From Geoffrey Hunter's Metalogic, p.5:

... a thing is an English word only if it has meaning.

At this point I stopped reading the textbook, and thought to myself: "Is this really so?". NB: I don't care about English in particular, but about natural languages in general.

I feel there are two major points that need elaborating: (a) What is a word? How does a thing become a legitimate word of a given language? (b) What is meaning, and in what sense can words "have" it?

My best current thoughts:

(a) Words, in a very crude sense, can be taken as sounds uttered or, if the word is written, as a pronounceable string of characters. A word can be coined, after which it is undoubtedly a legitimate word of the language – this is something I think we can all agree on. More on words becoming legitimate in (b).

(b) This is too broad for me to handle because it comprises most part of my question. The best I can do is mention Lewis Carroll's poem Jabbererwocky and say that that there are many words in it that are not being coined (at least intentionally), nor is there any intended meaning behind the words whatsoever. Does the use of these words make them legitimate words of English? One can make the case that Lewis Carroll's literary works (the ones about Alice) are very popular and influential and are part of not only the cultures of English-speaking countries, but lots of other cultures as well, giving him a "licence" to make up words with no intended meaning and make them legitimate words (at least of English). Can I, an average person whose native language is English, utter or write down a word without any intended meaning and truthfully say that the word is now a legitimate word of English (i.e. saying so makes it so)?

Question: what does leading work in philosophy of language has to say on these matters? Keep in mind that the central question I'm asking is the one in the question's title.

  • 1
    Of course, Hunter is not asserting a theory of meaning... The gist of the exercise is to convey the correct "meaning" of formal language : a formal language is completely specified by its syntatical rules (and thus it can be mechanizable): it can be fully "managed" without reference to any interpretation. Natural language is not so, because we cannot (better : it has no sense to) disregard meaning. Sep 30, 2016 at 18:37

3 Answers 3


"only if" suggests this is intended as "if and only if".

"if a 'thing' has meaning then it is an English word". presumably "thing" means "blob of sound"?

many blobs of sound have meaning but are not English words. Sighs, snorts of indignation, snickers and guffaws, etc. not to mention the sound of a gunshot, glass shattering, etc.

"if a thing is an English word then it has meaning." lots of English words lack determinate meaning. "What is the meaning of "a"? "the"? How about "I" or "now"? those two have no meaning separate from the occasion of their utterance.

so: a) what is a word? whatever we decide to call a "word". Compare Sign Language - it has no sounds, does that mean it has no words? Linguistically it is not so clear that "word" is a universal. In Chinese, for example, what should count as a word is not clear-cut. People have studied this, and Chinese speakers indeed have trouble identifying words. This is because of the structure of the language; "word" is not a good conceptual fit for it.

b) what is meaning, and in what sense can words "have" it? The Pragmatist might say that the meaning is the practical significance of its utterance on a specific occasion, instituted by norms of practice, and deny that it is some metaphysical doohicky that attaches to words. A word then "has" a meaning in the sense of "I have been to Paris" or maybe "I have measles", not "I have a nickel".

  • For a) You don't have to reach all the way to Chinese. Given the mixed heritage we have from Germanic and Romance roots, the notion of 'compound word' already makes 'word' a bad fit for English. For b) Consider Wittgenstein's compromise of the 'language game' between whether the meaning of a word belongs to the word. To extend your analogy, the form would be like you having a nickle, if that nickle is in your bank acccount and not in your hand. It is truly yours, but it is a form of power, not a physical object, and it might disappear, or change, under forces others negotiate.
    – user9166
    Sep 30, 2016 at 18:54
  • @jobermark: agreed. I like Chinese because the contrast is more stark, and this topic has actually been studied for Chinese. wish I could remember where it is.
    – user20153
    Sep 30, 2016 at 18:58
  • @jobermark : I like the wittgensteinian point.
    – user20153
    Sep 30, 2016 at 19:01

The Jabberwocky has a meaning? If so, do the words of the poem necessarily have meaning too, or is it the case that it is a meaningful poem made of meaningless words?

The Jabberwocky in the Portuguese translation of Alice in my copy of the book was translated... from English into Portuguese. If it wasn't translated, Brazilian children would be unable to "understand" the Jabberwocky. Oh, of course, they do not "understand" it in the Portuguese version either, but it is obvious that "not understanding" it in Portuguese, because it is a non-sensical poem, is different from "not understanding" it because it is in a foreing language (case in which you would not know that it is a non-sensical poem, for starters).

So, in some sense at least, The Jabberwocky is a poem in English, not in Portuguese, Farsi, or Esperanto. And if it is a poem in English, then in some sense the words that make it up must be English or English-like, or perhaps "Englishable". If it is translated into Japanese, then the words of such translation need be related to Japanese in some sense, or it would not be a translation from English to Japanese.

So, I am sorry, but

a thing is an English word only if it has meaning

seems to be a completely false sentence (at least under the perhaps uncharitable and decontextualised assumption that "only if" means "if and only if"), and not only in the trivial sense that tortilla, guaraná, or Weltanschauung all have meanings but are not English words. The "meaning" of a word is not some essence within it, but is given by context, which is what allows us to create neologisms, and to borrow foreign words.

In the context of this answer, I could say that The Jabberwocky is an Alicenation. "Alicenation" is not an English word, and it has no meaning. Or it wasn't and hadn't, up to the moment I coined it in this context. When coined in this context, its "meaning" (and I suppose its "Englishness") is created together with it, and is clear and unmistakable. So the kind of statement such as "a thing is an English word only if it has meaning" seems to fail to grasp the meaning of the word "meaning".


I am basically following up @LuisHenrique, but sandwiching the argument between two recognized 20th-century theories of meaning.

We might create a word like 'Beyoncesque' on the pattern of other words like 'Shavian' or 'Rubenesque' that captured the effects of other artists in other periods. It would bear no meaning twenty years ago. Hopefully, it will bear no meaning again in a few years, except to past fans of an erstwhile celebrity, and when they are dead, it will again have no meaning. So the word itself does not hold meaning. Life and context hold meaning, and the word merely channels it.

One modern way of resolving this whole thing is to look at language as a political process, rather than as a repository of meaning. Human beings are the repository of meaning, and we transmit meaning through interactions that transfer power. Language is one of these kinds of interactions. But since some part of the process is about power, there is competition built into it, and it tries to optimize itself.

In the terminology of Wittgenstein, all interactive thinking takes place via semi-formal exchanges he calls 'language games'. We say things, and those things are linked to other things already said, but not directly, only by association. But by association they convey meaning, since the other things already said were intended to convey meaning.

(By this notion, for instance, the first meaningful grunt did not effectively convey meaning until it had occurred many times in relevant contexts, probably for some anatomical reason. Then it acquired meaning by evoking the relevance of those contexts to this one. Language then begins when meaning becomes intentional, rather than simply referential.)

Adding to that a Critical Theory take, meaning is knowledge, which has power. So we (being engineering animals, obsessed with power and efficiency) maintain the efficiency of language games' ability to convey meaning by constantly tuning the system, diminishing the effects of communications that are about unimportant things and increasing the effects of communications that are about important things, according to the continual power dynamics that determine what is 'important' and 'unimportant' to the society using the language over time.

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