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suppose we have to explain what is the word "grandmother" mean,we can say that means mother's mother.then you asked what "mother" means,we can say you born from you mother.then you ask what "born" means,we say......,it seems you can ask forever.but all language,including English,have only finitely many words,so you cannot ask forever,one day all words are finished,it goes back to the first word.so we can't know what a word really means.but how can we study and understand a language?

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    As long as you describe the language you are concerned about as from an open set ("for example, English") the answer must certainly be No.
    – Drux
    Mar 21, 2014 at 17:09
  • Your subject doesn't match your question IMO. What is "all" subjects? From the time you were born to the time you first developed language, you had experiences but no words for them. Those experiences are still part of you. Many concepts have no words ... namely the concepts you experienced before you had words. Words come long after concepts. Collectively we were human long before we had words. Are you specifically meaning to exclude all such pre-verbal concepts?
    – user4894
    Mar 21, 2014 at 22:53
  • @user4894 Hmm ... there are philosophers that would argue that without language (i.e. words) there are no concepts.
    – Drux
    Mar 22, 2014 at 16:42

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While I think there are some concepts that can't necessarily be described properly in every language, I think your reasoning is flawed.

When we learn what a "dog" is, we don't have to say "It's a four-legged mammal with these characteristics..." - we say "That." - and point at one. When words are labels for things in the real world, it doesn't necessarily follow that there has to be a word (or words) to describe it, and it certainly doesn't follow that no other words can be re-used in any of those definitions in order to form the tree-like definition structure you describe that leads to one root word.

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how can we study and understand a language?

We do not learn the language "by definition", i.e. through a dictionary.

In order to understand the language learning process we may assume (see the theory about "innatism" of Noam Chomsky) the existence of some sort of "mental software" that drive the "bootstrap" process of language aquisition.

We "know" what "mother" is far in advance of being able to read or to "understand" a definition.

all language,including English,have only finitely many words,so you cannot ask forever,one day all words are finished,it goes back to the first word.

Exactly so: if you pick up a word i the dictionary and "build up" a tree (in the mathematical sense) using the definitions, surely you will find , well before having finished reading the dictionary, a word that you have already met.

The "process" is circular : there is no set of "initial" words (known by "ostension" ?) such that all other words can be defined/explained in terms of them.

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  • So what's your answer: Yes or No? Also, FWIK Chomsky's theory is not the only show in town.
    – Drux
    Mar 21, 2014 at 17:34

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