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Following on from some recent discussions on language, I'd appreciate some feedback on what people think of by the term "understanding", how much this varies and whether people generally think of it in a different way to me.

So, without looking at a dictionary, what do you think it means to say "Person A's understanding of the term B is C"?


( 22 comments — Leave a comment )
20th Mar, 2008 11:48 (UTC)
If person A hears somebody say the term B, they think the speaker means C.
20th Mar, 2008 12:14 (UTC)
Is C necessarily a correct dictionary definition for B?

If not, is it broadly similar to a dictionary definition or can it be completely different?
20th Mar, 2008 12:17 (UTC)
Qu 1: no, but it can include that.
Qu 2: A person's understanding of something is several orders of magnitude bigger and more complicated than what it says in a dictionary.
20th Mar, 2008 18:05 (UTC)
I don't think it implies a correct understanding - or rather, it may do, but it shouldn't.
20th Mar, 2008 12:20 (UTC)
Or to put it another way:

Purposes that a dictionary is for:
-Looking up the meaning of a word you have never heard before
-Showing how something is spelled
-Finding out the words to say something in another language

Purposes a dictionary is not for:
-Forming a definitive and infallible basis for the way you look at and think about the world
Because of this, purpose (3) often produces a wrong answer when somebody looks up a word and assumes it works just like English because otherwise the Dictionary God would have told them so.
20th Mar, 2008 12:59 (UTC)
OK, perhaps dictionary definition was the wrong term to use here for what I'm curious about.

What about if we consider the questions above, but with a generally socially accepted meaning rather than a dictionary definition?
20th Mar, 2008 14:08 (UTC)
That's the same problem - which bit of society accepts the meaning?
20th Mar, 2008 18:01 (UTC)
Fair point.

In that case, does it have to be broadly along the lines of someone (not necessarily everyone) elses idea of what B means or can it be completely different?
20th Mar, 2008 18:55 (UTC)
It can be completely different. The probability distribution of how wrong it is depends on the tone of voice in which it's said. If it's hesitant and like a string of questions the speaker probably thinks they're wrong and is asking somebody else to correct them so they can understand it better. If it's confident then the speaker thinks everybody else probably agrees with them, implying that they're right.
20th Mar, 2008 12:31 (UTC)
Err, the disagreement was because it was (at best) a misunderstanding and you only said different understanding.

As it happens I am a Chomsky-an linguistically, and I don't think dictionaries define the meaning of words (there is no such thing) they are a reference to the common usage of words.
20th Mar, 2008 13:11 (UTC)
Our discussion has got me thinking about the meaning of "understanding" and so I wanted to have a look at this outside the context we were discussing.

I would be interested to hear what you understand by the sentance given in the post, if you wish to comment, but would prefer to leave the context we were discussing before for the time being and look at people's idea of understanding in the broader sense.

I take your point regarding dictionaries and would certainly agree with you.
20th Mar, 2008 12:48 (UTC)
I would say that it means when person A is using term B they mean C and they, by default, assume everyone else does as well. It won't neccessarily be the dictionary definition (always assuming it's the sort of term that has a practical dictionary definition) but it may coincide.

But I don't know exactly what the discussion is so goodness knows if I'm being helpful or not!
20th Mar, 2008 13:13 (UTC)
It won't neccessarily be the dictionary definition

How similar/disimilar from a dictionary definition (or other social acceptable meaning) of B could C be?
20th Mar, 2008 14:27 (UTC)
Short answer, very.

Longer answer is that it depends on the word obviosuly because some words have a fairly definite meaning and any shades are likely to be simialr but others can be very variable and as language is a social tool it changes and so meanings change and you can end up with people using the same word to use very different things (for a very stupid example just think about the US v. UK usage of the word fanny or bum or fag... (why all my examples are quite so vulgar I'm not sure))

Of course that's why it's really important to define your terms in a discussion and there can come a point where discussion is made impossible/pointless if you can't find a mutually satisfactory way of using words.

Edited at 2008-03-20 14:28 (UTC)
20th Mar, 2008 13:17 (UTC)
Ditto to the above; or, in my own words: When person A hears B, person A is going to interpret that as C. Example: my understanding of the term "baseball bat" is, approximately, "a piece of roughly cylindrical wood about 40 inches long with a grip at one end".
20th Mar, 2008 18:04 (UTC)
How far from the socially accepted norm could your understanding of the term "baseball bat" vary?
20th Mar, 2008 22:47 (UTC)
Well, now, it couldn't vary too far – if I'd never heard of baseball, I well could end up visualizing some weird sort of flying mammal (for example). For less mundane examples, however, it can get much more dicey, especially when philosophy is involved. To mention just one, just about everyone who self-identifies as an atheist holds that the term "atheist" means "someone who lacks a positive belief in the existence of gods" - an understanding which differs quite radically from the socially accepted norm recorded in most dictionaries.

When it comes to arguments about terminology, I would immediately accede to the common usage in the former sort of example while arguing for days against it in the latter.
20th Mar, 2008 13:25 (UTC)
To me, it means that person A thinks term B means C. It makes no statement about what term B might mean to other people. I think it implies that person A feels moderately certain about it, but that other people might disagree.

Though, come to think of it, I'd only use it myself if I wasn't entirely sure about something. If someone asked me to define a term, and I realised that I wasn't entirely sure that my definition was right, or if I realised that it was a contraversial issue and I needed to be tactful, I might say, "well, my understanding of the term is..." It's waving a flag saying, "This is my opinion and might not be right."

Then there's usages like "I understand that you were two hours late to work yesterday," where it effectively means, "I know you were two hours late, but I didn't see it with my own eyes." It also has a slightly tactful "cushioning of bad news" effect.
20th Mar, 2008 17:03 (UTC)
"Person A understands that the term B means C, where C = such-and-such."
20th Mar, 2008 18:05 (UTC)
What can C be?

Does it have to be the exact dictionary/socially accepted definition of B? Can it vary from this? If so, how much?
20th Mar, 2008 18:09 (UTC)
I think there is some implication that there is (as long as the original "understanding" statement isn't qualified) - but thinking about it, after reading your post, makes me think that there shouldn't be.
21st Mar, 2008 12:24 (UTC)
I think there are two ways to interpret it.

The strong version would be that the word "understands" means that A's got it right, so the sentence breaks down into "A understands B; B means C".

The weaker version would be that "understands" refers only to A's opinion of the meaning, which could well be incorrect. The sentence breaks down to "A believes that B means C".

I prefer the weaker version. Not only because I generally tend to prefer weaker propositions (strong ones invariably overstate their case), but specifically because the strong version doesn't allow A to be wrong about B, it only covers the situation where he's right - in which case why use a circumlocution involving "understanding" when you could more clearly say "A knows B means C"?
( 22 comments — Leave a comment )

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