Words and Sentences

Words and Sentences March 4, 2014

Though “word and sentence are interdependent,” argues David Braine (Language and Human Understanding, 2), yet “neither is definable in terms of the other.”

This is most often acknowledged from one direction: An infinite number of sentences can be constructed from the finite resources of the lexical stock of a language. It works the other way too, of course: Words are “multi-potential in use, open to many sense or discourse-significances.”

That seems obvious enough, but Braine thinks it’s overlooked by philosophers of language and linguists, who tend to prioritize word over sentence or sentence over word, “creating insoluble problems” and putting “language into an impossible straightjacket” (5).

He refers to the rival philosophies of Quine, Davidson, and Dummet, all of whom took the sentence as the locus of meaning. For their differences, “their explanations always took one back to the conditions of truth, conditions of justified assertion or denial, conditions of fulfillment or obedience, experiences reported in sentences, or responses to sentences of others.” But this “put direct controls solely on sentence-meaning and use, and so gave only indirect or external access to the meanings or significances of words or other sentence constituents” (4-5).

If one takes account of language’s use for expressing sense, then it’s clear that “it is words or other lexical factors in their context which are primary – at the level of understanding, the sentence or complete utterance has sense only through them” (5). This approach also suggested that “the senses of words . . . can be worked out or calculated from sentence-meanings or uses,” but this excludes the “informality” of ordinary language, which uses words with a variety of different meanings. Braine finds a parallel rigidity in Chomsky, which allows “each lexical item . . . only one lexical meaning (or only one set of consequences for sentence-meanings)” (5).

Braine’s very large book is an effort to “restore the balance between word and sentence” and to explain how “word-meaning and sentence-meaning are interdependent and correlative” (5-6).

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