SEMANTICS: The nature of words and their meanings
This page is partially a place holder for future summarization.
by HUGH WALPOLE
Committee on Communications, Harvard University
This book owes its existence to the works of C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards, to whom I am also deeply grateful for very generous help and encouragement in this and other ventures. They must not, however, be blamed for anything I have done to their subject.
I am indebted to the Payne Fund for help in many ways ; to Charlotte Tyler Siepmann and the Orthological Committee for permission to use the materials in Chapter Nine ; and to the authors and publishers who have allowed men, in my last chapter and in its appendix, to use passages from the following books.
Every book worth reading is a meeting place. Some would call it a battleground : are the writer's ideas or the reader's preconceptions to survive? Others more shrewdly will think of a marriage : which characteristics will prevail in whatever conceptions ensue? This book is about this meeting of minds through words. It sketches the conditions of communication ; and so has to put the theory of Metaphor very much in the forefront. And of all the metaphors with which man has tried to picture the transmission of ideas, by far the best is that which too often lies dormant in the word "conceive" itself. If we think it through for enough we may come to wonder if this "metaphor" is not rather a theory awaiting development -- a concept which has yet to be born, as important perhaps as its long gestation in the human intellect might suggest.
It is present in all talk of fertile ideas, seeds of thought, culture, and such. It recurs in Plato with a frequency and a frankness which embarrassed is nineteenth-century translators. It has haunted historian of ideas ever since. Perhaps today, with our increased knowledge of the detail of biological and intellectual inheritance, we are approaching a stage at which it would be further explored. When it is, the two sorts of conceivings are not
likely to be found very different in complexity. As events
in themselves they must be equally incomprehensible,
but their dependencies upon other events -- through the
contexts Mr. Walpole lucidly treats of -- seem similar.
'We must, though, avoid one misunderstanding. The
last words of my first paragraph might invite it. I am not
talking here of "a conception in general" -- the sort of
thing that is "in the air" or "in the tradition," as we say --
but of the individual coming into being of a capacity in
the individual mind. This distinction is that between type
and token explained by Mr. Walpole in Chapter Seven.
The risk for the historian of ideas and for the genera]
reader alike is that in all this he thinks of ideas as types,
not as tokens of them. It is as types that our ideas make us
acceptable or not in society. But it is by their quality or
breeding as tokens formed in our minds that we are
saved or lost.
If we keep this conception of conception in view, we
will be less ready to suppose that any idea can be new .
its novelty will be in the combinations within it ; less
ready to expect two men's ideas to be quite the same ; less
ready to dream that an idea may be simply handed from
one mind to another : it has to grow there under different
conditions, more or less favorable ; less ready, again, to
imagine that a word is a sort of cellophane container
preserving a "content" intact -- the same content always.
Ideas are organisms and do things : different things in
different conditions. We are less ready, that is, to support
such views on reflection, for in fact they are current as
perhaps never before among persons of alleged education.
Semantics is perhaps most compendiously described
as the attempt to generate better notions on these points,
and it may be worth asking why such an attempt should
be needed today more than ever.
Three reasons suggest themselves. First, the place of
neatly-rounded-off scientific and technical "subjects" in
our instruction. With elementary physics and chemistry,
if anywhere, the above notions of ideas as static things
to be imparted and applied as received seems reasonable.
Technical vocabularies come as near as may be to a "one
word-one idea" ideal. A view of language and thought
which is partly true of these subjects has been spread to
cover the rest. We are only now realizing what a poor
instrument of general education this linguistic peculiarity
makes them. They give little training in the most
necessary arts of communication, through fluid and shifting words.
Second might come the unprecedented modern scatter
of school and college subjects. Most competent educators
are at one on this. We have no common body of knowledge -- acquired
and developed through words -- to serve
as shared starting points, landmarks, and routes of maneuver
(see Chapter Four below) in our attempts to
understand one another. We have riot made the same
mistakes together over the same pages or remedied them
by the same means together. There is no guessing nowa-days
what anyone may happen not to know ; what he
therefore may be unable to understand.
Thirdly, strict translation has been vanishing from our
curricula. No other exercise with language will take its
place. One of the promises of Basic English On which Mr.
Walpole admirably insists is that such translation from
one fonn of English into another -- with its double "incidence" on our language --
will, in good teachers' hands, fill this gap.
But translation is no mere formal training in the general
arts of verbal understanding and expression. It is
the unique opportunity and device for intensive study.
Its service to us in the past has largely been that it put
great utterances of our tradition before us and kept them
before us long enough for them to enter into a living
connection with our thoughts, forcing us to explore them
far enough to make them ours. Coleridge used to list
casual reading among the great destroyers of intellects.
There is no little reason to fear he was right.
Now semantics -- to give yet another description of
it -- is the rationale of translation. It explores theoretically
all the problems which come up when we compare two
ways of saying the same thing. When and how may they
not he "saving the same thing"? It finds, inevitably, that
in the formula both "saying" and "the same thing" are
radically ambiguous. Its task is to see why they must he
so and how to control, as well as we may, the resultant
troubles. And its prime concern -- since our lives are limited --
is to help us with the most important things, with
the words we use in saying them, typically with such a
word as "important" What may "important" mean? And
which are "the most important things"?
The dictionary will send us on a long tour of such other
words as "value," "good," "beautiful.," "necessary," "essential,"
"true," "existence," "nature," "God," "love,"
"soul," "knowledge," "right," and "duty." But the list of
their most routine connections which enough work with
the dictionary might give us would be no very great help
to understanding unless we brought that understanding
with us. In a modest way, bv knowing the English language
-- to some degree -- we know these connections already
and have some understanding. How may we get
more? By consulting the best philosophers? Good, but
the difficulty then is that we would have to learn to read
them and of all writers they are the easiest to misread.
Their pages are fuller than any others of invitations to
semantic incompetence. They need in their reader a suppleness,
an imaginative tolerance, a freedom and skill in
shifting his assumptions and experimenting with varied
viewpoints which nothing in our education today provides
-- certainly not an ordinary course in philosophy.
Without all this we find them violently at variance about
the meanings they seem to give to all the words to which
the dictionary article on "important" would lead us. And
most modern philosophers are too busy accusing one
another of misunderstanding them to have any attention
to spare for us or our inquiries.
It was this observation which prompted The Meaning
of Meaning. It explains Mr. Ogden's and my preoccupation
there with the mutual miscomprehension of philosophers.
It explains, too, our hope that a habit of multiple
definition and practice in English-English translation
might make it easier to come to grips with questions --
such as "What makes what important?" -- which the
traditional combativeness of philosophy was neglecting.
To us, "meaning" itself was the supreme example, the
very knot of the tangle, which was defeating and must,
while it was disregarded, frustrate inquiry. Our suggested
remedy -- though we preferred another name, then
less limited -- was "semantics," a radical inquiry i11to
the modes and causes of verbal misunderstanding. But,
as Mr. Walpole wittily remarks, "this subject can he
turned to very queer ends by people who already had a
gleam in their eye before they met it." A publisher once
told me that any book with the word "meaning" even
once in its title gets a peculiar "fan mail." We did not
foresee that we might encourage anyone to suppose that
the great words, those with the most meanings of the
most different orders, those therefore most in need of
study, were to be dismissed as without meaning. Bentham's
handy label, "Fictions," may have been a mistake
in tactics. "Some enthusiasts," writes Mr. Walpole,
"suggest throwing them away. I would like to see them try --
they might as well try to split atoms with bows and arrows!"
The great words are indeed as indispensable to
intellectual analysis as atoms are in physics and as
fundamental to intellectual order. If we can go inside them
that does not discredit them -- rather the reverse. But
they are more important than this. If we distinguish emotive
from referential modes of meaning (see Chapter
Two) -- and there are many ways of doing this, suited to
different purposes -- that is not to say that the emotive
meanings are less necessary to us or can be dismissed as
rhetoric or more suasion. For these emotive meanings
have to do with, in fact Sustain, the order in our minds,
an order not less essential to them than any contrasted
referential order. They sustain the order of our purposes.
Without that order reason and desire destroy one another.
In Plato's figure, it is the whole soul -- not the
intellect alone -- which has to be turned round toward the
idea of the good if it is to see the truth. As Mr. Walpole
well says, "Just as primitive words made us better than
animals, these great words will make us better than ourselves"
-- in the measure in which we rightly conceive their meanings.
I said at the start that a book might be a battleground :
will the writer's ideas or his reader's preconceptions win?
Sometimes a passing season of the climate of opinion
seems to decide that. Semantics in the modern guise developed
in the aftermath of World War I. A disillusioned
world found in it hints for discrediting further the very
things which it was already betraying. A generation was
taught only to suspect whole ranges of language it had
never studied, and these the most important to its well-
being. "Emotive language" became something to be
looked down upon by these naive sophisticates, and the
moral structure of the general purposes seemed to be
failing apart. There were many causes for this -- chief
among them, perhaps, a crude economic determinism.
Some of those who noted what was happening blamed a
"materialism " of which they thought semantics was an
outcome. I think they were doubly wrong. Neither materialism
nor any other ism is a necessary foundation for,
or result of, semantics. Its aim and outcome should be
the fuller understanding of all the doctrines -- often so
different -- hidden beneath these large, stultifying, philosophic
names. And, again, no great doctrine -- well understood --
destroys the moral order. Badly understood,
any doctrine will : witness the materialism of Stalin and
the idealism of Mussolini. What is most to be feared is
general inability to understand any of the great words in
any but their lowlier uses. And it is from that rising threat
that semantics would chiefly guard us.
I commend this book as an introduction to its pursuit
and as a very timely corrective of such misconceptions.
Above all, I commend it for its insistence on the tentative
exploratory nature of the study. Writings on semantics
must share with philosophy preeminent dangers of being
misunderstood. They are hard precisely because so
many possible readings claim the use of their words.
Mr. Walpole is too good a teacher to be surprised if,
here and there, readers accuse him of thinking exactly
what he was telling them not to think. Let them read on
and remember that their gain is in the processes to which
they are stirred, not in any product that could be served
Ivor Armstrong Richards
1 . WHAT IS SEMANTICS ?
SEMANTICS, or semasiology, is the study of the meanings of words. ***
Those obstinate questionings
Of sense. . . . . . . . . . .
WORDSWORTH, Intimations of Immortality.
*** 14 pages ***
A Better Definition of "Semantics"
The Usefulness of Semantics
Semantics is interested in the senses of words, and is of general value because it gives a better knowledge of what one is doing every time one makes use of language. It may best be looked upon, not as a complete science, but as a body of questions touching upon the connections between language and thought. By guiding one through these question of theory, it gives a knowledge which may be put to use and which will have as its outcome clearer thought, better writing, and sharper reading.
*** 3 pages ***
2 . EMOTIVE LANGUAGE : THE LANGUAGE OF FEELING
SOME years ago a dog team set out from somewhere to carry diphtheria antitoxin to Nome, Alaska. ***
We need a spell of purer science and purer poetry before the two can again be mixed, if indeed this will ever become once more desirable.
I. A. RICHARDS, Principles of Literary Criticism.
*** 20 pages ***
Emotive Language and Propaganda
Three Aspects of Emotive Language
Echoes of Sound and Sentiment
There are two different used of language, and it is necessary to keep them separate in our minds ; the Emotive use and the Referential use. this book is chiefly interested in the referential language of work, business, science, and discussion.
Every example of language, in writing or in talk, may be viewed from four different angles, the reader or hearer looking in turn at its Sense, its Feeling, its Tone, and its Intention. Though to some degree all four are normally present in every statement, Feeling and Tone are specially important in poetry, and Intention in propaganda. Poetry is of great value in putting our feelings in order and giving us a healthy frame of mind.
*** 4 pages ***
3 . SIGNS : LEARNING WITHOUT WORDS
HAVING distinguished in the previous chapter between referential and emotive language, and having noted the dangers of using this distinction too freely, our next task is to see how language becomes "referential" ; that is, how it comes to have Sense (Function 1). ***
We an discern in the dog's mind the same essential processes that we use when we lean a language.
WELLS, HUXLEY and WELLS, The Science of Life.
*** 13 pages ***
To Be Affected Is To Interpret
Content, Organism, Sign
Seeing, hearing, and learning are complex processes. Science at the present time is able to give us knowledge in some detail of the different states by which outside things get in touch with our minds. What our brain sees is not the thing we are "looking at," but the changes in our eyes of which that thing is the cause. If we keep this order of events in mind, we are in less danger of error.
Learning in an animal's (or a man's) reaction to Signs. A Sign is a part of an experience, that part which, coming back to the animal's attention, has the same effect as the complete experience had in the past.
I . Describe in terms of signs and contexts how a child might learn these words : label , affect , merry .
II. Describe in similar terms how a human being sees and recognizes a chair. What is the sign? Can such a sign be false?
4 . SYMBOLS : A WORD IS A SIGN OF THOUGHT
A SYMBOL is a word ***
Words are wise men's counter, -- they do but reckon by them ; but they are the money of fools.
THOMAS HOBBES, Leviathan.
*** 26 pages ***
Referent, Thought, Symbol
How Referential Language Works
Shifts and Changes of Meaning
The Scale of Perception
Process -- Product
False Symbols and Complex Referents
"Is It Good English ?"Agent--Action
How We Abuse Words
Process -- Product
Words are Signs, and healthy words are Symbols. A symbol is an outstretched finger pointing to a Referent. Words have in great part been responsible for the increase in man's control over things about him. But man is frequently overcome by his words. This is because not one of us is completely free from the error of looking on words as if they had a separate existence, with strange powers of acting by themselves. We are in far less danger of making this error if we keep clearly before our minds the order of the three parts of this chain : Referent -- Thought -- Symbol.
I . Draw a rough Triangle of Reference for the symbol chair. Compare it with the diagram on page 81--especially the base of your Triangle.
II . Make a short list of words which in your experience are very frequently misused.
III. Write down a few words which you yourself have trouble in using adequately.
IV . Start a file or a notebook in which to collect examples from your reading of different uses of the words in the two lists mentioned above ; before long you will have examples of all their chief uses and be able to see which kinds of meaning-shift render them troublesome.
5 . CONTEXT : A SYMBOL HAS MEANING ONLY IN ITS CONTEXT
A SYMBOL can have no meaning apart from its context. When we follow up this assertion we become ***
Anything has a cause, and the cause of anything is everything.
W. J. TURNER
*** 13 pages ***
Contexts at Work
Three Types of Contexts
The Receding Referent
The Context of anything is the field in which it has its place. There are three different sorts of contexts ; of words, thoughts, and things ; but every context has connections with other sorts.
When using language, we never give all the details of the things we are talking about. Our words are dependent for their full effect upon our hearer's knowledge of the context. So it is clear that there is no such thing as "the right word," of making a certain statement.
*** 2 pages ***
6 . DEFINITION : TWENTY-FIVE DEFINITION ROUTES
LOGICIANS do not agree on the definition of "definitions." ***
Mr. Jorrocks felt confident,"Look out of the vinder, James, and see wot'un a night it is," said he to Pigg. James staggered up, and after a momentary grope about the room--for they were sitting without candles--exclaimed, "Hellish dark and smells of cheese !" repeated Mr. Jorrocks, looking round in astonishment, "smells o' cheese ! -- vy, man, you've go your nob i' the cupboard--this be the vinder."
SURTEES, Handley Cross or Mr. Jorrocks's Hunt.
*** 17 pages ***
Analysis of a Journey
Twenty-five Definition Routes
When you are talking to someone about the best way for him to get from one part of town to another, it is necessary first of all to get agreement on two points
(1) what place he is starting from
Then it is possible to give him a clear account of the road to take.
(2) which place he is going to
"Definition" is nothing more or less than the use of a certain road to take your hearer from a common referent to one which is new to him. The number of such roads is limited -- in other words, our minds are able to make connections between one thought and another in only a limited number of ways. These ways may be listed ; and the knowledge and conscious use of them will be seen to be of great value for the exchange of ideas.
*** 2 pages ***
7 . METAPHOR : BORROWING THE NAME OF ANOTHER THING
JUST before the World War a German scholar published a book called The Philosophy of As If. The German in the street, if he heard of the book at all, was probably just tickled by the title. But it angered many philosophers, for its main argument took the line that most of the things we talk and think about do not really exist and in our hearts we know they have no existence ; they are used as metaphors.
Mr. Blotton had no hesitation in saying that he had used the word in its Pickwickian sense. (Hear, hear.) He was bound to acknowledge that, personally, he entertained the highest regard and esteem for the honorable gentleman ; he had merely considered him a humbug in the Pickwickian point of view. (Hear, hear.)
DICKENS , The Pickwick Papers.
*** 16 pages ***
We Speak and Think in Metaphors
Obvious Shifts of Meaning
The Mechanics of Metaphor
Tenor and Vehicle
A metaphor is the comparison, in one word, of two things from different fields of experience. In the statement "That girl is a cat," the word "cat" is a metaphor. In this, as in every metaphor, there are two parts : the Tenor and the Vehicle. The Tenor in this example is a cruel, ill-humored young woman ; the Vehicle, a cruel, ill-humored animal (though this is a false thing to say about cats). It is very important to see the connection between the way in which we make use of a metaphor and the way we make use of any general name.
*** 1 page ***
8 . FICTIONS : THE STUFF THAT DREAMS ARE MADE ON
THE man on the street corner who says there "ain't no justice" speaks more truly than he knows. There has never been any such thing. Justice is a Fiction, along with its fellow -- Friendship, Discipline, Democracy, Liberty, Socialism, Isolationism, and Appeasement. You cannot point to their referents. It is hard even to describe what is meant by them, unless one takes the course of substituting one Fiction for another. Should all such words be "sent to the doghouse"?
My proposals were all accepted by the sub-committee. Only I was obliged to insert two phrases about "duty" and "right" into the Preamble to the Statutes, ditto "truth," "morality," and "justice," but these are placed in such a way that they can do no harm.
KARL MARX , in a letter to Friedrich Engels, September 7, 1864.
*** 19 pages ***
Headaches for Semanticians
The Bogeys of Bentham
Gyps, Guesses, and Ghosts
The earlier parts of this book have made it clear how necessary it is to take into account the Context of a word. Looking at a Symbol by itself is frequently the cause of serious error.
However, in the English language there is an increasing tendency for every word to be pinned onto some separate bit of experience, and to get some sort of general sense which may be looked at independently.
Among the different sorts of Symbols, those which seem to have the strongest separate existence are our "nouns"--the names of things. Men and women and cats and pigs and houses are units in themselves. but a great number of our "names of things" are false names, because they have no things at the back of them. Truth, Goodness, Beauty, Attention, Control are examples of such words. They are the names of Fictions.
There are two rules which make us able to put Fictions to work without letting them get out of control.
(1) Be ready to put any statement which is full of fictions into simpler language, using symbols representative of more solid things.
(2) Taking a Fiction separately, get into the way of looking upon it as a metaphor which has no Vehicle ; and be ready to give it a Vehicle.
I . Write down twenty abstract nouns expressing what you take to be the root sense of the following prepositions : about, across, after, against, among, at, before, between, by, down, from, in of, on, over, through, to, under, up, with.
II . Draw archetypes for the twenty abstract nouns of I.
III. Collect different uses of each of the following adjectives : beautiful, democratic, equal, free, good, just, reasonable, true.
IV . Translate the eight adjectives of III into nouns, and describe in words simple concrete situations which would illustrate the root senses of your eight nouns.
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9 . APPLIED SEMANTICS : BASIC ENGLISH
Most of complete chapter
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The Purposes of Basic English
A Definition Vocabulary
Sixteen Verbs in Basic
Why Learn Basic ?
How To Write Basic English
A Summary of Points to Remember
Alphabetic List of the Words of Basic English
10 . INTENSIVE READING : THE VALUE OF PARAPHRASE
LISTS of best books mean nothing vital to the average reader, and there are no rules of thumb or charts of instructions on what to do with "a book" in general that cannot be improved upon by the average reader himself, individually. To read a book well is to ask the right questions about it ; and it seems obvious that the same prescribed questions will not do every time. The right questions are those which arise from the special nature of the particular book or which grow out of the one reader's own mind.
No, Socrates, the limit of such a discussion, for a wise man, is all his days.
Glaucon, in PLATO'S Republic, Book 5.
*** 4 pages ***
The Delayed Response
*** 27 pages ***
*** 13 pages ***
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