Meaning generation

Martti Nyman (
Tue, 22 Jul 1997 02:49:27 +0300 (EET DST)

Date: Tue, 22 Jul 1997 02:49:27 +0300 (EET DST)
From: Martti Nyman <>
Subject: Meaning generation
In-Reply-To: <>

Mark Mills to Bill Benzon:
> the tutor throws young Helen into a pool of water. While sitting dumbly
> in the water, the tutor starts signing 'water' and then dashing Helen's
> hand into the water. Suddenly, Helen makes a connection between the sign
> and the material. With this one epiphany, Helen suddenly enters the
> cultural dimension and communicates with friends and family. A new life
> starts. She has discovered what one might call the notion that 'things'
> can be 'symbolized,' and meaning shared.
> I'm suggesting this 'connection' represents the activation of a meme,
> something biologically inherited by most humans at conception. There are
> many other memes, but this one is biological in origin. The activities of
> both Helen Keller's tutor and the mother in your example involve an
> experiential teaching program which activate these inherited memes.

It's always inspiring (sometimes awe-) to enter into communication on
an interdisciplinary basis. You never know whether you're correcting
other peoples' misunderstandings or exposing your own fatuity ...
I must admit I have problems with what activation of inherited memes
is supposed to be about. I doubt that you mean that Helen, like us
all, had a genetically ready-made concept for 'water'. Do you mean
that humans, as well as those animals having a more or less instinctive
attitude to water, have some kind of pre-linguistic primordial
'knowledge' of the water element? I'm not sure, but it seems obvious
enough that e.g. water is 'a priori' somehow more relevant to 'doggies'
than, say, TV. E.g., dogs can swim but I guess they aren't too keen
on TV kennel programs. (Just guessing, I don't owe a dog...:-)

In any case, I think you're quite right to say that

> The
> teacher cannot 'give' the student 'understanding.' Understanding comes
> from within. Success is attained when the student 'discovers' the insight
> as part of the journey.
> Imitation is an important part of the learning sequence, but not the
> whole picture. As I illustrated above, the key to successful human
> development is the ability to generate 'meaning' out of thoughtless
> imitation activity. Meaning generation is thus an internal activity with
> little or no external contributions.

Yes, understanding certainly comes from within, but in this context
'understanding' (qua meaning generation) also includes misunderstanding.
Studies of child language learning show that meaning generation may be
based on ephemeral understandings or misunderstandings. Studies of
semantic change give evidence for several cases in which such an original
misunderstanding has taken off and spread to the speech community.
Eventually the 'misunderstood' meaning has become the norm.

In such processes of unintentional re-interpretation / change, imitatation
certainly has a role to play, but scarcely without some generation of
meaning. It's in this context that I'd like to put your 'inherited memes'
into competition with the human (only?) capacity of abductive reasoning,
i.e. the capacity of making fair guesses, which are then inductively tested
against the peers' (&c.) reactions. As a case in point, let me quote
a passage from Raimo Anttila: _Historical and Comparative Linguistics_
(Benjamins: Amsterdam, 1989):

A case where change was due to an ambiguous context is the meaning
of English _bead_. The word originally meant 'prayer' (compare _bid_
and German _beten_ 'pray'). Medieval and modern religious practice
holds it important to keep track of the number of prayers, and the
scoring device is the rosary with its small balls. Praying with
this device was called literally _counting one's beads_, that is,
_prayers_. The balls just represented prayers as symbols, and
praying and counting the balls were contiguous activities, the
former being the cause of the latter. Now the more obvious referent
to _counting one's beads_ was the physical activity of tallying
the balls and the situation was interpreted in this way, whereby
_bead_ came to mean 'small ball' (also _boon_ has shifted its
meaning from the 'prayer' [compare Swedish _bo"n_ 'prayer'] to
the 'thing asked for, a welcome benefit'). Without knowledge of
this religious practice, the change from 'prayer' to 'small ball'
would be completely incomprehensible" (pp. 137-138).

The change from 'prayer' to 'small ball' was due to meaning generation
which eventually failed to successfully 'activate the meme'. I'd like
to hear (see) your comments on this.

-- Martti Nyman

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