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Making coffee this morning made me think about brewing — not the process, but the English verb brew and its semantic evolution. In particular, it made me wonder again about nativist versions of semantic atomism, which hold that word meanings are (perhaps structured) collections of innate atomic features. Versions of these ideas go back thousands of years, but their most prominent recent exponent was Jerry Fodor.

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy's article puts it this way:

Fodor was also a staunch defender of nativism about the structure and contents of the human mind, arguing against a variety of empiricist theories and famously arguing that all lexical concepts are innate. Fodor vigorously argued against all versions of conceptual role semantics in philosophy and psychology, and articulated an alternative view he calls “informational atomism,” according to which lexical concepts are unstructured “atoms” that have their content in virtue of standing in certain external, “informational” relations to entities in the environment.

As Sonja Schierbaum wrote in Ockham's Assumption of Mental Speech: Thinking in a World of Particulars:

Fodor argues that it is only possible to acquire the concept of doorknob by encountering doorknobs because there is a functional relation of the trigger (doorknobs) to the concept (doorknob): this functional relation is innate. That is, if there were no such innate function, then encountering doorknobs would not lead to the acquisition of the concept doorknob.

I've been puzzled about this idea ever since I first encountered (a version of) it more than half a century ago, in Katz & Fodor's 1963 book. It's one of the things that I had in mind when I wrote ("Language Log is #1 for stupid ideas", 4/6/2004):

[S]ometimes it takes a really smart person to have a really spectacularly stupid idea. You have to be smart to be able to think of some of the really complicated dumb stuff that people come up with, but that's not what I mean. I'm talking about the simple idea that is so obviously wrong that any half-wit can see that it don't have a chance, except for someone who is brilliant enough to work out the reasons that it's nevertheless deeply true. If the originator is also persuasive enough to get others to go along, then you've really got trouble. I'd give examples, but professional courtesy forbids it.

So, brew. The Wiktionary entry for the verb  offers 8 senses:

  1. To make tea or coffee by mixing tea leaves or coffee beans with hot water.
  2. To heat wine, infusing it with spices; to mull.
  3. To make a hot soup by combining ingredients and boiling them in water.
  4. To make beer by steeping a starch source in water and fermenting the resulting sweet liquid with yeast.
  5. To foment or prepare, as by brewing
    Synonyms: contrive, plot, hatch
  6. To attend to the business, or go through the processes, of brewing or making beer.
  7. (of an unwelcome event) To be in a state of preparation; to be mixing, forming, or gathering.
  8. To boil or seethe; to cook. (obsolete)

I'm not familiar with senses (2) or (3), except as some sort of figurative extension — but of course that's one of the ways that word meanings evolve.

The OED offers a very different ordering, giving sense 1.a. for brew as "Properly: To make (ale, beer, and the like) by infusion, boiling, and fermentation", and not getting to tea until sense 3.a. "transferred. ‘To make by mixing several ingredients’ (Johnson), as whisky punch; or by infusion, as tea."

But the OED's discussion of the etymology notes that

Compare broth n., and other derivatives, which show that the root brū had originally also in Germanic a wider sense than ‘brew’, apparently that of ‘make a decoction, infuse’.

Even in German, however, it seems that brauen is now reserved for beer, with aufbrüen maybe used for tea but not for coffee — I welcome correction from readers who know (varieties of German) better than I do.

In the various Romance languages, as far as I know, different words are used for beer-brewing and for coffee- or tea-brewing. Thus French brasser, whose original meaning is apparently "mix" or "move around", is used for brewing beer but not for preparing coffee or tea.

Meanwhile, English brewer and brewery are (I think) still linked to beer and such things — coffee shops and tea rooms are not breweries, even though brewing is crucial to their operation. In the other direction, French brasserie apparently started out meaning "brewery", and then developed to cover (certain kinds of) bars and restaurants.

My point? It doesn't make sense to me that beer, coffee, tea, etc. could be innate atomic concepts. And more abstract concepts like infusion or fermentation don't seem any more plausible. Unless I badly misunderstand — which is possible, since I'm a phonetician rather than a semanticist or a philosopher — the theories that lead to such conclusions are more like religious dogmas than scientific hypotheses.




