Hi, Noah, thanks for writing us with your question.
I'm not sure which book you were reading, and I have never heard of such languages myself. To be honest, I kind of doubt there really are such languages. Have you ever heard about how Eskimos have lots of words for "snow"? Well, at least a lot of people think that's just wrong. It's a myth. In this case, I find it hard to imagine that the people speaking any language wouldn't find it useful to have words for more colors than the ones you mention. And if it's useful, then they will introduce such words.
But let's suppose that there are languages like that and ask what we should say about them, if so. Both options you mention seem possible: that they have words for "black", "white", and "colored", and that they have words for "black", "white", and "red". In the latter case, then, as you say, they would have no word for the color of the sky. But they could still describe it, if they had a word meaning "same color". They could say the sky was the same color as the lake, maybe, and that the grass was the same color as the leaves on the tree.
If they couldn't describe it, and felt they needed to do so, then, as I kind of said before, I think they would probably make up a word for it. Languages grow that way all the time. They are alive, changing every day to fit the needs of the people who use them.
In fact, you might even have made up new words yourself! We all do it. Mostly, we make up names for things, but sometimes we make up names for new kinds of things, even. One of my cats used to make lots of different kinds of meows depending upon what it was he wanted. So we made up words to describe his meows. We needed a word, and there wasn't one, so we created it.
Isn't language cool?
The usual term would be something like "singular proposition", as opposed to a "general proposition". A singular proposition is one that is about some particular object. For example, the proposition that the Dalai Lama is German is a singular proposition. A general proposition would be something like: One and only one person is the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, and that person is German.
One point worth noting here is that words like "fake" are, so far as I can see, always intensional. meaning that whether something is a fake F depends upon what property F is, and not just which things are F. They are also "attributive", meaning that an Adj-Noun isn't just an Adj that is Noun, but (roughly) something that is Adj for a Noun. E.g., a tall basketball player is someone who is tall for a basketball player, not just someone who is tall and a basketball player. Attributives are hard enough; intensionality is hard enough; both by themselves. Put them together, and it's a nightmare.
I think there's rather more that can be said here (and, for what it's worth, I don't actually agree that "words mean what we use them to mean").
We probably need to distinguish a couple different things here. One kind of case is that of idiom. These are linguistic expressions, like "kicked the bucket", whose meaning has nothing to do with the component words. These sorts of phrases are really just single words, but long ones, and there are good tests for when you have an idiom. Note, e.g., that I cannot say "The bucket was kicked by John" and have it mean the same as "John kicked the bucket", where the latter is the idiomatic use meaning "John died".
It might well be that "not bad" in this kind of case is an idiom, but the case seems to me to have many features of a case of implicature. Here's a standard kind of example. Suppose Professor Jones writes a letter of recommendation for Mr Smith. The letter says:
To whom it may concern:
Smith has excellent handwriting and was never late for class.
Yours, Prof Jones
Now Jones certainly hasn't said that Smith isn't qualified for whatever the letter was supposed to recommend him for. But he's made his view pretty clear. Why? Well, there's a story to be told about that. Jones knows what kind of letter he's expected to write, but he's totally failed to do that. Why? The obvious thought is that Jones is just saying something positive, and that's all he's got to say that's positive. So you can infer what Jones actually thinks from what he does say and the situation in which it's said.
Here's another kind of case. Suppose I say, "Most of the students passed the test". I do not, when I say that, also say that not all of them did. You can see that because I could continue, "In fact, all of them did". But if I don't continue that way, then you might reasonably infer that not all of them did. Why? Because, if all of them did, I could just have said so. But I didn't. Now, maybe in certain circumstances, that wouldn't be relevant. Maybe all that matters is that most of them passed and, if so, then you shouldn't draw that inference. But in a normal case, you could draw it, and reasonably so.
This kind of example illustrates what's known as the "conversational maxim of quantity", which says, more or less: When you say something, say the most informative thing you can say on the topic, given the general parameters of the conversation.
The case of "not bad" is like that. If the salad were delicious, then you could have said so. Indeed, it's reasonable to suppose you would have said so. But you didn't say so, so it must not really be delicious. Rather, it's merely okay. Minimally not bad. That's it.
I confess I'm puzzled by Prof. Heck's reply. He defends the following three assumptions:
(1) If you understand a proposition, then you also understand its negation.
