Language and Meaning
The relationship between language and meaning is not a straightforward one. Since language and symbols are the primary vehicle for our communication. There is an arbitrary relationship between a linguistic symbol and its referent. Language provides context for symbolic understanding. The use of language is. To the human mind, symbols are cultural representations of reality. Every culture has its own set of symbols associated with different experiences and perceptio.
Clearly they are confusing here knowing and understanding responses with acts of responding to symbols. This multiplies our errors by two. Granting that we have meaning and understanding reactions in linguistic situations, are these reactions simply reactions to symbols? No more so, we should say, than in the case of responding to a conditioning stimulus object. It appears that here once more those who symbolize language isolate words, namely, the dead fruits of speech, and make them into signifiers or elements in a relational couple.
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- Symbols and Language in Human Culture
These, as we have indicated, are indeed symbols. This brings us to a consideration of what is involved when we actually respond to symbols. Symbols are no more language than the object in the road that is used as a landmark for it certain purpose.
True enough that object means something to me. When I see it, I know I must turn to the right; but where in this whole situation is there that living interaction in which some one speaks to some one or tells him where to go?
Symbols are very definitely objects of particular sorts and they indeed exhibit stimulational functions. As substitute stimuli they elicit understanding responses among others, but in no case as symbols do they constitute any essential feature of a living linguistic event.
When I discover what these words or signs stand for, it is no violation of metaphor to say that these hieroglyphics excite and enlarge my understanding. They are my teachers. From them I learn all the glories and vicissitudes of a departed race of people.
I know how they lived, worshipped, and spoke. Now even if these signs are the crystallized precipitates of what was once actual adjustmental language, they are obviously not so any longer. Again, I visit a foreign country. I hear a strange tongue spoken. I infer that the speaker is telling the other person something. By analogy with my own speech activities the words spoken convey to me a world of meaning.
I understand much of what is going on. If anything that stimulates me to understand is a symbol, we have here perfectly operating symbols, but no language. In none of these cases am I as the hearer or reader involved in a language situation. I am not adjusting myself to linguistic stimulation.
I am neither engaged in conversation nor being commanded or requested to do something. Our task of separating symbolism from language is finished. We conclude that language as living phenomena can not be regarded as other than behavior.
Language consists of a series of adjustmental interactions and not a set of symbols. This does not mean, of course, that language can not be symbolized. That it can we have already indicated. We can symbolize any kind of data. Then why not language? We can just as well abstract all the actual content of a stimulus and response event as of any other. It is no great feat to make the speaker's action, which ordinarily is a stimulating response, into a signifier as a fixed correlate to an object as significant.
But the slight value this procedure promises for linguistic description is indicated by the fact that the object may just as well be made the signifier as the significant. Let us not be misunderstood.
So far we have been interested in the actual nature of language. We may freely admit that for purposes of studying language and organizing our knowledge about language we must symbolize such data.
All sciences must make use of such contrived relationship as symbolizing is concerned with. But surely we can not confuse such schematic materials designed to describe language with the actual language which we are attempting to describe. What are the mechanisms of transforming language into symbols t We have already suggested one. Namely, we start with the confusion of verbal signs-written or printed characters which are symbols-with living language which is not.
Another such mechanism is the employment of the principle of context. Essentially this principle amounts to a process of loading symbols with definite linguistic content. The result is that symbolizing becomes language. In this way one takes care of the fact that one can adapt oneself adequately to different circumstances with the same acts such as pair, pare, pear.
While the symbolist may reject as irrelevant some of the factors of the psychological action, he may put in a sufficient number to make his symbology correspond pretty closely to a language situation. But here it is in no sense pure symbological relations that are being discussed, but something else. In other words, symbology is no longer regarded as the science of relations.
But all of these manipulations enable us to see the likenesses and differences between symbology and language. The point here is that whenever we employ word symbols they must be regarded as precise instruments for our thought and more overt conduct.
To illustrate, when a person speaks or writes of god, beauty, virtue, or freedom we prescribe a proper correlation between the language symbols and their referents. When these things actually exist, then the words must explicitly refer to them.
If not, the metaphorical character of the speech symbols should be manifest. Linguistic symbology thus stands for the appropriateness and serviceability of words or phrases. The goal of such a study is to avoid error or misunderstanding in the use of language in order not to mislead oneself or others. One would not then be controlled by words, or substitute words for things.
Such a study of symbolization culminates in the refinement of word usage. Thus it serves the same purpose as refinement of symbolization in logic and mathematics, in which clear thinking and proper calculation are the targets aimed at. Such admonitory prescription may also be applied to living language. For, changing one's emphasis from word symbols to actual acts it is well to warn speakers to be careful in their speech. Speech is the adjustment to surroundings.
Why not, then, be cautious and adapt ourselves well. What is involved here is really style of speech. We can not but regard this mechanism as a feeble means of turning language into symbols. The monitorial principle has exceedingly limited application. It can only apply to grammatical expression.
But even here actual language will not tolerate the taskmaster. Bad grammar is a problem of etiquette and not of linguistics. Let us consider only the conceptions of expression and communication. The idea that language is an instrument for the expression and communication of thought weighs heavily upon linguistic scholarship.
As long as language is conceived of in this way it can not escape its thing, sign, and symbol character. So far as expression is concerned this conception harks back to the old spiritistic psychology.
Jasper and Abby have been thinking about getting a new dog. So each of them is having a similar thought. They are each using the same symbol, the word dog, to communicate about their thought. Their referents, however, are different. Jasper is thinking about a small dog like a dachshund, and Abby is thinking about an Australian shepherd. Adapted from Ivor A. Being aware of this indirect relationship between symbol and referent, we can try to compensate for it by getting clarification.