  1. Ralph J Hickok said,

    November 25, 2021 @ 11:39 am

    My paternal grandmother, whose parents came over from Scotland, often "brewed" soup.

  2. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 25, 2021 @ 11:45 am

    If I believed what my tocayo believed, it would probably be something like "Making tea is an atom, making coffee is an atom, making beer is an atom, making soup is an atom, and some words in different languages will mean more than one such atom."

    If by "scientific hypothesis" you mean a testable one, I have no idea how one could test such a hypothesis. But I'd say there's room between religious dogma and scientific hypothesis, namely the philosophical argument that one's theory is logically tenable and none of the others are. I don't know whether Jerry Fodor made such an argument, let alone whether it might have had any validity. It would be sort of like superstrings, not that I understand them either.

    Did you mean "readers who know (varieties of) German"?

    [(myl) Jerry Fodor's argument, as I understand it, was just that no one has any idea how empiricist concept learning might actually work, and therefore all concepts must be innate, as implausible as that seems. The argument in the other direction was, neither can anyone (except maybe Plato?) explain how concepts like "beer" could become innate, whether via evolutionary (which Fodor also rejected) or rationalist routes. These days, the flowering of "deep learning" offers a plausible (if obscure) model for empiricist concept acquisition. That development doesn't settle the philosophical question, in my opinion, but it certainly weakens Fodor's argument.

    As for "readers who know" whatever, both parenthesis placements work for me.]

  3. Victor Mair said,

    November 25, 2021 @ 11:46 am

    I love this post, not least because it reminds me of this:

    "Two brews" (2/6/10)

  4. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 25, 2021 @ 11:47 am

    I assume my occupationally-rooted surname (and its cognates such as Brouwer and Brauer, not to mention the originally-feminine variant Brewster) were all beer-specific in origin, before they got hereditarily attached to descendants in other lines of work.

    That April 2004 post about stupid ideas concludes: " I'd give examples, but professional courtesy forbids it." Perhaps we can now look forward to more examples trickling out as the continued passage of time understandably further loosens the bonds of courtesy/omerta?

  5. Victor Mair said,

    November 25, 2021 @ 12:19 pm

    In Sinology, we have to strive hard to keep track of the differences between beer and wine, brewing and fermentation.

  6. Sergey said,

    November 25, 2021 @ 1:24 pm

    This made me think of the Russian verb "варить" ("vareet") that is difficult to translate directly to English. It generally means "cook by boiling", which is different from just boiling the water (for which there is a separate verb "кипятить", although maybe in the old times "варить" was also used for that) and from just cooking in any way. You can варить soup and coffee, but you can also варить beer, so it's similar in meaning to "brew". Not tea though, for tea there is a separate verb "заваривать" with the same root, the difference is that in this case the boiling water is taken off the fire and mixed with the herbs, they're not boiled continuously over the fire.

  7. Will Fitzgerald said,

    November 25, 2021 @ 1:28 pm

    Don’t get me started on the coffee shop that didn’t serve coffee.

  8. Stefan Reimers said,

    November 25, 2021 @ 1:29 pm

    Even in German, however, it seems that brauen is now reserved for beer, with aufbrauen maybe used for tea but not for coffee — I welcome correction from readers who know (varieties of German) better than I do.

    I am from Hamburg, here are my thoughts:
    There are two verbs in German that correspond to the English verb to brew:

    brauen: Bier brauen (brew beer), etwas (ein Gewitter, Aufstand) braut sich zusammen (corresponding to Nr. 7, e.g. a thunderstorm develops, an uprising forms)

    brühen: Kaffee aufbrühen, Tee aufbrühen (brew coffee, brew tee) also: sich verbrühen (to scald oneself with hot liquid)

    I am not an etymologist, so I can't prove which verbs are really related. Kaffee/Tee aufbrühen to me sounds antiquated, like using a kettle rather than a Nespresso machine

    Hope it helps

  9. Stefan Reimers said,

    November 25, 2021 @ 1:36 pm

    "Zaubertrank brauen" = brewing a magical potions

    [(myl) In English, we have "witches' brew". ]

  10. AntC said,

    November 25, 2021 @ 4:27 pm

    Tea and coffee didn't arrive into the Anglosphere until well after the Norman Conquest.

