Against Monosemy, pt 6: Using Ruhl (1989) in language description

Thank you for your patience after this did not appear in whole before ETS/SBL and Thanksgiving passed by. I decided to do a bit of editing and expand some discussion. This is the longest section, but I think it is also the most manageable to read, since we’re focusing on the more “practical” take aways. And the bibliography at the end adds a good bit of length as well.

There are perhaps three general attitudes among those who have successfully work their way through the pages above. One of those probably falls along the lines of: does any of this even matter? This probably the smallest group of people who actually read the entire discussion and the largest group of people who “’skipped to the end.”

Group #1: Focused primarily on exegesis. Linguistics might be interesting, but secondary

These people are students or maybe scholars who have a general interest in linguistics, but likely are not going to invest them time to study linguistics generally. They are simply looking for insights for their study. When this group encounter linguistics and linguistic theory are centrally focused on practically: Is this something I can use to study the biblical text? My own inclination for the answer to that question is a firm, “No.” I simply do not see how it is possible. On the one hand, there is regular discussion of method and empirical data throughout Ruhl (1989) and to his credit, his emphasis on surveying all usage of a given lexical item is a very good one. But this approach, this method, is incidental to his actual goal. The method is not the theory. The theory of monosemy, the monosemic bias, is not words have a single meaning. The theory of monosemy is there are highly abstract meanings that exist autonomously in the human brain that are then associated with words in some still inarticulate manner.

Even if you think that claim sounds like a good one, how do you apply that to the study of an ancient text? You simply cannot Charles Ruhl’s goal, one he never achieved, was to discover what the autonomous abstract meanings that exist in the human brain are, a task that, even if plausible, never quite got started beyond this initial monograph. Now, maybe the conclusions to this research paradigm that never took place could have been applied to the biblical text, but that’s still rather speculative.

What is left, then? Maybe there are some other parts of Ruhl’s ideas that could be applied more practically. Yes, this is more possible. But simply saying, “I believe that words have a single meaning,” and then doing a corpus study of ancient texts is not Charles Ruhl’s theory of monosemy and we should not call it such, either, out of respect for Ruhl. If I came up with a grand theory of meaning and then someone else came along rejected the central point, applied a small bit of my method, and claimed they were assuming my theory, I am not sure that I would appreciate it.

Still, is there a method here that can reasonably be used? Yes, but with a caveat. Within Ruhl’s theory and framework, two major points stand out, though there are probably a handful of smaller notes, as well.

  • First, the concept of the monosemic bias: a word has a single meaning, though if it does not its meanings are relatable by general rules (Ruhl (1989, 4).
  • Second, determination of a words meaning requires a comprehensive survey of all its usage.*

*Ruhl, to his credit, is unique among generativists in arguing, as noted above, for a comprehensive theory of performance (143) and engaging with all performance data toward the goal of formulating his autonomous and innate meanings. On the other hand, his purpose for comprehensively examining performance data is simply to classify much of it as pragmatics and move on.

If you were to work operate on the assumption of these two, but reject the generative framework that is built up around them, but if you are simply leaving it with that, the result is not much more than a slightly more nuanced word study. And for the Is this something I can use group, that might be perfectly fine. But this book, Charles Ruhl (1989), On monosemy: A study in linguistic semantics, is going to be too difficult for you to wade through. The current is strong and there is a bit of an undertow. There are far better places for learning about how the meanings of words are, as Ruhl says, “relatable by general rules” (4), perhaps in the future it would be quite worthwhile for us to have a discussion about those.

Group #2: The “I don’t buy it ” Group

Another possible attitude or response amongst readers who made it this far would be from readers who already have a vested interested in other theoretical approaches to semantics. If anything, such readers likely feel vindicated about their theoretical choices. For them, Charles Ruhl’s goals likely seem so vastly different and wrongheaded as to make them wonder why 6,000 words have already been spent on the question. Fair enough.

Group #3: Those who some investment in Ruhl’s ideas or, at least, the concepts/methods

Finally, there are who already consider themselves invested in Charles Ruhl’s ideas to some extent. This is the more difficult group in some ways. Most everyone who studies New Testament Greek considers themselves within the domain of capital “F” Functionalism, in terms of linguistic theory. But, as I have tried to emphasize, Ruhl’s (1989) goals are in fundamental opposition to functionalist ideas.

  • Ruhl is not interested in language as communicative or social; he’s interested in discovering what about language is genetically unique to humanity.
  • Ruhl is not interested in determining the meaning of words; he’s interested in determining what abstract meanings humans are born with.

