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American Speech 77.3 (2002) 325-327

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Do Native Speakers Know What Words Mean?

Wayne P. Lawrence
University of Auckland

In a short note in this journal, Ronald Butters (2000, 112) asserts that "words mean what native speakers tell us they mean: it is not a matter of etymology or arithmetical calculation; it is a matter of utilitarian common sense." Were this the case, it would be a simple matter to establish the meaning of a word for any speaker, but, unfortunately, determining meaning is a much more complicated affair. In this note I give three examples which show that being a native speaker does not afford any special insights when it comes to citing the meaning of words.

My first example is the easily accessible example of the meaning of the plural. Ask native speakers of English what the plural represents, and answers will be either 'more than one' or 'two or more'. But observe how the same speakers use plural forms, and most, if not all, speakers will use expressions such as 0.8 pounds and minus 5 degrees, although these do not agree with the speakers' own characterization of the plural. For many speakers, the plural is not being used simply in agreement with the preceding digit, as minus one degrees and 0.1 grams show.1 For these English speakers, it seems that the plural is the equivalent of 'not singular', or, in other words, 'other than one', in spite of what such speakers may say the plural means.

My second example shows that even a native speaker who is a linguist and lexicographer can be fallible. Satoshi Tomioka, a native Japanese speaker and a linguist, describes the Japanese verb iru as expressing "existence of an animate object" (2001, n. 7). This is demonstrably wrong for all Japanese speakers, as plant life does not take the verb iru.2 Many Japanese dictionaries, compiled by native Japanese speakers for native Japanese speakers, define the verb iru as referring to people/animals (e.g., Tokieda and Yoshida 1979; Kindaichi et al. 1989; Umesao et al. 1989), but this too is demonstrably inaccurate. Iru is used, not only of people and animals, but also of vehicles, typhoons, the moon, and the sun. A more accurate characterization is that iru refers to the existence of objects perceived of, as a type, as being capable of self-mobility.

My third example concerns the meaning of the word Butters (2000) was writing about. In 1999 a letter was submitted to the language corner of [End Page 325] a national radio network program which argued that the "new millennium" would begin with the year 2000. A statement to this effect, however, does not establish this as a fact for the writer of this letter, as he went on to offer an argument for his position which in fact contradicted his statement. He argued that reaching the new millennium was parallel to reaching the century mark in cricket. However, a century is not achieved until the hundredth run is completed, and the next run starts the batsman on his way to his next century. Following this logic, the completion of year 2000 marks the end of the millennium, and the following year the beginning of the next. For the writer of the letter, either his claim that the new millennium begins in 2000 or his argument is in error.

Although meaning is internalized (i.e., exists in the brain and not as some entity in the outside world), it is not accessible to us in the same way as recalling an experience is—we cannot visualize with our mind's eye the meaning of a word in the form in which it is stored in our brain. The meaning of a word can only be arrived at inductively, through consideration of actual usage. It is usage, not speakers' opinions, which gives us an insight into the meaning of words. What native speakers tell us words mean is only an opinion, and, if based in fact, it can be treated as a hypothesis. In order to...


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pp. 325-327
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Archived 2005
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