Words for the Nonexistent

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Words for the Nonexistent

#1  Postby petwo » May 07, 2010 2:15 am

I'm not sure where this thread belongs, could be pseudo, could be religion or maybe right here.

Humans seem to have a lot of words for things that don't exist. Doesn't really seem like a word to me if it represents something that isn't but that's probably just the way I am. What I'm really driving at is this; words for nonexistent things become a part of the language, they're given a meaning in the dictionary and are the root origin for a variety of derivatives used in everyday parlance. Now I don't know how many words in any one language relates to or owes their existence to something that doesn't exist.

Words for nonexistent things are commonplace and it is this familiarity that leads me to a bit of a hypothesis: Being constantly subjected to words for the nonexistent makes it easier to accept what's truly unreal as a belief. Hey I'm no psychologist so please don't think any of what I'm saying is testable. I neither have the means or the wherewithal to pull that off, I'm just a thinker and maybe what I'm really doing is fooling myself by actually contemplating something nonexistent, only I don't have a word for it nor do I realize it. :) See what I mean?
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Re: Words for the Nonexistent

#2  Postby seeker » Nov 20, 2010 5:32 pm

This post remained unanswered, but I think it proposes an interesting topic: how are those “words for the nonexistent” learned? Are there empirical studies about this issue?
I guess that the first words learned by children are operants related to concrete responses and stimuli (i.e., Skinner´s “mands” and “tacts”: correct responses of the child to requests are reinforced, correct verbal requests of the child are reinforced, correct naming responses by the child are reinforced, correct orienting responses after hearing a name are reinforced). Then the relational operants allow to combine words and relational frames, creating relational nets (e.g.: “cat is a kind of animal”, “cat is different from dog”, “cat is gato in spanish”, etc.), and also allow to recombine words and relational frames in novel ways, generating those “words for the nonexistent” as one of the effects of this relational recombination: we can recombine “horse” and “with wings” to get the concept of “Pegasus”, and we can recombine “creator” and “of the Universe” to get the concept of “God”. I guess this capacity might be beneficial or harmful, depending on the context.
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Re: Words for the Nonexistent

#3  Postby petwo » Nov 21, 2010 4:07 am

Does magic exist? Not the type where one creates an illusion, but genuine intentional magic where the laws of nature, physics being one of them, are defied. So far there isn't a soul alive that can vouch for or prove the latter actually happens. So why is there such a word? This magic isn't real, it just doesn't happen, it's the stuff of fairy tales.

We have words for things that aren't and for events that can't happen. I'm just wondering why we do this.
Last edited by petwo on Nov 21, 2010 6:02 am, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: Words for the Nonexistent

#4  Postby Agrippina » Nov 21, 2010 4:21 am

bookmarking.
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Re: Words for the Nonexistent

#5  Postby Zwaarddijk » Nov 21, 2010 2:45 pm

In a linguistics-humour publication, more than a decade ago, a language was proposed wherein only true statements would be grammatical. Somehow, the original post brought that to my mind, not entirely sure how to explain why, but ... I guess you can try and figure out how it relates.

A follow-up question: does the fact that we can talk about people that are dead make it more likely for people to believe in and ascribe credence to the idea of life after death?
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Re: Words for the Nonexistent

#6  Postby katja z » Nov 21, 2010 3:05 pm

Some idle musings on a rainy Sunday afternoon. It's a basic feature of symbolic communication that signs (words) are used independently of the presence of their referents, indeed in a way stand for their referents. Once you can speak of absent things, it isn't such a stretch to be able to speak of nonexistent things ... especially if you're sure they actually do exist (such as the god of thunder, or soul, or ...). I think the missing link here is the ability to form abstract concepts, whose referents don't exist physically - hunger, satisfaction, fear ... there's a recursive loop between this ability and the theory of mind. This opens up a whole lot of possibilities, including attributing mind (intentionality etc.) to nonhuman entities ...

Zwaarddijk wrote:In a linguistics-humour publication, more than a decade ago, a language was proposed wherein only true statements would be grammatical. Somehow, the original post brought that to my mind, not entirely sure how to explain why, but ... I guess you can try and figure out how it relates.

:lol:

A follow-up question: does the fact that we can talk about people that are dead make it more likely for people to believe in and ascribe credence to the idea of life after death?

