Manual Features: Perspectives on a Key Notion in Linguistics

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Semantics is the study of meaning in language. The term is taken from the Greek seme , meaning sign. The word meaning can be defined in many ways, but the definition most pertinent to linguistics and the one we will use is that meaning is " the function of signs in language. The term semantics was only invented in the 19th century, but the subject of meaning has interested philosophers for thousands of years. The Greek philosophers were the first people known to have debated the nature of meaning.

They held two opposing views on the subject. The naturalist view, held by Plato and his followers, maintained that there was an intrinsic motivation between a word and its meaning. The meaning of a word flows directly from its sound. The Greek word thalassa , sea , in its classical pronunciation, supposedly sounded like the waves rushing up onto the beach. If the naturalist view were entirely correct for all words, we would be able to tell the meaning of any word just by hearing it. In reality only a few onomotopoeic words in each language actually sound something like what they mean: swoosh, splash, bow wow, meow.

Poets can skillfully use words with sound features that heighten the meaning intended:. But poetic sound imagery represents a rare, highly clever use of language, so the naturalist approach is applicable to only a tiny portion of any language.


The conventionalist view of Aristotle and his followers holds that the connection between sound and meaning is completely arbitrary, a matter of social convention and prior agreement between speakers. It is true that the form of most words is arbitrary from an extra-linguistic point of view.

This position is much nearer the truth.

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However, the form of a word may be motivated by the forms of other words in a language. That is, although a word's meaning is arbitrary from the point of view of the real world, is is often somehow motivated by the system of the language it is a part of. In studying morphology we saw that the meaning of a word can often be deduced from knowing the meaning of its parts.

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Since words often originate from other words, a word very often has some historical reason for being the shape it is. Sometimes the origin or etymology of a word is completely transparent, as in the case of unknown from known , or discomfort from comfort. Philologists this is a broader term for people who study language as well as anything created with language often make a distinction between meaning and concept.

Concept is the totality of real world knowledge about an item, while meaning is a category of language. It is possible to know the meaning of the word without knowing everything about the concept referred to by that meaning. For example, one can know the meaning of a word like diamond without knowing the chemical composition of the stone or that carbon and pencil lead are, chemically speaking, composed of the same substance.

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In other words, one can know the word diamond means a type of gemstone without understanding the full concept associated with that gemstone in the real world. Sometimes, however, meaning and concept cannot be so easily differentiated. For instance, the meaning of many abstract words completely parallels the concept they refer to, as with the word tradition and the concept "tradition. Linguists have a second way of looking at the distinction between linguistic and real-world knowledge.

They often discuss the difference between a word's sense and its reference. A word's sense is how the word relates to other words in a language Wittgenstein's "meaning" ; it's reference is how it relates to real world concepts. The French word mouton refers to a sheep as well as to the meat of the animal as used for food the sense of the word combines two references. In English we have two separate words for each extra-linguistic reference. The sense of the English word sheep is limited by the presence of the word mutton in English.

There are many such examples when comparing languages:. English uncle vs. Thus, the sense of a word concerns its linguistic boundaries in a particular language. The reference of a word concerns which concepts it refers to in the real world. The distinction between a word's sense and its reference, or between linguistic meaning and real-world concept--difficult though this distinction may be to draw in many cases--is useful in comparing semantic categories across languages.

Languages may divide the same set of real-world concepts in very different ways. The concept of blood relations offers a good example.

Each language has its own set of kinship terms to refer to one's parents' generation mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles. Discussing kinship terms from the point of view of real world concepts allows comparison across languages without bias in favor of the meaning categories of any particular language. Here is a comparison of kinship terms for aunts and uncles in English and Pitjantjatrara, an Australian language:. Another good example is provided by color terms. Every language has a set of basic color terms. But these color terms do not divide the color spectrum in the same place. In other words, the extra-linguistic concept "color" is reflected in each language idiosyncratically.

The linguistic division of concepts is in part arbitrary and idiosyncratic to each language, in part motivated by factors actually present in the real world. Extra-linguistic real world factors may result in universal tendencies in how languages divide up concepts. A second look at color terms illustrates this point. Berlin and Kay in Basic Color Systems , noted that the number of basic color terms may differ across languages.

A basic color term is defined as one which cannot be said to be a part of the meaning of another basic term. Yellow is a basic color term in English because it is not a type of red, green, blue, etc. Berlin and Kay found that some languages have only two basic color terms while others have as many as Berlin and Kay discovered that the number of color terms seems to be systematically related to the core color represented by the terms:.

A few languages, including Russian, have 12 terms because in place of one generic term for blue, there are two words: Russ. Subsequent research has shown that a minority of languages violate this scheme.

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The question arizes as to why color terms in languages should conform so universally to such a general pattern. Geoffrey Sampson, who wrote Schools of Linguistics , offers what might be a partial explanation. Physiologically, red is the most noticeable color to the eye; therefore, it is the first most likely to be represented after light and dark. Distinctions involving yellow and green occur frequently in nature, whereas blue only naturally occurs in a few things: the color of some flowers, of bodies of water, the sky; the distinction between blue and other types of dark, therefore, is relatively unimportant to many aboriginal cultures and not as likely to be included in the language under specific terms.

Discussing the meaning of words by breaking it down into smaller semantic components such as is called componential analysis.

Noting how semantics is based on extra-linguistic categories, a group of linguists including the Polish-born Australian linguist Anna Wierzbicka have tried to reduce all meaning in language to a set of universal core concepts, such as tall, short, male, female , etc. This finite set of concepts are then used universally, to describe the meanings of all words in all languages. This semantic approach to language structure has problems.

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The first problem is in deciding which concepts are basic and which are derived. Whatever language is used to label the concepts in the first place biases the semantic analysis in favor of the semantic structure of that lang.

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A second problem is the old difficulty of distinguishing between sense and reference. The linguistic boundaries between conceptual features vary across languages.

This is especially true with grammatical categories of meaning. Animacy in Russian and Polish objects , and Cherokee one plural ending from human, another for inanimate, and a different one for plants and animals. Attempts to reduce meaning in all languages to a limited set of conceptual categories existing outside of language have been unsuccessful.