anthropology, linguistic anthropology

The “natural meanings” of words

A few days ago, Tennessee passed a law requiring words to have their “natural and ordinary meaning.”

From a linguistic perspective, this is bunk.

Words don’t mean anything on their own

Words don’t have meaning inherent to them — meaning is always a matter of convention. If you’ve ever heard or read words in a language you don’t speak, you already know that this is true. If there was something about a particular combination of sounds that meant it naturally had a certain meaning, language would be universal across human societies. And in fact, Ferdinand de Saussure, one of the founders of modern linguistics, defines language as “a body of necessary conventions adopted by society to enable members of society to use their language faculty.” (Well, that’s not entirely true. Saussure himself defined language as “un ensemble de conventions nécessaires adoptées par le corps social pour permettre l’usage de la faculté de langage chez les individus.” The definition above comes from Roy Harris’s translation.)

Language changes over time, too. The phrase cell phone didn’t mean much of anything before the 1980s. And we don’t just add words for new things, either. Words that have been around for a while change meaning all the time: for instance, nice once meant ‘foolish’ and then it meant ‘reserved’ — it only came to mean ‘pleasant’ in the 18th century. None of these meanings is more ‘natural’ than any other — it’s a question of the convention of the moment.

It’s not just across place and time, either. The same words can mean something different depending on who’s saying them, in what context: while the first example that comes to mind might be slurs, it’s just as true for specialized jargon. For instance, theory means something different in science than in everyday language. (Not to mention, the way I use the word culture as an anthropologist is pretty different from the way that non-anthropologists use it, and the same is true for a whole raft of terms–including racegenderracism, and a lot of other things I talk about here.)

In short; words don’t have a ‘natural’ meaning. They only have meaning when they’re being used.

Naturalized does not mean natural

So why is the idea that words have ‘natural’ meaning so widespread?

Like everything cultural, we learn language through a process of socialization. What this means in practice is that we learn it very early on, and in such a way that it hardly feels learned at all.

Think about your sense of which animals are food and which aren’t, or your sense of what’s appropriate for men and women to wear, or your sense of how early or late an arrival is considered rude. All of those things are learned — and we know that they’re learned because they’re not the same everywhere. Yet you likely experience them viscerally. When someone gives you something you don’t consider food, it’s disgusting; when someone is inappropriately late (or inappropriately early), it feels clear that they should know better, even if they’re from a very different cultural background than you. Our cultural understandings of the world are naturalized: they’re understood to be natural and fixed, even though they in fact are not.

And the same thing happens with language. As Lavanya Murali Proctor writes on Twitter: “When groups are powerful, the meanings they attach to words become socially powerful. They are not the only meanings. Others still exist. The ideological process by which we begin to think these dominant meanings are ‘natural’ is called naturalization by linguistic anthros. But if you step back from that, you realize all these other systems of meaning exist, and the dominant one isn’t right, just louder.”


What’s this really about?

On the face of it, this law doesn’t appear all that ridiculous. It’s common for legal codes to define all kinds of words that you’d expect to be common-sensical.

But the background suggests that this particular law is mostly reactionary.

When a word has competing meanings, the dominant meaning tends to be the older and more conservative one. After all, ‘what everyone knows’ is in some ways fundamentally conservative. It’s what has been true up until this point. And linguistic change and social change are intertwined. (To take one example, it wasn’t long ago that he was used as a generic pronoun in English, and yet it’s become increasingly rare as gender equality has become more widely accepted as a principle.)

Does everyone agree on the definition of marriage, for instance? It’s clearly contentious at this moment in time, even if you leave aside the gender of the people getting married: lots of folks would argue that marriage is fundamentally religious, and lots of others would argue that it’s fundamentally a civil, legal sort of thing. And because we’re in a moment of change, it’s easier to make a case that one of these understandings is ‘what everyone knows’ the word marriage means — even if more people actually define it by the other understanding.

And that’s the point of this kind of law. Asking us to always assume the common-sense definition is asking us to defer to the status quo. Deferring to the status quo, in turn, makes it harder to change the law and its interpretation. The danger here is that the new Tennessee law ignores one key fact: legal codes are living documents that are constantly being reshaped — and language is, too.

Nerdy stuff


  • Ferdinand de Saussure. 2013[1916]. Course in General Linguistics, ed. and trans. Roy Harris. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

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