach risks undervaluing the crucial role of speakers and hearers, that it misses the point that meaning comes only through and with use, and is thus tied inextricably to contexts of use. It is not words that refer or sentences that mean, it is speakers that do these things. Each of these schools has a long and venerable history in philosophy and each has been championed by great thinkers (renowned Formalists include Frege, Russell and the early Wittgenstein; use-based theorists include later Wittgenstein, Strawson and Austin). Both do a good job of answering some aspects of what we know about language. For instance, Formal approaches can offer neat explanations of the learnability of natural languages and facts about the systematicity of meaning, while use-based approaches capture nicely the potential fluidity of linguistic meaning and the dynamic nature of linguistic communication. Yet both approaches also face problems. Use-based theorists have trouble in accounting for the apparent normativity of meaning (i.e. the fact that one can use a word correctly or incorrectly), and with specifying whose use, when and where, will count as fixing meaning. Formalists have difficulty accounting for the evident IMAGES: © SHUTTERSTOCK Philosophical questions about how language imparts meaning impact on our understanding of everything from machine translation to legal statutes. Emma Borg outlines the key theories – and why the experts still can't agree Finding meaning

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