Language and Meaning #1

Meaning is at the center of what interests me about language and literature. Meaning, as I understand it, covers a lot of ground, and it includes kinds of meanings that many philosophers and even some linguists wouldn’t call meaning. Here’s an example. Some years ago I happened to be shopping in a small store in downtown Toronto, in a rather rickety old building, and I overheard one of the clerks behind the counter say to another, “One day this floor is going to collapse on us.” She sort of bounced up and down and you could tell that there was some give in the floor. Here’s my question: What does “on us” mean in that sentence, in that situation? If the clerk had been talking about the ceiling, then “collapse on us” might mean, “land on top of us”, but she was talking about the floor, and it’s very unlikely that a floor you’re standing on would fall on top of your head. No, she meant something like, “the floor is going to collapse and that won’t be good for whoever is standing on it”—or something like that.

The phrase “on us” is a construction we can call the dative of interest (to borrow a term from the grammar of ancient Greek and Latin). In those languages a pronoun in the dative case can express the person who takes an interest in a situation. It can be translated in various ways: “to my advantage” or “to my disadvantage”, but also “so far as I’m concerned”, or even, in some situations, “please”. When I was taught this construction in Greek class, my teacher used this example: “My boyfriend took me to the movies and he fell asleep on me.” The speaker didn’t mean that her boyfriend fell asleep on top of her, but rather that it was annoying to her that he fell asleep.

Here’s another example of the kind of meaning that I find interesting. This is a sentence from Elizabeth Kolbert’s book, The Sixth Extinction: “If extinction is a morbid topic, mass extinction is, well, massively so” (p. 3). What is the meaning of “well” in that sentence? It’s not easy to say. Perhaps it would help to compare it to the same sentence without the “well”: “If extinction is a morbid topic, mass extinction is massively so”. This version of the sentence, without the “well”, is just an assertion. But the “well” brings with it a kind of tone of voice. We can easily imagine the tone someone would use in speaking that sentence, and the tone I think is part of the meaning. The parenthetical “well” also delays the end of the sentence, as if the speaker were hesitating—as if she really doesn’t want to complete the thought.

Kolbert uses a similar construction later in The Sixth Extinction: “The very year On the Origin of Species was published, a member of an acclimatization society based in Melbourne released the first rabbits into Australia. They’ve been breeding there like, well, rabbits, ever since” (pp. 210-11). Again the “well” delays the ending of the sentence, emphasizes the repeated word, and introduces a tone of voice. Here I feel the speaker is almost apologizing for saying that rabbits breed like rabbits, because, well, that’s kind of obvious, what else would they do; but other readers have disagreed with my interpretation. I would welcome comments on this point.

And here’s another parenthetical “well”, this one from Context as Other Minds, by Talmy Givon, a linguist whose work I admire; here he is making a contrast between literal language, which is relatively stable, and metaphorical language, which gets its meaning from the context in which it is used: “It is the serendipitous construal of discourse that makes metaphoric language effective, that gives it its double edge—semantically accessible yet pragmatically fresh. In contrast, it is the relative predictability and conventionality of the semantic context that makes literal usage, well, so literal and so indifferent to its pragmatic context” (p. 75). Again I see an apology for using the same word on both sides of an assertion—literal language is, well, literal—and again I expect some disagreement.

In my next post I will continue the discussion of meaning by looking at the meaning of a rhetorical figure called tricolon.

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