The traps that language lays

‘They gave it me,’ Humpty Dumpty continued thoughtfully as he crossed one knee over the other and clasped his hands round it, ‘they gave it me — for an un-birthday present.’

‘I beg your pardon?’ Alice said with a puzzled air.

‘I’m not offended,’ said Humpty Dumpty.

‘I mean, what is an un-birthday present?’

‘A present given when it isn’t your birthday, of course.’

Alice considered a little. ‘I like birthday presents best,’ she said at last.

‘You don’t know what you’re talking about!’ cried Humpty Dumpty. ‘How many days are there in a year?’

‘Three hundred and sixty-five,’ said Alice.

‘And how many birthdays have you?’


‘And if you take one from three hundred and sixty-five what remains?’

‘Three hundred and sixty-four, of course.’

… ‘and that shows that there are three hundred and sixty-four days when you might get un-birthday presents –‘

‘Certainly,’ said Alice.

‘And only one for birthday presents, you know. There’s glory for you!’

‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘

‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything; so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. ‘They’ve a temper, some of them — particularly verbs: they’re the proudest — adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs — however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!’

‘Would you tell me please,’ said Alice, ‘what that means?’

‘Now you talk like a reasonable child,’ said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. ‘I meant by “impenetrability” that we’ve had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here all the rest of your life.’

‘That’s a great deal to make one word mean,’ Alice said in a thoughtful tone.

‘When I make a word do a lot of work like that,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘I always pay it extra.’

(Alice in Wonderland)

We talked about Alice in Wonderland, Big Brother and 1984, and a whole lot more besides. We wondered whether what Humpty Dumpty told Alice made any sense.

How can you explain the meaning of a word when you are meaning whatever you want by it?

Does Humpty Dumpty always mean what he says?

What is the point of words when they don’t have any specific meaning?


What sort of a wall was he standing on? And what was he doing on the wall?

Notes about our discussion:

How can you explain the meaning of a word if you don’t know what it means?

– Look in the dictionary.

– But can you trust a dictionary? What if the dictionary gives the wrong answer?

– You only know the meaning of a word because someone told you – and what if they were wrong?

This turned into what Ben called “Terri’s Paradox” – an argument that seems to prove that language is impossible. We could put it like this (ps. it’s good when you have an argument that seems to prove something possible is impossible, because you know you’re going to have to think your way out of it):

It’s not possible to teach something perfectly. Every time someone teaches someone something, they get a little bit wrong. The person who learns will get a slightly different picture than the person who teaches meant. (To put it another way: you can’t teach someone to do something better than you do can do it yourself.)

But parents teach their children to speak.

So it follows from what we’ve just said that each generation of children must speak a little bit worse than their parents.

And if we extend this line of thought over many generations and thousands of years, then people should forget how to speak. So language must be impossible.

We decided that parents don’t teach their children to speak. At least – not entirely. They teach them something, and after that the child takes over educating him or herself. We fill in the gaps ourselves.

This is a pretty good answer to the problem.

But now a new problem comes up.

We’ve said that the parent just gets the child started with learning the language, and afterwards the child takes it on him or herself. But how can we teach someone their first word?

To teach someone a word, you have to explain it to them.

But if they can’t speak yet, they can’t understand the explanation.

So, we said, you can point at things and name them.

But how does soemone understand what pointing means (dogs don’t understand pointing – at least, some don’t). Can you teach someone what pointing means?

The answer here, which we didn’t get into in the session, is that we probably have to be born knowing what pointing means. It must be some kind of knowledge in our minds right as we start growing. So that means that we are not born with empty minds.

Anyway – that was one issue that we talked about. We also talked about how words change their meaning; and about dialect, and why dialect words don’t appear in dictionaries. And we talked about newspapers and the twisting of words. And we talked about how in 1984 a language is imagined in which words are being stripped away, so that it becomes harder and harder to think  disobedient thoughts or to disagree with the government.

We decided to come back to these issues another time – especially the one about dialect.

About B.B.

I'm based in York.
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