Garblog's Pages

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Living Word | Peter Ludlow, NYTimes.com

Ludlow's column on the evolution of words in our language, published April 22 in the New York Times, makes two major points, as I read it. One I support totally and one I'm still thinking about.

I'm still thinking about his first point. He writes that many philosophers, language departments, pundits and politicians have a "static view of language." That view, he says:
... is the idea that a language like English is a semi-stable abstract object that we learn to some degree or other and then use in order to communicate or express ideas and perform certain tasks. ... [E]ven though it acknowledges some language change, the pace of change is thought to be slow, and what change there is, is thought to be the hard fought product of conflict.
But then he writes about an emerging "dynamic" picture of language in philosophy, psychology and artificial intelligence, in which the meaning of words can shift even within conversations. According to that view:
[H]uman languages are one-off things that we build “on the fly” on a conversation-by-conversation basis; we can call these one-off fleeting languages microlanguages. Importantly, this picture rejects the idea that words are relatively stable things with fixed meanings that we come to learn. Rather, word meanings themselves are dynamic — they shift from microlanguage to microlanguage.
Later, Ludlow writes that words are not just dynamic, they're also underdetermined. And by that he means:
[T]here is no complete answer to what does and doesn’t fall within the range of a term like “red” or “city” or “hexagonal.” We may sharpen the meaning and we may get clearer on what falls in the range of these terms, but we never completely sharpen the meaning.
I'm still thinking about Ludlow's analysis because I'm not sure if it adds much to the conversation about language. Part of me wants to dismiss his concepts of microlanguages and underdetermined words: "Naaaaah, that's not happening."  But the other part of me says: "Duh, we already know that about language. It's not new! He's just giving those changes a name." Thus, I hold both a static and dynamic view of our language, as Ludlow uses those words.

But, actually, I think he's making that first point mostly to set the stage for his second point, which I agree with. And that's about interpretation of the U.S. Constitution.

He refers to so-called strict constructionists of the Constitution like U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who contend the Constitution is not a "living document." According to those people, Ludlow writes:
[W]e should try to get back to understanding the Constitution as it was originally written by the original framers — sometimes this doctrine is called textualism. Scalia’s doctrine says that we cannot do better than concentrate on what the Constitution actually says — on what the words on paper say. Scalia once put this in the form of a tautology: “Words mean what they mean.”
Ludlow disagrees, and so do I. So do many other legal scholars, judges and historians. The issues, institutions and other realities of our country have changed a lot since our country's founders wrote the Constitution. And so has the language we use to discuss, define and adapt to thosechanging  realities.

Using the concepts Ludlow introduced earlier, he concludes this way:
Far from being absurd, the idea that the Constitution is a living organism follows from the fact that the words used in writing the Constitution are underdetermined and dynamic and thus “living organisms” in the metaphorical sense in play here. In this respect there is nothing unique about the Constitution. It is a dynamic object because of the simple reason that word meanings are dynamic. Every written document — indeed every word written or uttered — is a living organism.

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