    Whereas humans have been brewing beer/wine since time immemorial.

    Then is applying 'brew' to tea/coffee a later usage? (In Yorkshire you can say 'make a mash' for a pot of tea — also presumably transferred from brewing's 'mash tun'.)

    Was Getafix's 'Potion Maqique' an actual historical thing amongst the Druids?

    In the historically tea- and coffee-drinking cultures, do they use the same word for brewing tea/coffee as for beer/wine? [q for Prof Mair]

  11. Bloix said,

    November 25, 2021 @ 4:36 pm

    "The OED offers a very different ordering,"

    A nit, perhaps:
    The OED orders meanings oldest first. Wiktionary claims to do so as well,,
    but in this case that's impossible. Beer brewing has been continuously practiced in Europe for 5000 years, while coffee was introduced in the early 16th century and tea was unknown for another 50 years or so.
    The OED's first entry for brew in the beer sense dates to AD 893. The Wiktionary definitional order doesn't have any organizing principle that I can see.

    More to the point:
    The Sonja Schierbaum example (you can't acquire the concept of doorknob without first encountering a doorknob) seems like word salad to me. To the extent I understand it, it seems wrong in the most trivial sense. I had no difficulty acquiring the concept of unicorn without ever encountering one, and I can easily group any number of very different-looking images as unicorns while excluding images of rhinoceroses and narwals. Perhaps I'm missing something.

  12. Philip Taylor said,

    November 25, 2021 @ 4:50 pm

    "Kaffee/Tee aufbrühen to me sounds antiquated, like using a kettle rather than a Nespresso machine". I make (at least) three cups of coffee daily, using a kettle, a ceramic filter cone, unbleached filter papers and monsooned Malabar coffee. Am I really old-fashioned in so doing ?

  13. DJL said,

    November 25, 2021 @ 4:51 pm

    Well, to be fair, in LOT2 Fodor did modulate his views on nativism somewhat by claiming that it was the concept acquisition mechanisms that were innate rather than the concepts themselves. The mention of deep learning is neither here nor there, though, for it is hardly a learning mechanism of human psychology.

  14. Frank L Chance said,

    November 25, 2021 @ 7:08 pm

    Coming from a Japanese context, we might note that though the process is somewhat different, we also refer to saké making as "brewing"
    As for these words in Japanese language, we raise tea (ocha wo tateru), brew coffee (kohii wo ireru) and make sake or beer (sake wo tsukuru/ biiru wo tsukuru) or ferment them (sake wo jôzô suru / biiru wo hakkô suru). Indeed, what a strange brew of words.

  15. AntC said,

    November 25, 2021 @ 8:12 pm

    I first came across Fodor in a 'Philosophy of Language' paper (part-subcontracted to the Linguistics department) in a degree in Philosophy. Clearly the Philosophy lecturers didn't count Fodor as a Philosopher, neither did the Linguistics lecturer take him seriously — although his main job was to teach Chomsky-thought.

    For the benefit of Philosophy students, the Linguistics lecturer felt obliged to say something about semantics, for which within Chomskyanism at the time (mid-1970's) there seemed to be only Katz & Fodor.

    K&F's semantics was so obviously inadequate — even for second-year undergraduate Philosophy students — we promptly dubbed them 'Cats & Fido'.

  16. stephen said,

    November 25, 2021 @ 9:38 pm

    Remember Danny Kaye's "The Court Jester."

    The pellet with the poison's in the flagon with the dragon;
    the vessel with the pestle has the brew that is true.

    I don't remember if they did brew the beverage in that movie, or it was artistic license.

  17. DJL said,

    November 26, 2021 @ 4:54 am

    @AntC 'Cats & Fido' – That's a good one.

    Regarding Fodor's status as a philosopher at the time, though (and I assume you are talking about the mid-1970s, as you allude to), I suspect it had more to do with the kind of work he was known for by then than anything to with his philosophical competence, which was mostly psychology of language, in fact. There's no question now that Fodor was in fact a philosopher (and a major one to boot).

  18. Victor Mair said,

    November 26, 2021 @ 8:26 am

    In Mandarin, we pào chá 泡茶 ("steep tea") and niàng jiǔ 酿酒 ("brew beer"), but there are other words for steeping / infusing and brewing / fermenting, depending upon what type of beverage we are making.

