July 11, 2004

The interpretation of stones and typefaces

Is meaning something that sentences have, or is meaning something that people do? And what about rocks, fonts and cities?

In an essay "Meaning and Truth" (in Logico-linguistic Papers, 1971), P.F. Strawson put it this way:

What is it for anything to have a meaning at all, in the way, or in the sense , in which words or sentences or signals have meaning? What is it for a particular sentence to have the meaning or meanings it does have? What is it for a particular phrase, or a particular word, to have the meaning or meanings it does have?
[ . . .]
I am not going to undertake to try to answer these so obviously connected questions. . . I want rather to discuss a certain conflict, or apparent conflict, more or less dimly discernible in current approaches to these questions. For the sake of a label, we might call it the conflict between the theorists of communication-intention and the theorists of formal semantics. According to the former, it is impossible to give an adequate account of the concept of meaning without reference to the possession by speakers of audience-directed intentions of a certain complex kind. . . The opposed view. . . is that this doctrine simply gets things the wrong way round. . . the system of semantic and syntactical rules, in the mastery of which knowledge of a language consists -- the rules which determine the meanings of sentences -- is not a system of rules for communicating at all. The rules can be exploited for this purpose; but this is incidental to their essential character. It would be perfectly possible for someone to understand a language completely -- to have a perfect linguistic competence -- without having even the implicit thought of the function of communication . . .

I've elided many of his qualifications and asides, but you probably get the drift. And despite the elisions, you're also probably getting a message from his prose style: here's someone trying to express complex ideas with great precision, nuance and care.

All the same, there's one aspect of ordinary-life and ordinary-language meaning that's left out of discussions like this. Strawson frames the pragmatic view of meaning in terms of "communication intention", and talks about "the possession by speakers of audience-directed intentions of a certain complex kind". Others (like Paul Grice) use the term "speaker meaning". However, interpretation -- attribution of meaning in some sense -- also takes place in contexts where there is no individual "speaker", no well-defined "intention" construed as the psychological state of an individual, and no fixed audience. The object of interpretation may be the result of a complex interaction among many people and various non-human forces and contingencies; it may have other functions besides communication; and the interpretive context may develop over time, adding layers that everyone comes to accept as part of the "meaning" of the object being interpreted. Despite this, the kinds of interpretation involved often seem much more reminiscent of the ("pragmatic") interpretation of speaker meaning than the ("semantic") interpretation of sentence meaning.

It's tempted to reject such cases as parasitic on the more pragmatics of "real communication" between individuals, and full of confusions engendered by fuzzy metaphorical extension of a problem that's hard enough in its core case of Kim informing Leslie that the water has boiled for tea. If this is true, it's too bad, since it would rule out (for instance) applying pragmatic reasoning to the law.

But that's a topic for another post. Today I'm interested in the meaning of building stones and typefaces. On July 4, the cornerstone of the Freedom Tower was laid at the World Trade Center site in NY City.

On July 8, the NYT ran an article by David Dunlap (permanent link unfortunately not available) that used the language of communication-intention freely, as if the stone was a sentence and the typography its intonation. Dunlap's theme is that the cornerstone's message was an ambiguous one:

As the first tangible element of the Freedom Tower - and, by extension, the trade center redevelopment - and as an image seen nationwide on Independence Day, the cornerstone sent an aesthetic signal of intent.

And the signal seemed to reflect the inherent ambiguity of the project: a solemn memorial to 2,749 lives lost in the worst single catastrophe in New York history that is simultaneously supposed to be a defiant restatement of the city's commercial gigantism.

Seen one way, the cornerstone's darkness and plainness are memorial, even funereal. Seen another, the radiant silver-leaf letterforms conjure the exuberant, modernist, midcentury optimism of New York even as they augur the glass and stainless-steel tower to come.

Much of the article focuses on the meaning of the choice of font. The selected Gotham font was designed in 2000 by Tobias Frere-Jones and Jesse Ragan, of the the firm of Hoefler & Frere-Jones. The article quotes a representative of the firm:

"It's one of those typefaces that's open to interpretation," Mr. Hoefler said. "That makes it a good match for this monument."

The article also dissects the meaning of the choice to use all capital letters:

Lines of all-capital lettering, intended to enhance the cornerstone's formality, may have diminished somewhat the idea that it commemorates people and spirit. "Use of upper- and lowercase would have democratized the message, removed its institutional pretensions," said John Kane, the author of "A Type Primer" (Prentice Hall, 2003). "Lowercase would have given the words a human voice."

The 1,100-word article ends with this:

Ann Harakawa, a principal in the Two Twelve Associates design firm, whose office at 90 West Street was destroyed on 9/11, said the typeface was simple, legible and, given its New York provenance, very apt. "The idea of it being slightly ambiguous is interesting," she said, "because no one has any idea of what's going to come."

The cornerstone itself bears these 26 words:

To honor and remember those who lost their lives on September 11, 2001 and as a tribute to the enduring spirit of freedom. July Fourth 2004.

Appropriately enough (as Arnold Zwicky pointed out yesterday), the only letter that the Times has printed in response to this article was from a copy editor named Betsy Wade, who complained about the punctuation of the inscription:

The section of the 9/11 cornerstone inscription depicted in the accompanying photograph clearly shows that the grammatically necessary comma after "2001" ("on September 11, 2001") is absent.

As a longtime editor, I hope that the artisans will be able to correct this omission in the handsome Gotham typeface.

I can't resist echoing Geoff Pullum's plea: where are the T-men when you need them?


Posted by Mark Liberman at July 11, 2004 11:10 AM