If your interest in language is driven by a desire to understand its structure, functions, and motivations, both socially and communicatively, then you must come to terms with the reality that Charles Ruhl has no theoretical interest in contributing to that endeavor. Theories such a Ruhl’s, that is, generative grammar generally, are predicated on an assumption known as the poverty of the stimulus (Chomsky 1980). This is the idea that infants receive nowhere near enough comprehensible input for language acquisition to be possible without some kind of innate language acquisition device. Ruhl’s believes this “language organ” in the brain has a semantic component and the entirety of his theory of monosemy is built with that aim in mind. This ought to be sounding alarms for linguists in the Hallidayan tradition. One of Halliday’s (1980) major research efforts through the 1970’s and 1980’s was to demonstrate that this so-call poverty of the stimulus didn’t exist and that, instead, there is an absolutely overwhelming quantity of input for a child’s language learning.* This is the social-semiotic and Halliday emphasized it as such wholly for the purpose of pushing against the very ideas that Ruhl and Chomsky propose.

*Halliday (2004, 40) is emphatic on this: a child is not learning language; a child is learning “how to mean”—language as social behavior.

Moreover, for Charles Ruhl, there is no Theory of Monosemy separate from generative grammar. Now, perhaps there is a sense in which parts of Ruhl’s method can be adapted without the generative baggage. This seems to be the approach of Ryder (2017, 2018), for example.* And to his credit, he has worked very hard to find the best methodological advantages of Ruhl’s work. But doing so also means that one must necessarily throw away the entire theory of meaning: the entirety of Ruhl’s view of how meaning work is more or less out the window. So now you have no semantic theory, but only set of assertions about meaning (words only have one; this is the whole of semantics and all usage variation is the domain of pragmatics) that is not argued, much less proved. If the generative basis for Ruhl’s positions for what is semantics and what is pragmatics is discarded by New Testament functionalists, then they owe us a full-scale explanation of why their delineation of semantics and pragmatics is justified.

*In fairness, this is also the goal of Fewster (2013, 2016), though arguably less successfully. Ryder (2017) lays out some substantive critiques of Fewster’s discussion of semantic theory.

The functionalist linguist who adopts the assertions of monosemy without the theoretical apparatus that undergirds them is at a great disadvantage compared to Ruhl in this regard. Ruhl has the benefit that generative linguistics necessarily creates a (theoretically) natural separation between semantics and pragmatics, as a product of the competence/performance distinction. For generativism, there is no place in the language faculty for pragmatics because it has no role in linguistic competence. Yet the central tenet of all functionalist approaches to language is predicated on the idea that language in use and language as social semiotic cannot be separated from language in the mind.

The functionalist who desires to continue to make Ruhl’s distinction between the inherent meaning of a lexeme as monosemic and its variegated usage in context must find a new way, apart from Ruhl, to draw the division between semantics and pragmatics. Without such a theoretical alternative for the division, any distinction between semantics and pragmatics is rendered arbitrary and thus unmotivated and thus inelegant. And recall that it was precisely inelegance that was Ruhl’s problem with polysemic generative accounts of meaning to begin with. In fact, the historical reality is that the existence of pragmatics, as a separate discipline at all, is effectively an accidental by-product of generativism itself. I alluded to this very point in the first post of this series. Taylor (2003, 133) explains quite nicely:

Given the basic assumptions of the generative paradigm, the emergence of pragmatics as an independent object of study was perhaps inevitable. If language constitutes an autonomous cognitive system [as in generative linguistics], then, given the self-evident fact that language is an instrument for conceptualizing and interacting with the world, the need arises for an interface that links these otherwise independent systems. Pragmatics functions as precisely such an interface.

But in rejecting the concept of an autonomous language faculty, there is no need for pragmatics to be distinguished from semantics. All meaning is in some way “pragmatic” because functionalists view meaning and usage as equivalent—language as a social semiotic. Monosemy, as conceived by Ruhl, is in basic opposition to usage-based grammar and functionalism generally. These linguistic approaches, which include Systemic Functional Linguistics, operate on the basis of the position that language does not constitute an autonomous cognitive system. Indeed, Van Valin and LaPolla (1997, 12) describes Halliday’s functionalism represents the most “radical discourse-pragmatic view” of the nature of language in the field.*

*Hopper’s Emergent Grammar is, arguably, even more radical, albeit less developed as a theory of language. Of course, there is a sense in which Hopper would likely say that is a feature rather than a bug in his model.

