Primitive Language, Language Games. Toolbox Analogies.

Tartaria_tablets[1]From Philosophical Investigations:

1. “When they (my elders) named some object, and accordingly moved towards something, I saw this and I grasped that the thing was called by the sound they uttered when they meant to point it out. Their intention was shown by their bodily movements, as it were the natural language of all peoples: the expression of the face, the play of the eyes, the movement of other parts of the body, and the tone of the voice which expresses our state of mind in seeking, having, rejecting, or avoiding something. Thus, as I heard words repeatedly used in their proper places in various sentences. I gradually learnt to understand what objects they signified; and after I trained my mouth to form these signs, I used them to express my own desires” (Augustine, Confessions, I. 8).
These words, it seems to me, give us a particular picture of the essence of human language. It is this: the individual words in language name objects–sentences are combinations of such names. In this picture of language we find the roots of the following idea: Every word has a meaning. This meaning is correlated with the word. It is the object for which the word stands.
Augustine does not speak of there being any difference between kinds of word. If you describe the learning of language in this way you are, I believe, thinking primarily of nouns like “table,” “chair,” “bread,” and of people’s names, and only secondarily of the names of certain actions and properties; and of the remaining kinds of word as something that will take care of itself.
Now think of the following use of language: I send someone shopping. I give him a slip marked “five red apples.” He takes the slip to the shopkeeper, who opens the drawer marked “apples”; then he looks up the word “red” in a table and finds a color sample opposite it; then he says the series of cardinal numbers–I assume that he knows them by heart–up to the word “five” and for each number he takes an apple of the same color as the sample out of the drawer. It is in this and similar was that one operates with words. “But how does he know where and how he is to look up the word ‘red’ and what he is to do with the world ‘five’?” Well, I assume that he acts as I have described. Explanations come to an end somewhere.–But what is the meaning of the word “five”?–No such thing was in question here, only how the word “five” is used.

2. That philosophical concept of meaning has its place in a primitive idea of the way language functions. But one can also say that it is the idea of a language more primitive than ours.
Let us imagine a language for which the description given by Augustine is right. The language is meant to serve for communication between a builder A and an assistant B. A is building with building-stonges: there are blocks, pillars, slabs, and beams. B has to pass the stones, and that in the order in which A needs them. For this purpose they use a language consisting of the words “block,” “pillar,” “slab,” “beam.” A calls them out;–B brings the stone which he has learnt to to bring at such-and-such a call.–Conceive this as a complete primitive language.

3. Augustine, we might say, does describe a system of communication; only not everything that we call language is this system. And one has to say this in many cases where the question arises “Is this an appropriate description or not?” The answer is: “Yes, it is appropriate, but only for this narrowly circumscribed region, not for the whole of what you of what you were claiming to describe.”
It is as if someone were to say: “A game consists in moving objects about on a surface according to certain rules…”– and we replied: You seem to be thinking of board games, but there are others. You can make your definition correct by expressly restricting it to those games.

4. Imagine a script in which the letters were used to stand for sounds, and also as signs of emphasis and punctuation. (A script can be conceived as a language for describing sound-patterns.) Now imagine someone interpreting that script as if there were simply a correspondence of letters to sounds and as if the letters had not also completely different functions. Augustine’s conception of language is like such an over-simple conception of the script.

5. If we look at the example in (1), we may perhaps get an inkling ho much this general notion of the meaning of a word surrounds the working of language with a haze which makes clear vision impossible. It disperses the fog to study the phenomena of language in primitive kinds of application in which one can command a clear view of the aim and functioning of words.
A child uses such primitive forms of langauge when it learns to talk. Here the teaching of language is not explanation, but training.

