Thought as word dynamics. II. Architecture (4)
In Indo-European languages there are two types of words. Every speaker has a very strong intuitive feeling of this. We have no difficulty when defining the meaning – or offering a definition – of words of the first type: “a rose is a flower that has many petals, often pink, a strong and very pleasant fragrance, a thorny stem,” etc.; “a tire is a rubber envelope to a wheel, inflated with air,” etc. With the second type, we’re in real trouble: for instance with the word ‘nonetheless,’ “it is used when one wishes to suggest that while a second idea may – at first sight – look contradictory to one first expressed, it is however the case, etc…” When trying to define a word like “nonetheless” I typically cannot resolve myself to say that it “means” something, I’d rather claim – like I did above – that “it is used when…,” and revealingly I am forced to express this usage through quoting – if not a true synonym of it, at least, as with “however”– a word which is used in very similar contexts.
The first type of words are often called “content words,” the second “framework-” or “structure words” (1). Dictionaries have an easy time with the first and a rotten time with the second, doing like has been done here with “nonetheless”: resorting to the cheap trick of referring to a closely related word, the meaning – the usage – of which the reader is supposedly more familiar with. The English philosopher Gilbert Ryle, interestingly called the first type “topic-committed” and the second “topic-neutral.” He wrote: “We may call English expressions ‘topic-neutral’ if a foreigner who understood them, but only them, could get no clue at all from an English paragraph containing them, what that paragraph was about” (Ryle 1954: 116).
In the technically unambiguous language used by the medieval logicians, the first were called “categoremes” and the second, “syncategoremes.” (2) Intuitively speaking we can understand this as meaning that “content-words” are essentially concerned with telling us what is the category, the “kind,” the “sort” of things we’re talking about; while the second type of words, the “framework-words” are essentially playing a syntactic role, a “mortar” type of role – which would explain why we’re at trouble explaining what they “mean” and feel more comfortable describing how they’re being “used.”
The network I’m talking about is constituted of “content-words”: these are the building blocks of a network where roses connect with red and violets with blue. The other words, the “framework-words” are not part of this particular network, they’re stored in a different manner, they’re summoned to make the “content-words” stick together, as the mortar of a particular kind that will make these words, or such combinations of words, work together within a clause. Like what was mentioned in an attempt to give a definition for “nonetheless”: that it is used when the two states of things which are brought together may seem at first sight to be contradictory. In order to ease the clash, to relieve the affective discomfort that arises when contradictory states-of-affair are brought together, a word like “nonetheless” is pasted between the parties at war. With “nonetheless,” the states-of-affairs evoked come from distant places in meaning-space: bringing them together creates an imbalance that needs to be resolved. The talking subject who’s connecting in his speech the states-of-affairs which are on either side of the “nonetheless,” cringes. So s/he stuffs between them a “contradiction insulator,” a “compatibility patch” like nonetheless. And everything is once again fine. “The Duke knew that his best interest and the Princess’s too was that he wouldn’t try to see her again. Nonetheless, the following morning…” The “nonetheless” relieves my worry, I won’t care for that Duke any longer: if he’s that kind of fool, well, good for him! What do I care!
“Framework-words” are part of what I will call in Section 14 the “coatings”: the coatings that out of the words found in a finite path along the Network create a proper sentence.
(1) Not every language deals with such distribution of “content-” and “framework-words” in a similar way. Languages like Chinese and Japanese are much more sparing in their use of “framework-words” than Indo-European languages are. Archaic Chinese for one had very few of those and meaning was emerging essentially from the bringing together – without further qualification – of “content-words”.
(2) Ernest Moody sums up the issue in the following manner: “The signs and expressions from which propositions can be constructed were divided by the mediaeval logicians into two fundamentally different classes: syncategorematic signs, such as have only logical or syntactic functions in sentences, and categorematic signs (i.e. “terms” in the strict sense) such as have independent meaning and can be subjects or predicates of categorical propositions. We may quote Albert of Saxony’s (1316-1390) definitions of these two classes of signs or of “terms” in the broad sense.
‘A categorematic term is said to be one which, taken significatively can be a subject or predicate (…) of a categorical proposition. For example, those terms ‘man’, ‘animal’, ‘stone’, are called categorematic terms because they have a definite and determinate signification. A syncategorematic term, however, is said to be one which, taken significatively, cannot be the subject or the predicate (…) of a categorical proposition. Of the kind are these terms ‘every’, ‘not any’, ‘some’, etc. which are called signs of universality or particularity; and similarly, signs of negation such as this negative ‘not’, and signs of composition such as this conjunction ‘and’, and disjunctions such as this disjunctive ‘or’, and exclusive or exceptive propositions such as ‘other than’, ‘only’, and words of this sort’ (Logica I). In the 14th century it became customary to call the categorematic terms the matter of propositions, and the syncategorematic signs (as well as the order and arrangement of the constituents of the sentence), the form of propositions (Moody 1953: 16-17)
Moody, E. A. 1953 Truth and consequence in Mediaeval Logic, Amsterdam: North-Holland
Ryle, G., 1954 Dilemmas, The Tarner Lectures 1953, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press