• A Brain Teaser for Logophiles: Self-referring Words

    by  • March 31, 2013 • Uncategorized

    Among logicians and linguists, the statement “This is a false sentence” has become the textbook example of a self-referring paradox — a statement that can neither be proven true nor false. The key to this type of statement is that it turns our logical reasoning upside down and puts its consistency into question.

    Another interesting, but more granular and linguistic approach is proposed in Pallock’s piece about self-referring words in Verbatim: The Language Quarterly (2001:94-100). In his article, Pallock applies the concept of self-referring sentences to words. Some words, similar as some sentences, do not only describe an object or a situation, but in certain cases, also say something about themselves.

    The most basic example is the word word. The word word conveys a certain meaning and is itself a word. Among others, Pallock identifies the words term, noun and symbol as self-referring words. A further interesting example is the word sign, which is defined as an “indication of meaning”, but also a word that is self-referring (the word sign is itself a sign, so to speak).

    Pallock concludes that self-referring words can only take the form of a noun or an adjective. While the examples above are nouns, self-referring adjectives are for instance useful, acceptable, intelligible, English or fran├žais. This principle rests on the assumption that all words are objects in the cultural world and thus can only be referred to by descriptions (adjectives) or names (nouns).

    One may wonder if any one word can be assigned to either the category “self-referring” words or “nonself-referring” words. Pallock’s answer is that we’re confronted with another paradox here. The word nonself-referring, for example, is nonself-referring, but describes itself and thus is self-referring. If the word nonself-referring is self-referring, it describes itself and is thus nonself-referring. I guess it’s fair to say that Pallock has successfully transferred the paradox of self-referring sentences to an even more fundamental level: words.


    Philipp Babcicky is a PhD student at the Wegener Center for Climate and Global Change at the University of Graz, Austria.