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Language, conventionality of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-U008-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 17, 2024, from

Article Summary

When we say that smoke means fire or that those spots mean measles, we are noting how the presence of one thing indicates the presence of another. For these natural relationships to continue, it is enough that the laws of nature remain the same. The connection between the two states is strictly causal. By contrast when we say, ‘In English, “gold” means this stuff’, pointing at some metal, we are insisting on an arbitrary connection between a piece of language and part of the world. We might have used another word, as other languages do, or have used this word for something else. But, for a word to have the literal meaning it does in a language, this arbitrary connection must be sustained on subsequent occasions of use. What is needed to sustain the connection is an intention on our part, not just the continued operation of natural laws.

Of course, some connections between words and things are based on natural relations; there is, for example, onomatopoeia. However, few words have this feature. For the majority of words it is quite arbitrary that they have the meanings they do, and this has led many to suppose that the regularities needed to sustain the connections between words and what they stand for are conventional rather than causal. But there are also those who deny that convention is an essential feature of language.

Citing this article:
Smith, Barry C.. Language, conventionality of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-U008-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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