Living Words: Meaning Underdetermination and the Dynamic Lexicon (Book Review)

Briauna Inglis, Winner of the Graduate Entry Category

Ludlow, Peter. 2014. Living Words: Meaning Underdetermination and the Dynamic Lexicon. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

           Peter Ludlow’s exhaustive book provides a sound argument for the underdetermination of word meanings by utilizing an interdisciplinary approach. Therefore, I recommend this book to all linguists with a strong background in philosophy. The author’s intended audience is two-fold. He decided to write for both a general audience and a specialized one. This creates tension seen throughout the book and I will attempt to evaluate the author’s effectiveness in holding these two in tandem throughout this book review. The broad thesis of this book is to develop a dynamic theory of meaning and the lexicon which showcases that the meaning of words is underdetermined and therefore the lexicon in a language is dynamic as opposed to the classical, static view of a lexicon. Ludlow lays out his argument for the changing nature of meaning by addressing how the modulation of word meaning occurs naturally and by relating this theory to analytical philosophy.

           As I summarize each chapter, I will explore how Ludlow’s thesis guides his writing. Chapter 1 serves as an introduction to the difference between a static lexicon and a dynamic one and to how we already modulate the meanings of words in everyday life. The classic view suggests that languages are “stable abstract systems of communication that are learned (with varying degrees of success) by human beings” (2). Ludlow rejects this formal view of a lexicon and argues that the lexicon is dynamic. One of the ways that he supports this rejection is by how members of a society will contend for certain meanings. We tend to participate in what the author calls “lexical warfare” (7). Ludlow gives some poignant examples of this phenomenon starting with the words, ‘doll’ (9) and ‘sandwich’ (10) and ending with ‘marriage’ (22) and ‘organic’ (24). Each of these cases shows that the definition of a word is up for interpretation and has been modified in the past to sharpen what we mean by them. Ludlow references tax laws, court cases, and media as vehicles for the promotion of the sharpening of meaning either by narrowing or broadening it. He argues that in each of these avenues, we are already working towards the further determination of meaning which implies that words are underdetermined. What is considered a sandwich for example?  A court case involving two franchises, Panera Bread and Qdoba Mexican Grill, worked to sharpen the meaning of ‘sandwich’ as Panera argued that Qdoba was selling ‘sandwiches’ and thus the agreement, which was for them to be the only franchise to sell sandwiches in the mall, was in violation. Essentially, Panera was arguing for a broadening of the word ‘sandwich’ to include burritos. This example is accessible to both audiences. It also showcases how normal it is for us to dispute what something means. Lastly, he ends with a section on ‘Unreflective Entrainment.’ The previous cases involved reflection. Often, however, coordination of lexical meaning is a collaborative process that is automatic and unreflective. The term ‘entrainment’ is borrowed from physics, referring to the synchronized behavior of objects. This term was introduced into the realm of linguistics by Clark (1992) and Ludlow adopts this terminology as well to refer to the metaphorical optimized lexical synchronization which takes place. This idea supports his thesis in that since the meaning of words is synchronized by speakers unreflectively, they inherently do not have a fixed meaning.

           Chapter 2, ‘Norms of Word Meaning Litigation’, serves as a description of how we come to reconcile the arisen conflicts between word meanings and describes the normativity of these disputes. The author uses three cases of word meaning litigation to exemplify the reasoning process involved. Ludlow lists a series of norms that we follow when deciding the meaning of a word. He provides eight of them, four of which he disputes. He does this by using the example of how people argued for what the definition of ‘planet’ is and references several key scientists involved in the debate. Ludlow proficiently argues against some of the reasons for modulation. For example, Micheal Brown (cited in Weintraub 2007) insisted on focusing on the cultural side of things and relying on this for its meaning. In other words, as Ludlow states the claim that Brown is making is that “Modulation should be culturally acceptable” (50). The author brings up a good point that if we were to do this we would need to revert to the original meaning of ‘planet’ which would include the sun and moon and exclude Earth. This would cause us to expend a high amount of cognitive energy and undercuts the role this term plays in science. He further asserts that there are right ways to litigate for a change of meaning of a word and wrong ways. After elucidating these norms, Ludlow uses other examples of this collaborative process to reiterate how we use them. The term ‘person’ has been a pressing issue in society today as advances have been made in science. Much like the ‘planet’ example, modulation of this word was done in response to empirical discoveries. There are a number of norms that we tend to follow when we try to argue for the change of a word’s meaning and there are also cases when some of the arguments fail to be normative. These norms demonstrate the dynamic nature of the lexicon. 