  19. Victor Mair said,

    November 26, 2021 @ 8:27 am

    From Peter Kupfer:

    Concerning tea or coffee in German it’s “aufbrühen” (with Umlaut), not “aufbrauen”. Otherwise, the German “brauen” has almost the same meaning as “brew”. But, of course, we Germans first think of beer when using this verb. Besides we use “zusammenbrauen” for 1) mixed beverages, 2) development of a dangerous situation, trouble or bad weather.

  20. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 26, 2021 @ 9:39 am

    To the best of my admittedly fuzzy memory, Fodor didn't come up at all in the philosophy-of-language class I took as an undergraduate (offered by the philosophy department but could be used for credit toward the major by linguistics majors) in, let's see, I think spring of '87. But to the best of ditto Kripke, for example, also didn't come up, so I think in hindsight the professor was just not including anyone on the reading list who seemed "too recent" to have a settled place in the canon of the field, with a philosophy department sense of "too recent" (maybe 20-25 years at a minimum?) being on a somewhat different timescale than a linguistics department sense would have been. By contrast, when I took a class just labeled "Semantics" in the linguistics department in '85, one of the two books we had to buy was Barwise & Perry's "Situations and Attitudes," which had been published only two years previously.

  21. Victor Mair said,

    November 26, 2021 @ 9:56 am

    From Pat McGovern (see "Two brews" [2/6/10]):

    I have to agree with the gist of this post. I’m not sure how an “atomistic” relationship with external entities helps to make sense of the semantic variability of the various brewing techniques.

    It could be that actually sensing an object through one or a combination of our senses is “filed” as a discrete entity in our brains, but because of the interconnectivity of brain activity, these discrete “atoms” then become interrelated with many other semantic and atomistic entities. But we are far from understanding how this works! And I don’t like the use of “atomistic.”

    [(myl) There are two different ideas here: first, that word meanings are made up of conceptual atoms; and second, that these atoms are innate, but are "triggered" in individual humans by the experience of encountering their referents in the world. My personal opinion, to the extent that I understand all this, is that both ideas are wrong. But the second one is the topic of this post.]

  22. Rodger C said,

    November 26, 2021 @ 10:17 am

    Half a century ago now, a friend of mine made some sassafras tea. She'd never done it before. It came out black and viscous. She: "I don't understand, I boiled it for seven minutes just like the instructions said." Me: "I'm pretty sure that should be steep it for seven minutes." It transpired that the box and the instructions were from Japan. Any insights into what happened here?

  23. Bob Ladd said,

    November 26, 2021 @ 11:14 am

    @Frank L Chance: According to the (English) label, Kikkoman soy sauce is also "brewed". I have no idea verb is used in Japanese.

  24. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 26, 2021 @ 11:37 am

    Prof. Liberman: Thanks for emphasizing that the innateness is the point of this post. Certainly Fodor's revised version as described by DJL—that the concept-acquisition mechanisms are innate—seems far more plausible.

    I now see what you meant by putting the parentheses around "varieties of German". Sorry about the inapt suggestion.

  25. Alexander Browne said,

    November 26, 2021 @ 12:36 pm

    @AntC Tea and coffee didn't arrive into the Anglosphere until well after the Norman Conquest.

    Herbal tea/herbal infusions/tisanes — whatever the name — were surely common though?

  26. Bloix said,

    November 26, 2021 @ 12:37 pm

    Bob Ladd – the traditional method of making soy sauce really is a kind of brewing – first the creation of a mash, then a 6-month fermentation period with bacteria and yeast, then aged for a year to several years.

    Supermarket soy sauce makers like Kikkoman's use acids to break down the soy proteins and add caramel color and flavorings. No aging. From beans to bottle in three days.

    You can buy an 18 ounce bottle of the traditional product on Amazon for 30 dollars or so. I've never tasted it. Your bottle of Kikkoman's, I suspect, wasn't really "brewed."