In all of functional linguistics, SFL is the most focused upon language-as-use as opposed to language as autonomous cognitive system. Those who desire to work within this tradition and also want to use or adopt monosemy in some form will need to reestablish an empirical foundation for its validity. Such a foundation is not found in Ruhl (1989). This means going beyond merely applying an existing linguistic framework to Ancient Greek and requires working from scratch to develop a comprehensive theory of meaning that upholds the principles of Systemic Functional Grammar in its account monosemy. I am not at all confident here the radical discourse pragmatic view of language can be adequately reconciled with the radical autonomy of Ruhl’s monosemy. Bu if the SFL linguist truly desires to do so, the task set before them to make it work is quite monumental in scope. Here are some of the tasks required for such an endeavor.

  • Abstract categories as autonomous, either:
    • Provide a functional explanation for why this is correct
    • Reject Ruhl’s position and reformulate monosemy on the basis of language use
  • Competence/Performance
    •  Engage with the cognitive/functionalist literature on performance
  • Semantics/Pragmatics
    • Motivate the division between semantics & pragmatics ought to be located in the place Ruhl locates it without recourse to an autonomous language faculty.
    • Provide a structured account of “pragmatics” that does not settle for simply discovering a given word’s abstract monoseme, provided a structure, motivated account of its existed.

The problem is that all of this is, by itself, a quite monumental task. Thankfully, it is also rather redundant in the context of the larger field of functional linguistics. And for those primarily working within an SFL model, there is already a bridge to other cognitive-functional frameworks in the work of Vandenbergen, Taverniers, & Ravelli (2003).*

* This collection of essays, of course, varies in content and focus, covering a wide gamut of topics, but a number of the articles included work to present a coherent integration of cognitive linguistic approaches to semantics with Systemic Functional Linguistics.

And this would be my own suggestion: build together with the family of semantic models that have been developed within cognitive linguistics. As I noted at the beginning cognitive linguistics was already working this same problem. And the solutions it offers fit sufficiently well within the basic method that Ruhl himself lays out.

These principles could easily be adapted to established cognitive semantic models without much difficulty—Fillmore’s Frame Semantics is one option—one that could provide a strong alternative, given that Ruhl himself relies on some of Fillmore’s (1970, 1975, 1976) earliest work on frame semantics and construction grammar. One of its sister models would also be effective. Langacker’s (1987, 1991, 2009) Cognitive Grammar, which, as noted previously, celebrates the seeking out of single meanings, while also contextualized them within a structured network of usage. Others are Evans’ (2009) Lexical Concept & Cognitive Models (LCCM) approach and also the prototype semantic models of John Taylor (2003) and Dirk Geeraerts (1997, 2006, 2010). Any of these could be feasible. And in fact, none are in competition with the others: using does not preclude the others; instead they are all working with the same assumptions about human language and human cognitive capacities. And then, not only do you have a method, but also a robust, empirical, and well-developed theory of how meaning works.

The big challenge for adopting or integrating any of these approaches will simply be that the terminology of polysemy is pervasive throughout each of them. This could make my suggestion a nonstarter for many.  To them, I would emphasize that this is not the polysemy of dictionaries and lexicography. Cognitive models of meaning assume from the outset that the whole of usage must be accounted for and motivated and in turn schematized usage in a more abstract manner that shares some correspondances with cognitive approaches. The attentive reader might even recall Ruhl’s praise of Lakoff (1987) and his discussion of the preposition of over (xiii-xiv, my emphasis):

Lakoff’s proposal is somewhat like the theory of localism (Anderson (1971), which derives abstract meanings from prior concrete, localized senses. Both proposals are apparently quite widely supported by details. Yet their plausibility can be explained by a hypothesis that claims precisely the reverse: if in and out (and even contain and container) are highly abstract categories, they could thereby provide the cognitive means for making, and making believable (at various times), the traditional view, localism, and Lakoff’s container schema.

If the primary point that prevent Ruhl (1989) from accepting Lakoff’s  (1987) analysis is not the details or the structure, but the question of the autonomy of abstract semantic categories, then effectively, when we reject that generativist element, the models of meaning in cognitive linguistics have received full praise from Ruhl himself.

Ruhl (1989) presents a situation that implies monosemy and polysemy exist in opposition to each other and in wholly separate domains (semantics vs. pragmatics), but that simply is not true. They can and should be integrated together into a coherent theory of meaning without arbitrarily created divisions between semantics and pragmatics or unmotivated autonomous systems. Indeed, if our goal is to understand language as the social, communicative act that it is, then this is the only valid option.

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