I think it's a reasonable suggestion, but there's something else that may be even more powerful - the force of habit. You know how you keep behaving as if the person was still alive? Even hearing their voice. You catch yourself saying "X likes that" or "I'll have to talk this over with X". This gives an illusion of their presence that's easy to interpret this way.
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Re: Words for the Nonexistent

#7  Postby seeker » Nov 21, 2010 5:43 pm

petwo wrote:So why is there such a word? This magic isn't real, it just doesn't happen, it's the stuff of fairy tales. We have words for things that aren't and for events that can't happen. I'm just wondering why we do this.

I guess it´s a collateral effect of some skills that are more obviously beneficial. For example, the capacity of thinking about what is not actually perceived allows an adaptation to situations that are not occuring yet or are not occuring here, and the capacity of recombining fragments of previously learned things in novel ways allows creativity in science, art, and morals. A collateral effect of such beneficial skills is that sometimes it can lead to some useless or even harmful practices.

katja z wrote:I think the missing link here is the ability to form abstract concepts, whose referents don't exist physically - hunger, satisfaction, fear ...

I guess there´re studies that have registered the utterances of different children at different moments, and that can be used to assess the growth of their semantic skills. Do you know studies that can be used to assess when do abstract concepts (e.g. hunger, satisfaction, fear) and "words for the non-existent" appear in childhood?
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Re: Words for the Nonexistent

#8  Postby Agrippina » Nov 21, 2010 5:56 pm

I've got my child behaviour specialist in the other room. He's coming back with an answer.
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Re: Words for the Nonexistent

#9  Postby katja z » Nov 21, 2010 6:04 pm

seeker wrote:
katja z wrote:I think the missing link here is the ability to form abstract concepts, whose referents don't exist physically - hunger, satisfaction, fear ...

I guess there´re studies that have registered the utterances of different children at different moments, and that can be used to assess the growth of their semantic skills. Do you know studies that can be used to assess when do abstract concepts (e.g. hunger, satisfaction, fear) and "words for the non-existent" appear in childhood?

Sorry for being unclear, I was referring to the emergence of human language, not the acquisition of language skills by children. (I know this is often used as evidence for how early language might have looked like, but I'm beginning to have very grave doubts about this analogy.)

As for your question, I don't know any studies, but I imagine "words for the non-existent" should be among the very early acquisitions. All those fairy tales and nursery rhymes must have some effect :grin:

(But as I said, the judgement of what exists or not is a problematic one in itself - the language user and the observer will often disagree. Is "god" a word for something non-existent? not for the theist. Is "Santa Claus"? not for a 3-year-old. Etc.)
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Re: Words for the Nonexistent

#10  Postby seeker » Nov 21, 2010 6:47 pm

katja z wrote:As for your question, I don't know any studies, but I imagine "words for the non-existent" should be among the very early acquisitions. All those fairy tales and nursery rhymes must have some effect :grin:.)

I´ve readen some references about CHILDES and TalkBank, it seems that they may have this data. Do you know them?
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CHILDES
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TalkBank

katja z wrote:(But as I said, the judgement of what exists or not is a problematic one in itself - the language user and the observer will often disagree. Is "god" a word for something non-existent? not for the theist. Is "Santa Claus"? not for a 3-year-old. Etc.)

I wouldn´t try to reach a consensus with a theist or a 3-year-old on those issues.
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Re: Words for the Nonexistent

#11  Postby katja z » Nov 21, 2010 6:51 pm

seeker wrote:
katja z wrote:As for your question, I don't know any studies, but I imagine "words for the non-existent" should be among the very early acquisitions. All those fairy tales and nursery rhymes must have some effect :grin:.)

I´ve readen some references about CHILDES and TalkBank, it seems that they may have this data. Do you know them?
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CHILDES
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TalkBank

Thanks for the links! I don't know these, I've never studied language acquisition, but it's a very interesting subject.

katja z wrote:(But as I said, the judgement of what exists or not is a problematic one in itself - the language user and the observer will often disagree. Is "god" a word for something non-existent? not for the theist. Is "Santa Claus"? not for a 3-year-old. Etc.)

I wouldn´t try to reach a consensus with a theist or a 3-year-old on those issues.