  27. Breffni said,

    November 26, 2021 @ 1:45 pm

    @Bloix 25 November: re word salad, do you mean this sentence especially? –

    Fodor argues that it is only possible to acquire the concept of doorknob by encountering doorknobs because there is a functional relation of the trigger (doorknobs) to the concept (doorknob)

    That tripped me up, but I suspect it's more digestible in context. I understand her to be attributing to Fodor that (i) it's possible to acquire the concept of doorknob by encountering doorknobs, and (ii) this is possible only because there is a functional relation of the trigger (doorknobs) to the concept (doorknob).

    This seems to be one case where moving "only" really would have eliminated an ambiguity:

    Fodor argues that it is only possible to acquire the concept of doorknob by encountering doorknobs only because there is a functional relation of the trigger (doorknobs) to the concept (doorknob)

    As for encountering unicorns, I suppose encounter can cover exposure to representations (pictures, definitions, descriptions…) as well as the "real" thing.

  28. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 26, 2021 @ 2:20 pm

    There is some further discussion of the DOORKNOB example in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article linked in the original post. It is presumably an attempt to frame Fodor's view either neutrally or sympathetically, but I'm still not sure I follow it, although maybe Bloix would find it less word-salady. I can't figure out if the later model of Fodor (as thus explained) was saying something that appears to be trivially true or is saying something that's obviously false.

    This may be because while I myself am interested in the mysterious connection (for Anglophones) between the word "doorknob" and the existence of doorknobs as physical (although not naturally-occurring) objects in the external world, I am not particularly all that interested in the separate notion of a *concept* labeled DOORKNOB as a necessary third metaphysical entity that must somehow be involved in the process. The notion that there is a True Secret Inner Language inside each of us and our facility to use our L1 means we are always internally translating back and forth between our L1 and the TSIL feels like some degree of cousin to the sort of Deep-Structure/Surface-Structure dichotomy that apparently the Chomskyans themselves eventually abandoned.

  29. JOHN W BREWER said,

    November 26, 2021 @ 5:14 pm

    Is Fodor's argument that the "concept" DOORKNOB has no internal structure derived from, let's say, the seemingly more primitive concepts DOOR and KNOB, and the fact that the English word is transparently a compound formed from "door" and "knob" is neither here nor there? I mean, I would not be surprised at a language whose word for "doorknob" is not transparently related to its word for "door," so maybe that would be fair.

    And one could be dubious about whether there's really a core KNOB concept, since the notion of a particular (somewhat vaguely-defined) shape is muddled up with the sense of objects of that shape often but not always being control mechanisms of some kind. I suppose a further difficulty is that it seems plausible that a doorknob is typically the first sort of knob encountered and named during a child's acquisition of the English lexicon, although for all I know I was as a toddler twiddling the volume knobs of plastic toy radios before I had the grip strength to actually open a door. But it's unclear in many cases whether the child's "innate" knowledge of the KNOB concept would have already been triggered by encounter before the DOORKNOB concept was triggered by encounter.

  30. Stephen J said,

    November 26, 2021 @ 6:56 pm

    My grandmother, who was raised in Leeds in Yorkshire, always referred to "mashing" the tea, a term which is also used… in brewing. You have to let the mash (ie steep), she would say.

  31. Kate Bunting said,

    November 27, 2021 @ 8:46 am

    I remember being baffled (as a child in Derbyshire) when builders working at our house asked "Can we mash?" My Yorkshire mother explained that they were asking for boiling water for their tea.

  32. JPL said,

    November 27, 2021 @ 11:48 pm

    Hilary Putnam's last blog posts before he died (in 2016) addressed essentially this question. (So if blog posts reflect his current concerns after a long life pursuing central philosophical problems, this is the one he was grappling with at that point.) "I first criticized the "Innateness Hypothesis" in 1967, in a paper … [that was] delivered in a debate with my friend Noam Chomsky, and we have been debating the issue ever since. …. I think it is worthwhile to say again, here, why I reject the "innateness hypothesis". Since the most famous advocate of that hypothesis is Noam Chomsky, I will use his version as my target.

    "The decisive objection, in my view, is that the "universal grammar" that Chomsky postulates has to provide for all possible meanings. [And that] … all possible terms [would be] definable from a number of basic terms that might have been selected for by evolution (such as the logical positivists' "observation terms")…. But Chomsky certainly rejects logical positivism, and he has suggested no alternative account of what the basic terms of "mentalese" might be. Nor has he ever told us what mechanism could have endowed the brains of primitive men and women with terms with such 'particular meanings' as "quantum potential" and "macroeconomic", or with terms by means of which they could be defined, if, indeed, there are more elementary terms in which this could be done.