(2) It is necessary, if you are to believe a proposition, to understand it.
(3) It's perfectly possible to believe a proposition and not understand its negation.
I interpret those assumptions as follows:
(1*) Understanding P entails understanding not-P.
(2*) Believing P entails understanding P.
(3*) Believing P doesn't entail understanding not-P.
(1*)-(3*) imply a contradiction: Believing P does and doesn't entail understanding not-P. If so, then (1)-(3) imply everything (if I've interpreted them correctly). I also don't see how the falsity of (3) implies that we would always have to believe contradictions. If (3) is false, then believing P entails understanding not-P; I don't see how any unwelcome consequences follow from that.
PLEASE NOTE: (3) above was taken from Professor Heck's original posting, which he has since amended. [Alexander George on 6/6/2014.]
Let me add a few words to Sean's excellent response.
I think one thing worth keeping in mind here, which I may have said already in response to a similar question, is that the institution of marriage in the United States, and in some other places in the developed world, has changed a great deal over the last sixty years or so.
A friend of mine once joked, "Of course marriage has to be between a man and a woman. Otherwise, how would you know who gets to beat up whom?" Not very funny, of course, in one sense, but perhaps you see her point. There was a time, not very long ago, when it was legally impossible in many states for a woman to be raped by her husband. A married woman's ability to own property independently of her husband was curtailed in some jurisdictions. Men had, by law, that kind of control over their wives, and the entire institution of marriage was one of ownership. That is why many radicals of the Victorian and post-Victorian eras were deeply suspicious of the entire institution. One of these people was Bertrand Russell, who wrote a book, Marriage and Morals, on the topic.
With the explosion of the feminist movement in the 1950s, these things begin to change, and marriage starts to be seen as a partnership between equals. The fact that one of these partners was male and one female slowly, over time, came to be quite irrelevant. Neither party has rights or privileges that the other does not have, simply on the basis of gender, and any such privilege would be seen as sex discrimination.It was essentially on this ground, that the gender difference had no legal significance, that the Supreme Judicial Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts made its historic decision legally same-sex marriage.
That is why it is no accident that those who trumpet the "one man, one woman" line are anti-feminist, too.
This phenomenon is well-known. It's a form of zeugma that is known as "syllepsis".
I think most linguists would say that this sentence cannot mean that Miles has a trumpet and a narwhal a protrusion from the head. The reason is the obvious one: that "horn" has to be interpreted a single way. Note that, if correct, this shows that "Ms and Ns are F" is not, as we sometimes tell our introductory logic students, simply an abbreviation (or something) for "Ms are F and Ns are F", since, in the latter, "F" could be interpreted differently in its two occurrences.
When one makes a claim like the one just made, we are talking about how the sentence is immediately, unreflectively, and automatically understood by a hearer. So what I'm observing is, in effect, simply that our "language faculty" operates a certain way, and not another way that it could, in principle, have operated. And put that way, the point should be fairly uncontroversial. The humorous effect one can get from syllepsis depends the fact that syllpetic utterances strikes us in the first instance as odd.
But language-use is complex and one can, of course, reflect on what has been said and arrive at a kind of secondary interpretation. Certainly we do that will sylleptic utterances, and so one can manage to communicate something by such an utterance that it cannot literally mean.
You may be referring (directly or indirectly, intentionally or not) to the infamous Whorf-Sapir hypothesis, in brief the idea that the structure of one's language constrains/determines one's conceptualization of and cognitive approach to the world. (If the Inuit genuinely have more words for snow than ordinary English speakers, then that reflects that they can make (say) visual distinctions between the kinds of snow than we can ....) I'm not particularly familiar with the literature except that I believe this hypothesis is no longer much in fashion at all -- while perhaps in some limited senses different languages (including their different vocabularies, number of words, grammatical structures) are able to express various thoughts differently, etc., far more people accept these days that the 'thoughts' themselves are roughly universally available -- and indeed the fact that languages CAN be translated into each others (even if not always perfectly) suggests that all languages are capable of expressing the same thoughts ... (and even when a translation isn't perfect we can usually describe the ways in which it is imperfect, thus more fully capturing the 'thought' expressed') ... As for your follow-up: depends what you mean by 'subjective' (or course), but you have your finger on a very deep issue: whether meaning is ultimately reducible to the relationship between a word and our conception or perception of things ... (at some point words must 'make contact' with the world ....)