:lol:
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Re: Words for the Nonexistent

#12  Postby Agrippina » Nov 21, 2010 6:55 pm

My son thinks that about about age 3 they can understand between real concepts and not real ones. They learn to lie at about age 3 to 4.

Kids experience the world the way their parents explain it.
They can't distinguish between a person and a "soul" or a state of mind. So when you tell a child that God is real, they'll believe it until they can understand abstract concepts at around 13 or 14.
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Re: Words for the Nonexistent

#13  Postby seeker » Nov 21, 2010 7:35 pm

katja z wrote:I've never studied language acquisition, but it's a very interesting subject.

OK. May I ask you which are your areas of work/study/interest within linguistics?
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Re: Words for the Nonexistent

#14  Postby katja z » Nov 21, 2010 7:59 pm

seeker wrote:
katja z wrote:I've never studied language acquisition, but it's a very interesting subject.

OK. May I ask you which are your areas of work/study/interest within linguistics?

First and foremost, whatever is relevant to translation studies (I've done some theoretical work on literary translation, which is also what I do for a living). That's mostly sociolinguistics, some pragmatics, some historical linguistics. I don't have much formal training in linguistics though, I just covered the basics as part of my degrees in comparative literature and two languages.
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Re: Words for the Nonexistent

#15  Postby Mr.Samsa » Nov 22, 2010 12:15 am

seeker wrote:This post remained unanswered, but I think it proposes an interesting topic: how are those “words for the nonexistent” learned? Are there empirical studies about this issue?
I guess that the first words learned by children are operants related to concrete responses and stimuli (i.e., Skinner´s “mands” and “tacts”: correct responses of the child to requests are reinforced, correct verbal requests of the child are reinforced, correct naming responses by the child are reinforced, correct orienting responses after hearing a name are reinforced). Then the relational operants allow to combine words and relational frames, creating relational nets (e.g.: “cat is a kind of animal”, “cat is different from dog”, “cat is gato in spanish”, etc.), and also allow to recombine words and relational frames in novel ways, generating those “words for the nonexistent” as one of the effects of this relational recombination: we can recombine “horse” and “with wings” to get the concept of “Pegasus”, and we can recombine “creator” and “of the Universe” to get the concept of “God”. I guess this capacity might be beneficial or harmful, depending on the context.


If I recall correctly, a common finding is that children learn tacts first before mands, and they need to reach a level of mastery for tacts before they begin to use mands. I can't remember where I read this, but it was probably in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. I don't know exactly what it means, but I thought I'd suggest it if it meant anything to you?

petwo wrote:Does magic exist? Not the type where one creates an illusion, but genuine intentional magic where the laws of nature, physics being one of them, are defied. So far there isn't a soul alive that can vouch for or prove the latter actually happens. So why is there such a word? This magic isn't real, it just doesn't happen, it's the stuff of fairy tales.

We have words for things that aren't and for events that can't happen. I'm just wondering why we do this.


I think the problem is what Seeker has touched upon with his discussion of "relations", where we learn about things, and we learn about certain concepts that apply to them. So we learn things like tables and we put something "on top" of the table. Then we also have this abstract concept of "opposites" so we are able to ask: "What is below the table?". This is all fine when we're talking about things that actually have an opposite that we can observe and touch, but we apply it to all ideas that we have. So we come up with a name for "everything" or "existence", and we're immediately faced with the idea of its opposite - "nothing" and "nonexistence". These concepts make sense to us because we understand what the original terms mean, and we understand what "opposite" means, but that doesn't mean that the new terms we've invented are coherent.
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Re: Words for the Nonexistent

#16  Postby seeker » Nov 22, 2010 3:13 am

Mr.Samsa wrote:If I recall correctly, a common finding is that children learn tacts first before mands, and they need to reach a level of mastery for tacts before they begin to use mands. I can't remember where I read this, but it was probably in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. I don't know exactly what it means, but I thought I'd suggest it if it meant anything to you?

If you remember it, I´d like to see the reference.

Mr.Samsa wrote:I think the problem is what Seeker has touched upon with his discussion of "relations", where we learn about things, and we learn about certain concepts that apply to them. So we learn things like tables and we put something "on top" of the table. Then we also have this abstract concept of "opposites" so we are able to ask: "What is below the table?". This is all fine when we're talking about things that actually have an opposite that we can observe and touch, but we apply it to all ideas that we have. So we come up with a name for "everything" or "existence", and we're immediately faced with the idea of its opposite - "nothing" and "nonexistence". These concepts make sense to us because we understand what the original terms mean, and we understand what "opposite" means, but that doesn't mean that the new terms we've invented are coherent.

