Tag Archives: language

Words are not things

Words are not things but semi-things. Their age matters not. The size of the fonts changes nothing of their meaning. And whether it is serif or san-serif will not make a single difference (apart from functional sustained legibility).

In other words, words have little to no properties. The font’s colour means nothing, unless it is an art t-shirt from that now-defunct Oxford Street shop in Sydney that read “blue” in red letters. Read the word out loud and the colour no longer has any meaning. This is word play in written form. The medium is the message as someone once said.

In Japan more people say the name King&Prince more than any other name right now (my daughter included). But nothing changes about the group. The group is still made up of six people no matter how many times one invokes the name. ‘Popularity’ means something else other than physical quantity. We may count the number of times in it is mentioned in the media or searched for on Google. Nothing changes the fact that they are ordinary people that bleed when pricked or cry when they are emotionally down.

My point is, words are not the same thing as the things or non-things they represent. Not only are they separate to the things/non-things they represent, their characteristics (if they can be characteristics at all) are different as well.

Determinism and relativity

Think about it. If your language determines your thought entirely then the entire population of speakers of a language would all think in exactly the same way. Variation of thought exist within a language/culture. Otherwise we would not need to vote in elections, have different types of cereal or have genres or music. Relative to other languages your language influences somewhat the range of your thought.

The English grammar distinguishes singular and plural. Arabic grammar distinguishes singular, dual and plural. And Japanese grammar does not distinguish number. By being forced to think about and encode number in English and Arabic, and not needing to encode in Japanese will influence your thinking.

Japanese tend to encode plurals poorly in English as a second language. More than likely, Arabic learners of English will find it easier to produce the grammar for plurality.

Like bat-and-ball sportsmen who tend to pick up other bat-and-ball sports quickly, language learners from related languages also acquire the second language faster. In applied linguistics this is called positive transfer. It makes sense that transfer can be applied to other skills like sport as well. But this does not mean a sportsman cannot become good at a dissimilar sport. If things were (pre)determined then we will never need to try because there is only one outcome – failure. Language learning is partly nature, and partly nurture. Both are necessary. It is not either/or but and.

But history may proof that nature and nurture may be misnomers which have ultimately influenced our way of thinking all along.

Nature includes us

There is an excellent account of the word “nature” in Raymond Williams’ book Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (page 219). Three definitions of the word were listed.

  1. the essential quality and character of something
  2. the inherent force which directs either the world or human beings or both
  3. the material world itself, taken as including or not including humans beings

Example sentences of these respectively could be, for example:

  1. “The nature of the crime was too gruesome to describe.”
  2. “Nature will dictate our planet’s future.”
  3. “Man and nature have achieved harmony.”

While the oldest usage is that 1 it is used more now as 2 and 3 where differentiation is difficult between the the latter two. What is important is the inclusion and exclusion of human beings. One is to equate nature with God with a capital G (as noted by Williams). Thus 3 is close to the physical reality when man is included, but only the natural world apart from human being and human culture.

Personally, I believe nature includes us (meaning 3). Nature made us to develop ideas which includes ideas about God, nature, and culture. There is a role for the idea of exclusion as well as inclusion. We have the capacity to think and express either. The ground of battle is not in God, nature, or culture but the nature* of language itself.

*First meaning was meant and unavoidable.


A type is a word who’s general meaning is derived from its sum token usages. Types are similar to universals and innate ideas which seemingly have a stable unchanging meaning when in fact they are derived categorisations of concepts. This error in understanding has been the root of the problem with Western philosophy from the very beginning. The ground of contention is in thought which is grounded in language. The nature of meaning, form, thought, and communication has to clear in order to understand the problem at hand.

The editorial error that became “metaphysics”

Did you know that the term “metaphysics” came about through an error by an editor? Not only that, but the entire project of trying to find the nature and origin of being and the universe is based upon this error.

The “meta” in metaphysical had meant “after” or “beyond”, which led it to be interpreted as meaning “beyond the physical world”. No such meaning was there, however, because the editor had only wanted to denote use the term to mean the chapter after the chapter on ‘physics’. So Western Civilisation has been chasing after God and the soul for over two-thousand years because of an error.