Skip to main content

Meaning Change

Tuesday, March 16, 2021, 3:30 pm – 5:10 pm

The meaning of words sometimes changes over time. 'Meat' used to mean 'solid food', but now means 'animal flesh eaten as food'. This type of meaning change comes with change of topic. We used the word to talk about one thing and now use it to talk about something different. However, there are types of meaning change where some part of the meaning changes while the topic is retained. 'Queer' was appropriated and while its descriptive, topic-related meaning is the same and it is still used to talk about the same group of people, it has lost its expressive, derogatory meaning. Many philosophers working on conceptual engineering have claimed that there is also a third type of meaning change, one where descriptive, topic-related meaning changes while topic is retained. For example, they claim that the meaning of 'marriage' would change after gay marriages become accepted, but the topic is retained. In this talk I will argue that on a common and plausible externalist-minimalist perspective on meaning and semantic competence there can be no such meaning change and criticize views that postulate it. I argue that in all the example cases like 'marriage' it's always something else than meaning that changes. The goal is a better demarcation of the properly linguistic and meaning-related from the more widely cognitive (concepts, conceptions etc.)