I agree. We learn the "part-all" relation and we reach the concept of "Universe" as its more inclusive term. We learn the concept of "cause" and we are able to iterate it to search "causes of causes". But a question about the "cause of the Universe" generates a contradiction: if there´s a cause of the Universe, then it´s an existent thing and therefore a part of the Universe, so it cannot be its cause.
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Re: Words for the Nonexistent

#17  Postby seeker » Nov 22, 2010 3:16 am

katja z wrote:
seeker wrote:
katja z wrote:I've never studied language acquisition, but it's a very interesting subject.

OK. May I ask you which are your areas of work/study/interest within linguistics?

First and foremost, whatever is relevant to translation studies (I've done some theoretical work on literary translation, which is also what I do for a living). That's mostly sociolinguistics, some pragmatics, some historical linguistics. I don't have much formal training in linguistics though, I just covered the basics as part of my degrees in comparative literature and two languages.

Could you tell me something about sociolinguistics?
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Re: Words for the Nonexistent

#18  Postby katja z » Nov 22, 2010 8:05 am

seeker wrote:
Mr.Samsa wrote:I think the problem is what Seeker has touched upon with his discussion of "relations", where we learn about things, and we learn about certain concepts that apply to them. So we learn things like tables and we put something "on top" of the table. Then we also have this abstract concept of "opposites" so we are able to ask: "What is below the table?". This is all fine when we're talking about things that actually have an opposite that we can observe and touch, but we apply it to all ideas that we have. So we come up with a name for "everything" or "existence", and we're immediately faced with the idea of its opposite - "nothing" and "nonexistence". These concepts make sense to us because we understand what the original terms mean, and we understand what "opposite" means, but that doesn't mean that the new terms we've invented are coherent.

I agree. We learn the "part-all" relation and we reach the concept of "Universe" as its more inclusive term. We learn the concept of "cause" and we are able to iterate it to search "causes of causes". But a question about the "cause of the Universe" generates a contradiction: if there´s a cause of the Universe, then it´s an existent thing and therefore a part of the Universe, so it cannot be its cause.

:nod:

seeker wrote:
Could you tell me something about sociolinguistics?

Depending on your exact question, I suppose, but I can certainly try.
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Re: Words for the Nonexistent

#19  Postby my_wan » Nov 22, 2010 9:28 am

The OP does open a rather open ended question, which does make you think.

An interesting thing that occurred to me is: What percentage of non-existent things in our language refer to imaginary intentional agents, with either an interest in humans or is a manifestation of human existence? It appears the common element throughout is entities for which their intentional prowess extends beyond bodily control, to effect the physical world directly through intent. As if the physical world was, in some respects, bodily extensions subject to their intent.

Many other mythological creatures could be interpreted a naturalistic with exaggerated imaginative claims. Aliens are a relatively new interpretation of an old theme. I always did wonder about people who claimed to be implanted, then spoken to telepathically. I've said to a few of them: So if I shove a telephone up your **s and give you a ring, does that make me telepathic? Anyway, the instances that don't involve claims of dualistic magic or human morality appear few and far between. Not even the grey alien claims escape this.
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Re: Words for the Nonexistent

#20  Postby katja z » Nov 22, 2010 10:13 am

my_wan wrote:
An interesting thing that occurred to me is: What percentage of non-existent things in our language refer to imaginary intentional agents, with either an interest in humans or is a manifestation of human existence? It appears the common element throughout is entities for which their intentional prowess extends beyond bodily control, to effect the physical world directly through intent. As if the physical world was, in some respects, bodily extensions subject to their intent.

Animism actually makes a lot of sense in a pre-scientific context. The problem how a disembodied mind/intention could act upon the physical world only appears as a problem from the outside. If our bodies function this way (as they do until those pesky neuroscientists come around and point out a few things), everything can. Which is just a restatement of your last sentence. We think in terms of natural causes, but as Robin Horton (I think) argued, in magical thought, the division between the natural and supernatural doesn't even apply, the division itself is an artefact of a certain mindset.
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