           The crux of Ludlow’s argument hangs on the discussion in Chapter 3, ‘The Nature of the Dynamic Lexicon.’ Here he describes features of the dynamic lexicon and the specific theory that he puts forth. Ludlow “opt[s] for the idea that many of the terms that we use are introduced ‘on the fly’ during conversations, and that familiar expressions have underdetermined meanings that are significantly modulated across conversations and even within conversations” (72). While we work to sync the meaning of the words we use, conflicts arise when each of the speaker’s proposals differs. However, we can effortlessly move towards a mutual understanding through modulation. As he states, “If it isn’t clear whether it should apply, we modulate the meaning until it is clear whether the predicate applies or not” (77). The dynamic lexicon is a natural occurrence among humans. The author goes on to explain that lexical items come into and out of use. Not only does their usage change to varying degrees, but there is also a deferral to someone else’s usage of a term in cases where that someone is seen as an expert on the subject for one reason or another. Next, the author lists several “central doctrines that are in play” (80). These key concepts exemplify the nuance involved in Ludlow’s theory. Ludlow gives helpful definitions of keywords that will be of assistance to the reader in later chapters. These lists of ideas and terminology help guide the reader towards an understanding of key concepts that are crucial distinctions that the author is making. For example, the concept of vagueness is clarified and the connection between it and meaning determination is described (85). Ludlow ends the chapter with a short discussion on a question about truth claims that might be asked as we think about the meaning of words which acts as a great segue into philosophy.

           The latter half of the book deals with the implications of this theory of meaning underdetermination and a dynamic lexicon. To showcase this, in Chapter 4, ‘Meaning Underdetermination, Logic, and Vagueness’, the author starts by pointing out the problems that arise when we do not allow word meanings to be flexible and insist on precise and fixed meanings.  This is also where the author potentially loses the general audience. He chooses to speak almost entirely to his specialized audience with only some explanation given for those with little background in the topics discussed. He focuses on the consequences seen in semantics, logic, and vagueness. His appeal to formal semantics ends in the conclusion that the underlying grammatical system we use to construct theories in our “mircolanguages” is being done ad hoc. Another problem that arises is there is potential for an informal fallacy to be present within logic in a system with a dynamic lexicon. In order to address these problems that arise in regard to equivocation, Ludlow provides a deeply motivated constraint. The Dynamic Lexicon Constraint on Validity (DLCV) is outlined as the following: “if t is a term with multiple occurrences in an argument and it plays a direct role in the derivation of the conclusion, then those occurrences must either have the same meanings or be broadenings/narrowings of each other…” (116-17). The author uses this constraint to prove that a dynamic lexicon is possible within logic in that it allows for an argument to be valid only if one of the premises either is stable/narrows or is stable/broadens. Ludlow discusses further the consequences of deferring to precise and fixed meaning by looking at specifics in analytic philosophy in Chapter 5, ‘Consequences for Analytic Philosophy.’ He looks at three different problems in this discipline that can be resolved by adhering to the idea of a dynamic lexicon: contextualism in epistemology, a philosophical puzzle involving Kripke’s (1979) case concerning the Fregean sense ‘Paderewski,’ and indexicals. One of the other aspects that makes this book inaccessible to a general audience is its use of vocabulary. For example, he uses words like imbroglio, amicus, lacuna, etc. These terms are not discipline-specific and therefore, simpler equivalents could have been used to increase the book’s readability.  

           Lastly, Chapter 6, ‘Metaphor and Beyond’, discusses how metaphor involves meaning modulation.  Ludlow asserts that the mental process involved in metaphor is the simultaneous upholding of both modulations outside of the usual range and of following the norms of word meaning litigation. This can help us determine what important attributes are shared between the two things being equated. He continues by arguing that there is no significant difference between metaphorical speech and plain speech. Metaphors are “simply ambitious form[s] of meaning modulation” (163). The ending of the book tries to synthesize all the points that Ludlow makes throughout by using the topic of metaphor as a vehicle. However, the conclusion leaves the reader wanting. A clear division between the discussion of metaphor and the summary of key points would have been beneficial for the reader leaving them with an evident sense of how successful the author was at proving his theory. In many ways, I had to take the author’s word for the success of this endeavor as he often was preoccupied with the potential caveats that arose as he discussed the nature of his theory. While this is appreciated and exemplifies the soundness of his argument in some ways, the initial argument that he was trying to make was not always clear. Ludlow masterfully transitioned between sections and chapters, often using a summary of what was previously said. Therefore, I was confused by his lack of conclusion for the entire book.

           In conclusion, although Ludlow’s book may be hard to understand, he provides an innovative, thought-provoking theory about how the meaning of words is not precise or fixed. Therefore, speakers in a language work towards coming to a consensus even within conversations. I found his argument to be compelling in several different ways and the idea of the lexicon being dynamic makes sense, seeming almost obvious. If word meanings are inherently underdetermined then we would naturally change them either by narrowing or broadening them over time and the language itself would come to have a lexicon that also changes. The main aspect that I struggled with in this book is that to understand the full extent of the author’s argument, the reader needs to be proficient in certain areas of philosophy like logic, vagueness, and epistemology.


Clark, H. 1992. Areas of Language Use. Chicago: CSLI Publications and University of Chicago Press.

Kripke, S. 1979. “A Puzzle about Belief,” in A. Margalit (ed.), Meaning and Use. Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 239-83. 

Weintraub, D. 2007. Is Pluto a Planet? Princeton: Princeton University Press.