On Intrinsic and Extrinsic Meaning in Language

Another post I initially wrote as a comment on another blog, this one over at Calah Alexander’s Barefoot and Pregnant, which is really worth a visit. The question that had arisen was whether language has meaning in and of itself — or not. The answer is rather simple: not. But that does not mean that language has no meaning. The whole question revolves around the notions of intrinsic meaning and extrinsic meaning. Jesus has intrinsic meaning*. When the Gospels say that Jesus is speaking with authority, the original Greek often means that he was speaking with authority that quite literally emanated from himself Similarly, human beings have intrinsic meaning for the simple reason that each person is made in the image an likeness of God. Extrnsic meaning comes from the outside, and even if it comes from an outside that is so removed from us in space or in time, it still comes from the outside. Thus, none of the words I am writing in this post has any intrinsic meaning. All of the meaning is gathered into them via cultural, economic, philosophical, political, and — especially — religious sources. Upon acquiring this extrinsic meaning, the meaning is no less real than if it were intrinsic. It’s really a subtle question, but one which has fascinated me over the years.

Thus, in response to the post, I wrote:

One observation I have is that words tend to have meaning in the same way that money has value, namely that the meaning (or the value) comes from outside the words (or the money) and not from the words themselves. Let me explain. Take a paper dollar, even a paper dollar backed by some gold bullion at Fort Knox. The paper only has value because some entity says it has value. Even the promise to replace the dollar with a certain amount of gold is extrinsic to the paper dollar, and the utter lack of gold these days to justify the existence of so many printed dollars makes the promise even more vacuous. But then something happens. A diligent soul performs some work. This work produces a good or service, and a needy soul comes along and exchanges some paper with the diligent soul for that good or service. The paper has now acquired a value it did not possess before, namely the value of the work performed by the diligent soul, plus any additional value which the market may place on the particular kind of work performed in a particular way with a particular medium. I know it’s abstract – and it’s made even more abstract by the fact that it is impossible to go back in time to a moment prior to which these paper dollars had acquired their value. But the paper itself has no more value than a bit of odds and ends pressed together in a difficult-to-replicate way and imbued with certain inks and threads in an even more difficult-to-replicate way. The value is not intrinsic to the paper or to the dollar. But because other parties besides the diligent soul and the needy soul recognize the extrinsic value, and just as importantly because the diligent soul did the work and the needy soul saw the value of the good or service, this value is real.

So also with language, and in a way, your quote captures it best: “Those are all our creations.” As our creations, those meanings are not intrinsic to the language itself. They are derived – from human history and experience and politics and religion (and yes, even economics). There is no intrinsic meaning; therefore, amble cannot mean slow because it sounds slow. Rather, it means slow and sounds slow because of the cultural creations with which we have endowed the word. If you do not understand those cultural creations, you cannot claim that amble sound like it means slow. To envision this, you really have to imagine a native speaker of Mandarin or Mayalamam hearing the word amble without ever having had contact with Latin or a Latin-based language. Amble no longer sounds like anything, unless it coincidentally replicates sounds of these other languages. It sounds slow to us because we have made it so; we have created it so. The sound and the meaning are all extrinsic. God did not place them there, though he certainly placed into amble the capacity for such meaning to take hold.

This feature of language struck me most forcefully, perhaps, while reading Frances Hodgson Burnet’s The Secret Garden. It’s a great story, but one of the story’s most telling things about language is its preservation of Yorkshire English, with all its thees and thous and thys and similar language, which I had always thought was part of an archaic formal form of English. In the book, folk from Yorkshire are dirt poor, and the wealthier folk look down upon Yorkshire English. This suggests that this sort of language in English translations of Biblical texts is more an indication of the translators’ desire to use the common language of the people rather than a desire to imbue the English translations with overly formal language. The further you go back, the more common thou becomes. And it is always the elites pushing at the vanguard for change, probably because they can control it (or think they can).

Just as importantly, once-common words like wot and baste are either almost gone from common usage (wot) or else they today mean something largely different (baste). In this case, baste today has a very different meaning from when one of the foresters tells Robin, “I’ll baste thy sides until thou wilt ne’er be able to walk again,” while Robin competes at the Sherriff’s archery contest in Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. Many, many more examples could be found, ranging from the Spanish sabe – as in sabe usted or, with an s dropped, sabes tú. In the pirate cant of the eighteenth century Carribbean, this became savvy, meaning you know what I mean, or do you understand. And today, it’s savvy, meaning having a particular ability or knowledge in a specific field, or even just a general ability to figure things out. Savvy certainly sounds to us like it refers to general knowledge or ability, but it is far, far more specific (heck, it’s even a verb) to a native Spanish speaker.

That language has acquired its extrinsic (and genuine) meaning before any of us came around does not diminish the fact that it has real meaning. Moreover, the extrinsic nature of this meaning cannot prevent changes in that meaning from infecting a language. Some such changes are good, others evil, still others indifferent. But they are all real.

It’s just that real does not mean intrinsic. Still less does it mean unchangeable.

* It might be more proper to assert that Jesus is intrinsic meaning, insomuch as intrinsic meaning represents essence or being, but I digress.

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