Archive for the ‘Semantics’ tag

Language, Semantics and Pragmatics   1 comment

Posted at 8:19 pm in Discipline,Linguistics,Sociology


Aitchison, J (1972): Lingusitics, An Introduction. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Thomas, L & Wareing, S (1999): Language, Society and Power: An Introduction. London: Routledge.

Trudgill, P (1983): Sociolinguistics: An Introduction to Language and Society. London: Penguin.

In my last blog post I outlined some of the basic principles of linguistics. This week I will be going into more detail regarding this discipline and attempting to highlight areas of relevance to my topic, Organisation. As I mentioned in both last weeks blog and my initial statement of my intent to study linguistics, I am interested in finding out how language shapes social organisation and forms bonds, both within and between different communities and cultures. This blog post will look at the how language exists and is structured, and then how it can be used on basic levels to encourage and enforce social interaction.

Understanding Language.

Noam Chomsky argued that anyone who has learnt a language must have, at some point in their development, internalised a set of rules regarding the proper use of that language. In some ways, language can be thought of as a game, with rules and players, as well as being turn based. Linguists see language as having a functional role in human life; some examples of these functions are;

  • Obtaining information. Eg: “What colour is the sky?” “The sky is blue.”
  • Creating action. Eg: “Come with me!”
  • Enforcing social bonds. Eg: “Well done!”

Of course language is extremely flexible, and these functions often interact when we are communicating. For example, the conversation:

“Can you go outside and tell me what colour the sky is?”

“Yes…the sky is blue”

“Thank you”

shows language being used to first create action, then to supply information and finally to supply social kudos to the actor. Similarly, the sentence;

“Come with me if you want to live!”

is an example of information being supplied to influence an action. Such common multiplicity in language shows how useful it is in quickly dealing with many different situations which we find ourselves in daily. While many animals have ways of communicating information and action through sound (in fact, the sentence “come with me if you want to live” is one of the most commonly communicated messages in the animal kingdom, next to “we should have sex”), only humans have the capacity to construct complex meaning and abstraction in language. To elaborate, animals communicate what is immediately relevant, such as immediate observations and feelings;

“I am hungry, where is the food?”

“The food is in this tree”

whereas humans can communicate past and future experiences with a descriptive element;

“The banana I ate this morning was delicious!”

“I want a banana too!”

“Well you’ll have to go to the banana tree, climb it, and get one for yourself”

Imagining a solution to a problem is only useful to a society if it can be quickly and effectively communicated to members, and in this respect humans are extremely advantaged thanks to language.

Language construction and semantics.

Language, in its most basic format, is made up of phonemes, which are the smallest sounds which distinguish two words. For example p and b in the English language are phonemes, as they distinguish words such as pit and bit. Phonemes expand to create groups of consonants and vowels, which make up words. Words are then characterised with semantics. Semantics is extremely important in understanding language, as words are far from universally recognisable. Identical words can have far from identical meanings, and humans have evolved to carry out internal logical inference to assess the semantics of a word or sentence. For example, someone who heard the word “duck” while standing on a golf course may logically infer that they need to carry out an immediate action, and someone who heard the same word spoken by a child standing next to a lake might logically infer that the child is referring to the species of bird. Semantics, then, allows us to understand the language we hear and make decisions regarding its usefulness.

Of course, sometimes these decisions are wrong, no matter how logical the thought processes are, and language semantics can become very complicated very quickly. Many words in languages share common semantic components, for example “bull” and “man” both refer to adult male mammals, but we cannot use the terms interchangeably, except as similes. Humans get around this problem of this component overlap in language by working from established prototypes. When one thinks of a bird, one does not tend to think of a penguin, but of a robin, which is closer to the prototypical bird. However, because language is constantly evolving, prototypes can be endemic to certain social groups and certain social settings. If you overhear the word “bird” used by a group of men of a certain age in the local pub, you would be forgiven for assuming that these men are referring to a particular woman, and are not members of your local RSPB branch. This kind of word fuzziness makes logical inference so important when communicating, but shows that it can, on occasion, be incorrect. When humans are unfamiliar with words they hear in a language that they recognise, they can usually solve this problem by asking for clarification; “Excuse me, when you say bird, what do you mean?” and then storing this information as a new internal subset rule of language, something like:

IF SPEAKER= Simon, ENVIRONMENT= Pub, WORD=’Bird’ THEN INFER word= ‘woman’.

And in this way language semantics can constantly evolve and adapt as an individual moves through various social groups and environments.


Continuing this discussion of the unpredictable nature of language, we can discuss pragmatics. Pragmatics is the study of unpredictable language use, and its creation is commonly attributed to philosopher Paul Grice (1913-1988), who identified efficient communication between humans in four maxims of conversation;

  • Quantity: giving the right amount of information when talking.
  • Quality: Being truthful when talking if the truth is known.
  • Relevance: Relevant answers to questions or relevant statements to contexts.
  • Manner: Clear and ordered structuring of communication.

Grice observed that these principles for cooperative communication exist in all languages and are so a core part of communicating,  for example when talking to a baby or animal which cannot respond, people will still communicate as if they were expecting a response, and follow one or more of the maxims. However, Grice also observed that the above maxims are often broken, and more commonly by certain social groups within a society. A politician, if we are being pessimistic, may be more inclined to mislead or respond irrelevantly to a question than a scientist. Pragmatic linguists note that when faced with random, useless or simply untrue information in language, humans will often try and draw reasonable conclusions and seek to understand the meaning of what was said, rather than simply rejecting the statement as a failed response. Our minds reason that only matters of extreme importance could cause someone to break the maxims of conversation, for example;

“Did you enjoy your day at school dear? Your maths teacher says that you have been LOOK OUT FOR THAT TIGER!”

And so often people, even when they are aware that laws of conversation have been broken, will allow the speaker to continue, accepting that there must have been a reason for the interruption in normal proceedings, even if the reason is not immediately known.

Pragmatic language therefore has much to say about the power of language, and this explanation of acceptance to broken norms can show us in part why skilled orators, such as lawyers, politicians and journalists, can coerce or influence certain social groups who may or may not be aware of the misuse of language directed at them. We have all seen interviews with politicians who evade certain questions, providing irrelevant answers or random information, and while this may enrage some members of a society, other listeners will assume that there must be a socially beneficial reason for the evasion. These listeners are often of a lower social status than the speaker and have less experience with language on a lexical level (they may not understand the words or the meanings that the speaker is using). I will discuss social classes and language further in two weeks.

What I hope this blog post has shown is that language has laws at a basic level. Language is a construction of sounds, created by humans to achieve certain results. As we evolve, so does the language we use and we are constantly updating our internal rulebook through logical inference to deal with new semantics, situations and social groupings that we find ourselves in. When it comes to use, as long as the basic construction rules are obeyed, language is found to be very flexible, and can be used by those skilled in communication to achieve a variety of ends. However, the basic principles of language and communication are still within us, and it is somewhat comforting to know that, even in a modern world where it new words are constantly created and old ones reinvented, that we still have core uses and needs for language that have remained more or less unchanged since our first words. Although I have not mentioned explicitly my topic of organisation, it is implied through much of the above analysis that language and communication is at the heart of our need to be close to one another, to express emotion, share ideas and survive as a community.

Next week, I will be returning to sociology to discuss sociological theorists and the idea of organisation.

Written by Phil Waddell on November 9th, 2010

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