October 4th, 2010

Symbols and referents. Need a referent.

So language is by necessity communal. It consists of symbols, which have referents, and operators, which do things with the symbols. And it has to be communal because if there's no external reality to which it connects, there's no need for a symbol to remain constant -- I can just make up a new one each time the referent comes to mind.

Any communication has both a content and a context; can't make meaning without both of those. As a lone individual, I can't hold my context stable if I meet new people and try to engage in conversation with them. If I give them a symbol, and they attach a different referent to it, and consistently maintain their definition, their definition will maintain and mine will not. (I've had this experience, with people who define "polyamory" as "an intellectual excuse for cheating.")

So a community is the unit that defines language; I use a word and you know what it means; I use an operator and you can figure it out. But "community" isn't monolithic; since the advent of cheap-and-easy travel and cheaper-and-easier communication, we can share language with people everywhere. We are all members of many communities, each of which can define elements of our language and elements of our culture.

I've already confused several people by likening this to gravitics; now it's *your* turn. Each "community" is a dimple on the rubber-sheet universe; each dimple attracts meanings. One place the model fails is that the same meaning can become part of the language of many different communities. But for each person, the meaning you attach to a symbol or operation attracts or repels communities to or from *you*. I have a thought, it's important to me and so I voice it, and people who can interpret my language in ways that make sense to them may adopt my idea and spread it further.

Damn. I've just lost myself. Can anyone else figure out where I was going and point me thataway?