Mere Semantics

Apr – Jun 2000 | Vol. 6, No. 2
Dirckx, John H.

Semantics are the Epicenter of Language

It would seem self-evident that meaning lies at the heart of communication. An act of speech or a piece of writing that conveys no clear message cannot with justice be termed language. And language that, for whatever reason, conveys a message different from the one intended by the speaker or writer has obviously failed to achieve its purpose.

Hence, it is hard to see the point of view of those who dismiss serious inquiries into the meaning of words and phrases as merely semantic, as if meaning were but a peripheral or trivial concern with respect to the use of language. How does it happen that a word referring to the science of meaning has such strong connotations of irrelevance and even frivolity?

Semantics, phonetics, and grammar are the principal branches of the science of linguistics. These are, of course, artificial divisions of the subject, made to simplify the study of language by focusing on one aspect of it at a time. The sounds of language are as deeply interrelated with its meanings and its syntactic structures as are the subject matters of anatomy, biochemistry, and physiology with one another.

As we move from phonetics to grammar to semantics we find a progressive broadening of the database and a progressive increase in its abstractness. Phonetics is largely a descriptive discipline. The human vocal apparatus is complex but finite. It is possible theoretically to give an exhaustive description of its structure and function and of all the sounds it can make.

Grammar is partly descriptive and partly analytic. Although it should be possible to make a complete list of the patterns, precedents, or rules according to which users of a given language form sentences, it would not be possible to make a complete list of all possible sentences in any language. Thus to a great extent the grammarian must proceed inductively, drawing general conclusions from masses of particular facts.

The subject matter of semantics is not a group of physical entities, but an unlimited and discontinuous universe of language functions or phenomena. Semantics seeks to define the relationship between a word or other speech unit and the meaning it calls up in the hearer or reader, and thus it has affinities with both philosophy and psychology.

Semantics arose as a specialized branch of linguistics early in the nineteenth century, as a reaction against the preoccupation with form that had characterized the developing science of comparative philology during the eighteenth century. The German scholar, C. Reisig, the earliest to propose a separate study of meaning, called it semasiology (semasiologie) and viewed it as a division of grammar – specifically the grammar of the classical languages, and hence a purely historical discipline.

His work made so little impression that the French linguist Michel Bréal virtually had to reinvent the field some three generations later, calling it semantics (sémantique). Bréal proposed laws to describe various semantic phenomena and investigated semantic change, but still in a purely historical context.

About a hundred years ago the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure revolutionized the study of language by distinguishing between a discussion of the features of a language as it exists at any given moment, which he called synchronic, and historical (diachronic) explanations or interpretations of phenomena of language. He also sought to coordinate the various fields of study of language, including semantics, by showing their total interdependence, and thereby inaugurated the school of thought called structural linguistics.

The modern semanticist is not interested in ascertaining or fixing the meanings of words, but only in studying how words and other linguistic structures carry or impart meaning. Denotation and connotation, homonyms and synonyms, metaphors, words that simultaneously have different and even opposite meanings, verbal taboos and euphemisms, broadening and narrowing of the meanings of words – these are all grist to the semanticist’s mill.

Probably the most important step in the evolution of ideas currently held by the laity regarding semantics occurred when the Polish-American scientist and educator Alfred Korzybski founded a philosophical system called general semantics. In his book Science and Sanity (1933), Korzybski set forth the thesis that the development of Western culture has been stunted by its dependence on Aristotelian logic, Euclidean geometry, and Newtonian physics. His grandiose schemes to eliminate evils ranging from migraine headaches to marital discord by introducing a sort of quantum semantics, more in tune with the structure and function of the human nervous system than existing modes of thought, were brought to nothing by the Second World War.

But meanwhile, some of his ideas had been published in practical and popularized form in books such as Stuart Chase’s The Tyranny of Words (1938) and S.I. Hayakawa’s Language in Action (1941). These books, showing how politicians twist words to promote perverse ideologies and how advertisers abuse language to boost their products, aroused enormous interest among the general public. By 1950, Semantics had taken its place in the popular vocabulary along with relativity, radioactivity, and other words of constant utterance but vague and fluid purport.

Currently popular notions of semantics derive directly from those that were prevalent at mid-century. One common interpretation of the term is “deliberate use of the language to deceive or mislead” (often including techniques of propaganda, such as argumentum ad hominem, sweeping generalization, and false analogy, which have no direct connection with the meanings of words). Another is “obstructing rational discussion by focusing on words instead of facts or issues.” Yet another is “incidental and irrelevant linguistic aspects of a subject.”

Central to all of these popular definitions of semantics (none of which will be found in any dictionary) is verbal ambiguity, and specifically the observation that different people can use the same word with disparate meanings. And that is precisely what has happened to the word semantics itself. The ill-favor clinging to popular misconceptions of semantics as something spurious, trivial, or even underhanded has brought into disrepute the rational inquiry into meaning in language, which is the correct denotation of the word. And the aura of opprobrium and distrust that surrounds semantics “the science of meaning” has even extended to the adjective semantic “pertaining to meaning.”

When Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world,” he was not just being epigrammatic or esoteric. Whether or not one chooses to believe the psycholinguists when they assert that we think almost exclusively in linguistic channels, one cannot escape the fact that it is chiefly through language that we communicate with each other. In this light we can hardly overrate the importance of paying attention to the meaning of our words, and of ensuring that those with whom we wish to communicate understand the same things by them that we do.

Considerations of political rhetoric, mercantile misrepresentation, and other verbal chicanery aside, words without clear and fixed meanings are treacherous servants, capable at any moment of betraying their masters. One would have to be extraordinarily obtuse to overlook the pernicious effects, both in everyday conversation and in technical communication, of using incorrect or ambiguous terms, and the frequency with which such lapses divert the flow of information and disrupt the exchange of ideas.

Any investigator, theorist, or educator who cannot be troubled to choose and use words with caution and discretion incurs the suspicion of being equally negligent in making and recording observations, gathering and sorting facts, setting up and testing hypotheses, and drawing valid deductions from premises. Similarly, anyone who scorns the “merely” semantic facts of a subject as unworthy of serious consideration, or as somehow peripheral to the issues and their expression and discussion, confesses to a sadly distorted scale of values, a deficient sense of how language works, and in fact an utter failure to appreciate the meaning of meaning.

Dr. Dirckx is Medical Director of the University of Dayton Student Health Center in Dayton, Ohio. This essay first appeared on pages 56 and 57 of the very first issue of Dermatopathology: Practical and Conceptual in 1995. It is reprinted here not only because it complements the piece by Dr. Cerroni that precedes it, but because it merits a second reading!