13-01-11

On meaning and its vicissitudes

The title refers of course to Freud 's 'Drives and their Vicissitudes/'Die Triebe und ihre Schicksale'/Driften en hun lotgevallen'.

I have already stated that meaning of words and sentences is something uncanny, which permanently eludes us. There is no better way to start a philosophical enquiry into meaning, than to study a foreign language. Contrary to our mother tongue -where meaning is completely unconscious-, in learning a foreign language we attempt to grasp meaning at a hyperconscious level. When we are reading texts, or trying to make utterances in a foreign language, we are obsessionally concerned with meaning. What do these words mean, or do the words I use convey the meaning I intend to express? Whereas, when speaking our own language, of having learnt to speak a foreign language fluently, we leave the conscious realm and just let the words flow out of the unconsious, i.e. meaning has hooked on to words, or in the linguistic jargon, the signifieds have hooked on to the signifiers, whithout us having to consciously link meaning to words.

There are two ways to learn the meaning of words in a foreign language. Either you look it up in a dictionary, either you learn the context(s) in which a word is used. In the former case, one faces the problem of words pointing to other words (which on their turn are pointing to other words, etc.), in the latter a vagueness of meaning persists, meaning is either more restricted or more extended than one thinks.

An excellent way of learning the meaning of new words or constructions in a foreign language is memorising quotes from one 's favourite movie stars, singers or authors, and than applying these in other contexts. For example, to memorise two more formal ways to express contrast/concession in English, I use two half-forgotten sentences from popular culture:

one from the pop-philosopher Zizek: Ludicrous as the Sound of Music is, ...(can 't remember the main clause), which means: although the Sound of Music is ludicrous, ...

one from Blackadder goes Forth: For all the comedy balling and bleating,...(can 't remember and don 't even understand the meaning of the adverbial clause, which is less important than the understanding of a way to express a contrast.

These hooks -that link meaning to linguistic structures- can subsequently be used in other contexts. Learning by example, i.e. starting from contexts that give enjoyment to the learner, is far more productive than abstract-theoretical learning.

Reflecting on the labourious process of acquiring meaning when learning a foreign language, is of course only one perspective from which to look upon the difficult issue of meaning.

22:53 Gepost door Johnsatyricon | Permalink | Commentaren (0) |  Print |  Facebook | |

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