    "…. The story that the hundreds of thousands of terms in human languages, and the millions of terms in possible human languages, all correspond to terms in a master vocabulary of 'Mentalese', or to a set of "switch"- settings, supplied to us by serendipity is precisely analogous to supposing that monkeys typed out Proust's Remembrance of Things Past."

    Chomsky replied, "…. You're quite right in dismissing talk of "innate language," just as I have always done. I have never once even hinted at your story about the terms of human language …. As for the origin of the terms of human language, as I've repeatedly discussed, that remains a deep mystery, for which no one has any sensible account."

    Putnam responds by reframing his objections to the "innateness hypothesis" as directed at "the innate language that Fodor posited", repeating essentially what I've quoted above. He then promises to say in his next post "how the mistake came about", and "why some of Chomsky's formulations did strike me as suggesting that he believes the "language organ" that he posits has to contain representations of all learnable meanings …." However, sadly, there would be no next post.

  33. JPL said,

    November 27, 2021 @ 11:54 pm

    Chomsky's corrections seem incomplete, from a Gricean perspective. First of all, Chomsky, in the first sentence quoted above, seems to be reacting to Putnam's heading for his OP: "Innate language?", which seems to be referring to what Chomsky would probably call "I-language" (which, if I'm not mistaken, Chomsky would indeed not consider to be innate), and questioning whether it exists. What Chomsky would say is innate probably is the "language faculty" in its initial state (onto- or phylo- genetically?), which is described by the theory of "Universal Grammar", the main component of which takes the form of a "computational system for human language"; the lexicon would belong to what is described in the subsequent states of the language faculty, the "exceptions" belonging to the grammars of individual languages. Secondly, Putnam repeatedly uses Chomsky's term 'term/terms', which Chomsky seems to use to refer to what I would call "lexemes", (or "lexical items/entries"), but Putnam seems to blur the distinction between lexemes and the supposed semantic components of the meanings of lexemes, which seem to be more primitive or fundamental than the lexemes, and which Chomsky seems to refer to as "features". So Chomsky is saying that he's never said the "terms" (lexemes) of human language are innate, and in fact their origin is a deep mystery; but "features", whatever they are thought to be, seem to play a fundamental role in his Minimalist Program. So what exactly are these "features", in what mode do they exist out there in the world, and where do they come from?

    But the mystery can be expressed by this question: How did the repertoires of natural language systems, including the lexemes (and let's include the derivational and inflectional morphemes, leaving on one side, as C would say, the syntax), come to be what they are today (whatever that is described as being), starting from whatever they were at the dawn of language? What is the mechanism that enabled this evolution? (Similar questions would apply to an individual speaker's pathway from birth to competence.) This is a possible question of causal explanation that it is possible to pursue with the methods and standards of empirical science. That the question has to be posed in such general terms, with such lack of specificity, with so few assumptions, suggests how far we have to step back to reconstruct a viable framework for pursuing this question.

    There is so much wrong with Fodor's desperation hail-Mary of a hypothesis that I hesitate to even mention anything specific. So I'll just say that its craziness is inevitably enabled by his acceptance, as an assumption, of the most fundamental stupid idea ever (I'll excuse Democritus), namely atomism. You'll never understand meaning as an empirical phenomenon by assuming that "meanings" are atomistic "thing-objects"; and this means also that you'll never understand natural language meaning by assuming as gospel ("religious dogmas" as the OP suggests) the principle of compositionality. I'll have to end with that.

  34. Basti said,

    November 28, 2021 @ 2:00 am

    Can't belive no one made this (b/d)ad joke yet:
    How did Jesus prepare his coffee? HE BREW et it.

  35. Randy Hudson said,

    November 28, 2021 @ 12:07 pm

    Well, @Basti, since you brought it up, I've seen bottles of He'Brew: The Chosen Beer. Sadly, they've ceased production just last month, after a 25 year run, and its parent the Schmaltz Brewing Company has shut down. Their final ale, Exodus 2021, is brewed with date, pomegranate, fig, and grape.

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