Martin Stokhof 2004

The end of our imagination

The approach towards language taken in The Complete Dictionary is primarily concerned with form: a word is viewed as a sequence of letters. But there are other aspects: sound and meaning. These aspects, one may argue, are in a certain respect more important than form.

First, something about sound: the written form of a word is at its best an abstraction of its spoken sound. In fact, there are more sounds than we can express with our standardised alphabet. (In phonetics and phonology a special alphabet is used that has more expressive possibilities.) The restrictions on letter-combinations are strongly linked to ‘pronounceability’. These restrictions, however, are different for different languages. Therefore, the concept of ‘possible word’ as such has little significance in linguistics. There may exist restrictions that hold for every language, but languages come into being, they change and disappear. When taking only these universal restrictions into consideration, the result would not be just an accumulation of all possible words in some possible language. This suggests that when one looks at the concept of a possible word, from the perspective of actual natural language, it is not very likely that an a priori characterisation of the concept can be given. It seems that when one has to recognise an existing word, as a part of a non-existent word, it is much easier if the remainder is a probable word on its own. You will recognise apple much easier in ‘vuffapple’ as in ‘fapple’, because vuff is a possible word, but f isn’t.

Now for meaning: one can say that in its function, meaning is of greater importance than form. It is a known fact that natural languages contain lots of homonyms, but hardly any synonyms. Form is subordinate to meaning in the sense that the same form (word) often represents more than one meaning. This is because the context (in spoken and written language) almost always makes clear which meaning is represented by the form it takes in a specific context. This suggests that meanings, i.e., that for which we use forms, are an important factor in determining the words we have. How words come into being and whether they survive, depends on how well they serve this function: to convey meanings.
Whether a word succeeds depends on more than just its form. It needs to be an adequately functioning part of a whole, which consists of other words, i.e., a lexicon. Perhaps the real question is not: What are possible words? But: What are possible lexica?

The answer to that question depends, among other things, on what the words in such a possible lexicon should do. What functions should they fulfil? What do the speakers of the language need them for?

At this point we reach a further dimension, even further removed from form, viz., use. What is possible will be determined in the end by what functions these words, meanings, concepts, sentences and linguistic usage have in our practices – daily practices or others, like scientific, philosophic, aesthetic or religious practices. These practices define to a high degree who we are; what it means to be human. To question possible words, thus turns out to be related to the question what possible practices are. And the latter question is essentially the question of what we, as individuals and as a community, could be. The question of possible words, lexica, languages, is therefore not only a linguistic question, but also an anthropological one: the question of our possible identities.

It is both intriguing and alarming, when one is confronted with the idea of a complete list of all possible meanings, a list that effectively says, ‘Look, this is everything you could possibly think.’ That is an alarming experience. For it also suggests the possibility of a complete overview of all we could do, of everything that we could be, i.e., a ‘complete’ index of the imaginary. This would mean the end of our imagination.

2004 Published in HTV de IJsberg 50 for The Complete Dictionary (2003)