These days, when one asks the question, “What does a text mean?” one is generally trying to figure out some cryptic phone text message. Indeed, google this question, and all sorts of websites pop up offering help at deciphering text message abbreviations. However, that is not what I intend by the question. I am asking, “When one encounters any written text, how does one go about trying to figure out what that text means?”
There is more here than meets the eye. At first glance, it would seem that a simple reading of the text, understanding the vocabulary and syntax, would unveil the meaning. However, lots of things get in the way of this simple approach. Consider, for example, if your mother sent you this note:
“Meet me after school at the trunk.”
Does she mean to meet her at the trunk of a well-known tree? At the trunk line of the commuter rail station? At a local restaurant named, “The Trunk”? At an oversized suitcase which for some reason is prominent in the school yard? At the rear of her car? (and this is ignoring the obviously bizarre ideas of an elephant’s trunk or the central portion of a human body)
In fact, the context, the history, the vocabulary, the geography, the grammar, and the structure would all inform us about the meaning. Knowing English, the semantic range of the word, “trunk,” and the basic grammar of imperative sentences go some distance in helping us. However, knowing the author, the local context and history, the geography of the area would all be critically important in solidifying and narrowing that meaning so that one actually meets mother at the place intended.
BUT here is something important—note that we did not for one second in this exercise consider that the meaning would be defined by the recipient. We did not say to ourselves, “It does not matter what mother intended by this sentence. What I myself intend by it is most important.” Instead, we instinctively understood that the meaning is defined by the author. In other words, our text means only what its author intended it to mean, nothing more and nothing less. The precise meaning of a text is always what the author intends, not what the recipient wishes it to mean.
Hmm, perhaps interpreters of texts like the Constitution and the Bible would do well to employ similar instinct.
(This article first appeared in "The Pantagraph" newspaper on August 1, 2015)