6. We could imagine that the language of (2) was the whole language of a tribe. The children are brought up to perform these actions, to use these words as they do so, and to react in this way to the words of others.
An important part of the training will consist in the teacher’s pointing to the objects, directing the child’s attention to them, and at the same time uttering a word; for instance, the word “slab” as he points to that shape. (I do not want to call this “ostensive definition,” because the child cannot as yet ask what the name is. I will call it “ostensive teaching of words.” I say that it will form an important part of the training, because it is so with human beings; not because it could not be imagined otherwise.) This ostensive teaching of words can be said to establish an association between the word and the thing. But what does this mean? Well, it may mean various things; but one very likely think first of all that a picture of the object comes before the child’s mind when it hears the word. But now, if this does happen–is it the purpose of the word?– Yes, it may be the purpose.–I can imagine such a use of words (of series of sounds). (Uttering a word is like striking a note on a keyboard of the imagination.) But in the language of (2) it is not the purpose of the words to evoke images. (It may, of course, be discovered that that helps to attain the actual purpose.)
But if the ostensive teaching has this effect,–am I to say that it effects an understanding of the word? Don’t you understand the call “Slab!” if you act upon it in such-and-such a way?–Doubtless the ostensive teaching helped to bring this about; but only together with a particular training. With different training the same ostensive teaching of these words would have effected a quite different understanding.
“I set the brake up by connecting up rod and lever.”–Yes, given the whole of the rest of the mechanism. Only in conjunction with that is it a brake-lever, and separated from its support it is not even a lever; it may be anything, or nothing.

7. In the practive of the use of language (2) one party calls out the words, the other acts on them. In instruction in the language the following process will occur: the learner names the objects; that is, he utters the word when the teacher points to the stone.–And there will be this still simpler exercise: the pupil repeats the words after the teacher–both of these being processes resembling langauge.
We can also think of the whole proces of using words in (2) as one of those games by means of which children learn their native langauge. I will call these games “language-games” and will sometimes speak of a primitive language as a language-game.
And the process of nameing the stones and of repeating words after someone might also be called language-games. Think of much of the use of words in games like ring-a-ring-a-roses.
I shall also call the whole, consisting of language and the action into which it is woven, the “language-game.”

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10. Now what do the words of this language signify?–What is supposed to shew what they signify, if not the kind of use they have? And we have already discribed that. So we are asking for the expression “This word signifies this” to be made a part of the description. In other words, the description out to take the form: “The word…signifies…”
Of course, one can reduce the description of the use of the word “slab” to the statement that this word signifies this object. This will be done when, for example, it is merely a matter of removing the mistaken idea that the word “slab” refers to the shape of building-stone that we in fact call a “block”–but the kind of ‘referring‘ this is, that is to say the use of these words for the rest, is already known.
Equally one can say that the signs “a,” “b,” etc. signify numbers; when for example this removes the mistaken idea that “a,” “b,” “c,” play the part actually played in language by “block, “slab,” “pillar.” And one can also say that “c” means this number and not that one; when for example this serves to explain that the letters are to be used in the order a, b, c, d, etc. and not in the order a, b, d, c.
But assimilating the descriptions of the uses of words in this way cannot make the uses themselves any more like one another. For, as we see, they are absolutely unlike.

11. Think of tools in a toolbox: there is a hammer, pliers, a saw a screwdriver, a rule, a glue-pot, glue, nails, and screws.–The functions of words are as diverse as the functions of these objects. (And in both cases there are similarities.)
Of course, what confuses us is the uniform appearance of words when we hear them spoken or meet them in script and print. For their application is not presented to us so clearly. Especially when we are doing philosophy!

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13. When we say: “Every word in language signifies something” we have so far said nothing whatever; unless we have explained exactly what distinction we wish to make. (It might be, of course, that we wanted to distinguish the words of language [8] from words ‘without meaning’ such as occur in Lews Carroll’s poems, or words like “Lilliburlero” in songs.)

14. Imagine someone’s saying: “All tools serve to modify something. Thus the hammer modifies the position of the nail, the saw the shape of the board, and so on.”–And what is modified by the rule, the glue-pot, the nails?–“Our knowledge of a thing’s length, the temperature of the glue, and the solidity of the box.” Would anything be gained by this assimilation of expressions?–

15. The word “to signify” is perhaps used in the most straightforward way when the object signified is marked with the sign. Suppose that the tools A uses in building bear certain marks. When A shews his assistant such a mark, he brings the tool that has that mark on it.
It is in this and more or less similar ways that a name means and is given to a thing.–It will often prove useful in philosophy to say to ourselves: naming something is like attaching a label to a thing.

Other Wittgenstein texts from this website: