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Ancient and Philosophy of Medieval Language

Abelard And The Early Middle Ages

Early medieval philosophers were deeply influenced by the semantic scheme of On Interpretation. The way in which Boethius (c. 480–c. 524) discussed it in his commentaries (early sixth century) linked with ideas they found in the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430) to suggest the following, widely accepted basic scheme: written language signifies spoken languages, which in turn signify a mental language common to all humans, and the terms of this mental language signify things in the world. In medieval texts signification is usually therefore a causal, psychological relation: w signifies a thing x if and only if w causes a thought of x in the mind of a competent speaker of the language. There were, however, other influences, especially the grammatical writings of Priscian (fl. 500 C.E.), who was heavily influenced by Stoic theories.

By the eleventh century, there was already a strong philosophical interest in questions about language. For example, St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033 or 1034–1109) wrote a dialogue about the problems caused by a word such as grammaticus, which means "grammarian" but also has the adjectival sense of "grammatical": is grammaticus a substance, then, or a quality? In Peter Abelard's (1079–?1144) logical writings (c. 1115–1125) the semantics of both words and sentences receive careful and searching attention. Abelard accepts the usual psychologico-causal understanding of signification, but his nominalism—the view that nothing except particulars exists—made it problematic. He accepts that predicates signify universals, and then (in accord with his theory) goes on to identify these universals with what are not things—mental images or, in the latest version of his theory, a thought-content. Abelard also developed an account of the semantics of sentences. Assertoric sentences signify what he calls dicta (literally, "things said")—by which he means states of affairs or (on some occasions, something nearer to) propositions. Dicta, however, are not things; they are, literally, nothing. The parallel with the Stoics' lekta is striking, although direct influence does not seem possible. Thirteenth-century thinkers talked of sentences signifying enuntiabilia (things able to be said), and some fourteenth-century thinkers use the term complexe significabilia (complexly signifiables)—in both cases bringing themselves even closer to the meaning of the Stoics' term.

Speculative grammar.

Speculative grammar was a striking, though short-lived, episode in medieval thinking about grammar. Its outstanding exponents, Boethius and Martin of Dacia, and Radulphus Brito, were arts masters at the University of Paris in the period from approximately 1250 to 1300. They aspired to give grammar the universality demanded of an Aristotelian science and, although they worked entirely with Latin, they believed that the underlying structure they were uncovering was that of any language, although each language represented it using different combinations of sounds.

At the basis of speculative grammar is the Aristotelian semantics, which aligns things in the world, thoughts, and words. The speculative grammarians held that there are modes of being (properties of things, such as being singular or plural, active or passive) and, parallel to these, modes of thinking (as when the intellect thinks of a thing as being singular or plural, and so on). The modes of signifiying (modi significandi—from whence the term modistic grammarians or modists) parallel these modes of being and of thinking. So, a first imposition links a sound with a certain sort of thing, and this root becomes a part of speech by being given modi significandi that first of all make it into one of the parts of speech (noun, verb, and so on) and then add features such as case and number (for nouns) or tense and person (for verbs). The modists' assumption is that the Latin grammatical categories are precisely molded to the general structure of reality, which is captured accurately in thought.

The terminists and Ockham.

A little earlier in the thirteenth century, logicians at Paris and Oxford were busy developing a different approach to the relation between words and things, the theory of the properties of terms, which was given its most popular exposition in the Tractatus (the so-called Summulae logicales) of Peter of Spain (Pope John XXI; d. 1277). The theory of the properties of terms concerns the way in which nouns refer in the context of a sentence. One distinction (in the terminology of the English logician William of Sherwood) is between material supposition, where a word refers to itself ("Man has three letters")—a medieval equivalent of quotation marks—and formal supposition, where it refers to something in the world. Formal supposition can be either simple or personal: in simple supposition, a word refers to a universal ("Man is a species "), whereas in personal supposition it refers to particulars in various different ways, which the terminists further distinguished. The theory provided for the (personal) supposition of a word to be "ampliated" or "restricted" by its context. By adding white to man, one restricts the supposition of man to just those men who are white; by making it the subject of a future-tense verb, one will restrict the supposition of the noun to men in the future. Expressions like "think of" and "it is possible that" ampliate the reference of nouns in their scope to include all thinkable or possible such individuals.

Terminism did not fit the interests of mid-and late-thirteenth-century thinkers, but it was revived again in the fourteenth century. William of Ockham (c. 1285–?1349) uses it, in an adapted form, in setting out one of the most elaborate medieval theories about mental language. William is so fully committed to the idea of our thoughts being naturally structured in a language-like (indeed, Latin-like) way, that he breaks the Aristotelian mold and holds that, rather than words signifying thoughts, both words (natural language) and thoughts (mental language) signify reality in much the same way. Since Ockham—like Abelard before him—was a nominalist, he could not accept the usual idea that simple supposition is of universals: according to him, a word has simple supposition when it supposits for a mental term, but does not signify it.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Ambiguity - Ambiguity to Anticolonialism in Middle East - Ottoman Empire And The Mandate SystemAncient and Philosophy of Medieval Language - Words And Things: Plato And Aristotle, Sentences And Facts: Aristotle And The Stoics, Abelard And The Early Middle Ages