Some of what we learned in Chapter 2 "Communication and Perception"about perception checking, can be useful here. They also provide more words symbols for which we must determine a referent. If a concept is abstract and the words used to define it are also abstract, then a definition may be useless. Have you ever been caught in a verbal maze as you look up an unfamiliar word, only to find that the definition contains more unfamiliar words?
Although this can be frustrating, definitions do serve a purpose. Words have denotative and connotative meanings.
Denotation Definition that is accepted by the language group as a whole, or the dictionary definition of a word.
For example, the denotation of the word cowboy is a man who takes care of cattle. A more abstract word, like change, would be more difficult to understand due to the multiple denotations. Since both cowboy and change have multiple meanings, they are considered polysemic words. Monosemic words have only one use in a language, which makes their denotation more straightforward. Specialized academic or scientific words, like monosemic, are often monosemic, but there are fewer commonly used monosemic words, for example, handkerchief.
As you might guess based on our discussion of the complexity of language so far, monosemic words are far outnumbered by polysemic words. Connotation Definition that is based on emotion- or experience-based associations people have with a word. A person who just ended a long-term relationship may think of change as good or bad depending on what he or she thought about his or her former partner. Even monosemic words like handkerchief that only have one denotation can have multiple connotations.
A handkerchief can conjure up thoughts of dainty Southern belles or disgusting snot-rags. A polysemic word like cowboy has many connotations, and philosophers of language have explored how connotations extend beyond one or two experiential or emotional meanings of a word to constitute cultural myths.
Hill and Wang, Cowboy, for example, connects to the frontier and the western history of the United States, which has mythologies associated with it that help shape the narrative of the nation. The Marlboro Man is an enduring advertising icon that draws on connotations of the cowboy to attract customers.
Language Is Learned As we just learned, the relationship between the symbols that make up our language and their referents is arbitrary, which means they have no meaning until we assign it to them.
Like me, you probably learned what the word apple meant by looking at the letters A-P-P-L-E and a picture of an apple and having a teacher or caregiver help you sound out the letters until you said the whole word. Over time, we associated that combination of letters with the picture of the red delicious apple and no longer had to sound each letter out. This is a deliberate process that may seem slow in the moment, but as we will see next, our ability to acquire language is actually quite astounding.
We learn the rules of language as we learn to speak and read. Grammar The rules that govern how words are used to make phrases and sentences. As we will learn later, creativity and play also have a role in effective verbal communication. Rather, it is our collective agreement that gives power to the rules that govern language.
Some linguists have viewed the rules of language as fairly rigid and limiting in terms of the possible meanings that we can derive from words and sentences created from within that system. Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, trans. Others have viewed these rules as more open and flexible, allowing a person to make choices to determine meaning. Indiana University Press, Still others have claimed that there is no real meaning and that possibilities for meaning are limitless.
Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, trans. For our purposes in this chapter, we will take the middle perspective, which allows for the possibility of individual choice but still acknowledges that there is a system of rules and logic that guides our decision making. Looking back to our discussion of connotation, we can see how individuals play a role in how meaning and language are related, since we each bring our own emotional and experiential associations with a word that are often more meaningful than a dictionary definition.
In addition, we have quite a bit of room for creativity, play, and resistance with the symbols we use. Have you ever had a secret code with a friend that only you knew? The fact that you can take a word, give it another meaning, have someone else agree on that meaning, and then use the word in your own fashion clearly shows that meaning is in people rather than words.
As we will learn later, many slang words developed because people wanted a covert way to talk about certain topics like drugs or sex without outsiders catching on. Language Acquisition Language acquisition The process by which we learn to understand, produce, and use words to communicate within a given language group. The Weight of Symbols and Miscommunication: We can define symbols, be defined by symbols, and identify with symbols.
Sure, we can give names to terms and we can make up a code language, but most terms out there are already defined imbued with thick layers of meaning, emotion, and other symbolism.
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This makes communicating with these more complex symbols a complicating task. We can also consider other aspects, such as how meaning can be expressed both intentionally and intentionally such as reading unintentional body language as a social cue.
Feel free to comment below! What is a Formal Language?
J.R. Kantor: Language as Behavior and as Symbolism
A video explaining what a formal language is. A picture is worth a thousand words, and that is if one is being modest. The picture below tells the story of how wet sand was used to glide large statues and stones across the sands of Ancient Egypt, this is how the Pyramids were built. The lesson here is that purposefully attempting to convey meaning is only part of the battle when it comes to communication, a lot has to do with our common rulesets for using symbols and context.
Something as simple as the colors Red, White, and Blue can have vastly different and complex meaning depending simply on context and presentation. Just like a nation has a religion, so does a political party, or a sports team, or a city, or a club.
Each has its own identity, each creates its own symbolism and imbues its own symbols with meaning sometimes meaning only known to that group. For something way headier, see: A Theory of Government Concerning the Elements of Government and the Separation of Powers a theory using historic symbols from Greek philosophy, to eastern philosophy, to western astrology.
Whenever two or more human beings can communicate with each other, they can, by agreement, make anything stand for anything. Symbols sometimes have strict meaning in context, when bounds have been clearly defined. There are many ways to muse on the concept that language is symbolic, we do our best to cover all of them below. Defining Language as Other Systems With the above covered, it should be noted that there are many different ways to define language, and to express the concepts behind how we communicate, beyond looking at the symbolic nature of communication i.
Other definitions of language focus on our neurology, our communication tools, or the cryptographic nature of language.