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The way I see it, there's two aspects to the choice between the descriptivistic and prescriptivist approach. There's the ought aspect; how ought we view the meaning of words? Then there's the is aspect; what does determine the meaning of a word? Given this is not Philosophy.SE, I am inquiring about the latter.

I recognize that maybe meaning is too ill-defined to even give an answer to whether prescription determines it or not. If this question is logically undecidable, I'd like an answer showing that. If not, I'd like to see the arguments for and against the following stance: Words-to-be are imbued with meaning through prescription, and the individual gains words through prescription.

Something I believe might make this question unanswerable is the fact that people may view words differently. If I coin a new word, I'll have to let people know what it means (unless it is so simple mere usage shows what it means). Who's to say I'm prescribing meaning when I let people know. Perhaps I don't see it as laying down a rule for what the word means, but instead suggesting what it can mean, or simply letting people know what it means to me. If I'm not mistaken, whether a word is prescribed or not depends on whether the coiner/explainer sees it as a rule or not. Then again, meaning perhaps resides with the recipient, or in some shape or form, in both the speaker and recipient.

It kind of breaks my mind to think about this. I'd like some clarity, so an overview of the different modes of thought and arguments regarding this topic is what I'm asking for.

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    You have to start by explaining what you mean by "prescription".
    – user6726
    Jan 21 at 5:55
  • prescriptive + ist + ic. Two suffixes in search of a reason,
    – fdb
    Jan 21 at 21:38
  • @fdb The difference between "prescriptive" and "prescriptivist" is that the former is general, whereas the latter refers to prescription in the context of the prescriptivism approach. The latter is thus more precise given the topic. Originally however, I wrote "prescriptivistic", which is indeed wrong; it slipped by me. As such, your comment is only half-right, the "ic" was indeed useless.
    – user110391
    Jan 25 at 20:34
  • @user6726 I didn't think the term was ambiguous, at least not it's use in this post. Could you explain what possible interpretations you're considering of its use here? I'd like to keep the question as brief as possible, and if a disambiguation isn't needed, I won't add it.
    – user110391
    Jan 25 at 20:40
  • The term is apparently based on a misunderstanding of what "meaning" is. It's not something that's attached to a word officially and permanently. "Meaning" is just how somebody might react to it, in a certain context. Meanings aren't fixed, so they can't be prescribed; people have tried, but you can't fix meanings for other people. The best you can do is try to figure them out after the fact and see what patterns they follow.
    – jlawler
    Jan 25 at 22:59

1 Answer 1

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Existing words already have meaning. The relationship between the word (form) and the meaning is conventional, and in learning a language (as a child or second language learner), you learn that relation. This is a very complicated topic, so will just say that "you learn" without going into all of the details of how you learn, but children learn inductively by associating forms and contexts, which allows them to internalize a definition. This gives an individual meaning.

Because of the predominantly social view that most people have of language, we also have to relate individual meaning with group meaning. For natural objects, there isn't much difference between the two. However, there is a kind of skillet known in parts of eastern US as a "spider", where some people know that additional meaning of the word but most people do not. We then talk about dialectal complications. Less obscurely, "boot" has a different meaning in US English compared to UK English. It should not be hard to understand the complexity of standardized dialect differences, as long as you don't insist that the form-meaning relation must be rigid within a language (in the broadest sense).

It is beyond the ability of linguistic science to give a physical description of "meaning" as an aspect of the mind (whereas physicists can say what an "atom" is, and not just what it does). It is obvious that the meaning of a word is not the sum of experiences that a person has had with a word (word meaning would then be very unstable even within an individual), but it is probable that meaning is a mental abstraction based on such experiences. Operationally, we can say that for two individuals the meaning of word A is the same iff the word picks out the same referents. (However, borderline cases cause a problem for that even within an individual).

Looking word meaning up in the dictionary is the other main method of acquiring meaning. I had to look up "squamulose", because I couldn't figure it out from context (I also didn't know the word "squamata"). In a good dictionary such as the Oxford English Dictionary you will get a more complete descriptive account of the meaning of words, which is based on observation. Not all dictionaries are good.

Individuals may deliberately create new form-meaning pairs, perhaps by taking an existing semantic description (maybe with a nuance) and mapping it to a new form, which leads to the peculiar situation that it's good to be bad, or sick. One might create a new object and then assign a name to it (a daily event in the pharmaceutical industry).

Whether or no such a new form-meaning association will generally be accepted is pretty much unpredictable. If you can get a pop culture icon to use your new form-meaning pairing, you have a greater probability of gaining somewhat widespread social acceptance. Figuring out the actual social dynamics of how this happens is very difficult, since we generally don't have very complete records.

The attitude of the individual who initially creates a form-meaning association is mostly irrelevant, what matters is whether that association is widely-enough disseminated. Explicit rules may exist in academic publications, especially in the formalistic sciences, but usually the form is an existing word (or modification of an existing word). Our experience with linguistic terminology is that the form is most solid and the meaning is highly flexible, for example "phoneme", "markedness", "constraint". In a formal academic paper, an author may indeed lay down a rigid definition, and it may have a live span of three or four years, then the edges get smoothed down and instead we have a collection of meanings.

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  • I insist, the form-meaning relation must be rigid within a language! Otherwise it's meaningless, the word language I mean.
    – vectory
    Jan 25 at 19:48
  • [1/3] "(...) but children learn inductively by associating forms and contexts, which allows them to internalize a definition." That's what I thought, but it doesn't really decide whether prescription determines meaning or not. If you learn a word through observing its use, and that word's use was introduced and modified through prescription, hasn't the word ultimately been, indirectly, prescribed to you? It is this question that makes me think the attitude of the coiner matters.
    – user110391
    Jan 25 at 20:25
  • [2/3] If a coiner creates a word, and then tells people, a question arises. Are they simply DESCRIBING a word, thus illuminating the USAGE of a word, in its entirety, allowing people to pick up on this, just like a descriptive dictionary? People will then use it, and corrupt it, and thus give implicit descriptions of an ever-changing use. Or, is the coiner prescribing what the word means? Are they telling people what the meaning of the word is, period? And if anyone uses it differently, you simply have a dispute; contradicting prescriptions.
    – user110391
    Jan 25 at 20:28
  • [3/3] Those who learn those words through observation, or maybe through viewing a description of its usage, are still ultimately receiving a prescription. Imagine you have a rule, that people are told, and that they follow. Then, some people show up, and they are not told. But they figure it out through observation (or maybe they break the rules, or misunderstand them). Or maybe someone tells them "this how the rules are", but they don't tell them "do this". No matter how it happens, they're still the subject of rules; prescription. So, to me, it seems this comes down to the coiner.
    – user110391
    Jan 25 at 20:31

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