How does language work?

Meanings of Words and Sentences in Mīmāṃsā

Mīmāṃsakas subscribe to the idea that words convey word-meanings, and thus refute the Bhartṛharian holism. The relation between a word as meaningful unit and its meaning is fixed, as it is proved by our common experience of words, and it cannot be denied in favour of a view focusing on the text as a whole and rejecting without compelling reasons our prima facie experience of words as meaningful units.

Given that one can thus establish that words are meaningful, what exactly do they convey?
Mainstream Mīmāṃsā authors claim, against Nyāya ones, that words convey universals, while sentences convey particulars. This is, again, confirmed, by our common experience, in which words figure again and again denoting the same element recurring in several particular items, namely their underlying universal aspect. However, this thesis implies that words would never be able to convey a complex state of affairs on their own accord, and would therefore be almost useless. By contrast, a complex state of affairs (viśiṣṭārtha in the Mīmāṃsā jargon) is conveyed by a sentence. This means that the sentence-meaning is more than the sheer sum of word-meanings. The process of sentence‐signification, leading from word‐meanings to the sentence‐meaning, is distinctly explained by the two main Mīmāṃsā schools, Bhāṭṭa Mīmāṃsā and Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā. Both schools agree on the basic tenets seen so far, but they differ on the path leading from the words’ signification of universals to the sentence’s signification of a particular state of affairs. According to Bhāṭṭa Mīmāṃsā authors, words conclude their function in denoting their own universal meanings. These, in turn, get connected into a complex sentence meaning through proximity, semantic fitness and syntactic expectancy. These three criteria correspond to the requirement of being uttered one after the other with no intervening time (unlike in the case of the words “a cow” and “runs” pronounced on two different days), being semantically fit to connect (unlike the words “watering” and “with fire”) and being linkable through syntactic expectancy (as in the case of a verb and its arguments). One might (as did Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā authors) object that in this case the sentence meaning would no longer be conveyed directly by words, but rather by their meanings. Bhāṭṭa authors reply that even the sentence meaning is a function of words, via their meanings. They therefore distinguish a direct denotation (abhidhā) of words, through which universals are denoted, and a secondary signification (lakṣaṇā), through which complex sentence meanings are conveyed.

By contrast, Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā authors, and especially Prabhākara’s main commentator, Śalikanātha, state that words get connected and denote the specified sentence meaning only once connected. This assures that the sentence meaning can be said to be linguistically conveyed, since there is not the intermediary step of word-meanings, something very important for the Mīmāṃsā epistemology of linguistic communication as a distinct instrument of knowledge. However, Prābhākara authors have to explain the fact that the own meanings of single words appear to have a role to play in the process, since there is an invariable concomitance between knowing the words’ individual meanings and knowing the sentence’s one. This tension between the opposing risks of atomism and holism is dealt with differently by various authors, who usually call for the memory of the individual word-meanings to play a role in the process. Words would accordingly cause one to remember their own meanings, get related to one another and then denote the complex sentence-meaning.

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5 thoughts on “How does language work?

  1. namastE,

    I would like to raise a question about a portion in your post’s first paragraph:

    “our prima facie experience of words as meaningful units.”

    From my experience with using music in the lives of children with disabilities (which includes language delays or apparent absence of at least expressive language and not necessarily receptive language), it seems like a child is listening to the holistic intent of a simple sentence such as, “Patrick, pluck the cello string and see” rather than one word at a time. In the beginning Patrick would just turn, which indicated that he knew that we were asking him to do something. Then we pointed to the cello, and uttered the word “cello” and then we indicated the action of “plucking” through miming. There was no reaction. After months, Patrick learned the behavioral equivalent of that direction. It seems that at least when we are just learning a language, the whole sentence is what is heard as a verbal conglomeration often running all together like a musical phrase. Also it seems that it is only when we learn to write, the analytical view comes in and separates words into graphic symbols, and then sentences into words and spaces.

    • I think your suggestion that the experience of writing affects our analytic understanding of language is very interesting, and I’m sure true.

    • Thank you for this very interesting comment. The main problem with the holistic view is how to make sense of the fact that, with a finite set of words, we can understand and endless number of sentences. I wonder whether the children you worked with also had the same ability or were only able to understand certain sentences (in which case they would not be called competent language users). In the Prābhākara accounts of language acquisition (for instance, in the Prābhākara objector embedded in Sucarita’s text), the stage you describe is a preliminary step, since one is then later able to isolate the meaning of the single semantic units.
      As for writing, although writing may play a role (readers may remind Derrida’s position about it), please consider the fact that Sanskrit speakers, if they knew of writing, possibly mainly knew continuous writing, so that they would not be led to think of “फलमाददति” as two separate words.

  2. “Given that one can thus establish that words are meaningful,…” Where? I don’t see anybody establishing anything? You describe a Mimamsaka assertion, but an assertion isn’t an argument.

    “This is, again, confirmed, by our common experience, …” No, common experience is not a sufficient reference point for “confirmation.” Again, this is an assertion, not an argument. Further, surely the whole point is to develop an understanding of what we experience, because it is puzzling. To assert that there is an easily understood “common experience” undermines the reason for having the discussion in the first place. Speaking personally, my “common experience” of understanding language is far from easy to understand or analyze, and is certainly inadequate to serve as a foundation for a philosophy of language.
    There’s the further unstated problem of assuming that all “common experience” is the same. It is at least possible to consider that every human individual understands language by means of slightly differing mechanisms and processes.
    If assertions such as these really are typical foundations of Mimamsaka discussions about linguistic knowledge, I find them naive and partial.

    • Thank for you comment, Dominik. I think that there are two points at stake here:
      1. Sure, my analysis (especially when I write short blog posts, I hope my articles and books are slighly better) is weaker than what you can find in masterpieces such as Sucarita’s or Śālikanātha’s texts on language. That’s why I am so happy to be able to work on them.
      2. I do not share your scepticism about the appeal to common experience. What I find really irritating are authors (such as D. Davidson in his Truth and Meaning, 1967) who constantly add adverbs such as “of course” and “obviously” in order to make claims look like evidences). By contrast, appealing to our experience of being able to understand sentences we never heard before, provided they are made of words we already know, is something every theory of language needs to make sense of. Don’t you think? One can claim that it is an illusory experience, but one should be able to explain why we experiece it.