|Abstract||What is a variable and in which sense can we say that natural language contains variables? Inspecting the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary we learn that a variable is a ‘variable thing or quantity’. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language tells us that a variable is (1) ‘something that varies or is prone to variation’; (2) within astronomy, ‘a variable star’; and (3) within mathematics, ‘a quantity capable of assuming any of a set of values’ or ‘a symbol representing such a quantity’. Penguin’s Dictionary of Mathematics states that a variable is (1) ‘a mathematical entity that can stand for any of the members of a set’ and (2) ‘an expression in logic that can stand for any element of a set (called the domain) over which it is said to range’. The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy gives no explicit definition, but explicates a variable informally as something which can replace a word in a sentence and which can then be seen as ‘pointing’ at different members of a domain. From this mini-recherché two senses of ‘variable’ seem to emerge a narrower sense, in which a variable is something which inhabits the realms of logics and mathematics, and a wider sense in which a variable is simply anything that varies. It seems also clear that this latter concept of variable is wide to the point of not being a concept at all (for surely any thing can be seen as somehow varying, i.e. changing, evolving, or displaying varying aspects etc.), and therefore the only concept we really have is the narrower one. This means that we should see variables as primarily a matter of logical and mathematical calculi. Does this mean that it makes no real sense to speak about variables in connection with natural language? Of course not: natural language is in various respects similar to formal calculi; and formal calculi are employed, in various ways, to regiment, analyze or explicate it. It might therefore be both possible and reasonable to transfer the concept from the latter to the former..|
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