Why do we respond to words and symbols in the ways we do?
Semantics, in general, is the subdivision of linguistics concerned with meaning. Semantics attempts the systematic study of the assignment of meanings to minimal meaning-bearing elements and the combination of these in the production of more complex meaningful expressions. Elementary word groups may be combined in a relationship of content, forming thematic groups and semantic and lexical “fields”. For example, all the means of expressing the concept of joy in a given language constitute the lexical-semantic field “joy”. Because of the trained patterns of response, people listen more respectfully to the health advice of someone who has “MD” after his name than to that of someone who hasn’t. A “pattern of reactions”, then, is the sum of the ways we act in response to events, to words, and to symbols.
Words and word meanings are one of the most important information cues used in speaking and understanding, as well as in reading. Indeed, a person’s life experience and cultural experience (even reading comic strips) are most relevant to the development of linguistic “meaning making” in any language, which is very important in the communication process. Words from a person’s native language and culture perspective can carry special associations. For instance, the Spanish words for hammock, tobacco, and potato are derived from Tamo words for these items. Therefore, when people’s semantic habits are reasonably similar to those of most people around them, they are regarded as “normal” or perhaps “dull”. If their semantic habits are noticeably different from those of others, they are regarded as “individualistic” or “original”, or, if the differences are disapproved of or viewed with alarm, as “crazy”.
A definition states the meaning of a word using other words. It is clear that to define a word, as a dictionary does, is simply to explain the word with more words. However,defining words with more words usually gets people (especially children) at once into what mathematicians call an “infinite regress”, an infinite series of occurrences or concepts. For example, it can lead people into the kind of run-around that people sometimes encounter when they look up “impertinence” and find it defined as “impudence”, so they look up “impudence” and find it defined as “impertinence”. Yet—and here we come to another common reaction pattern— people often act as if words can be explained fully with more words. To a person who asked for a definition of jazz, Louis Armstrong is said to have replied, “If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know”, proving himself to be an intuitive semanticist as well as a great trumpet player.
Semantics, then, seeks the “operational” definition instead of the dictionary Bridgman, the 1946 Nobel Prize winner and physicist, once wrote, “The true meaning of a term is to be found by observing what a man does with it, not by what he says about it.” He made an enormous contribution to science by showing that the meaning of a scientific term lies in the operations, the things done, that establish its validity, rather than in verbal definitions. An example of operational definition of the term “weight” of an object, operationalized to a degree, would be the following: “weight is the numbers that appear when that object is placed on a weighing scale”. According to it, when one starts reading the numbers on the scale, it would more fully make an operational definition. But if people say—and revolutionists have started uprisings with just this statement “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains!”—what operations could we perform to demonstrate its accuracy or inaccuracy?
Next, if this suggestion of “operationalism” is pulled outside the physical sciences where Bridgman applied it, what “operations” are people expected to perform as the result of both the language they use and the language other people use in communicating to them? Here is a personnel manager studying an application form. He comes to the words “Education: Harvard University”, and drops the application form in the wastebasket (that’s the “operation”) because, as he would say if you asked him, “I don’t like Harvard men”. This is an instance of “meaning” at work—but it is not a meaning that can be found in dictionaries.
So far as we know, human beings are the only creatures that have, over and above that biological equipment which we have in common with other creatures, the additional capacity for manufacturing symbols and systems of symbols. When we react to a flag, we are not reacting simply to a piece of cloth, but to the meaning with which it has been symbolically endowed. When we react to a word, we are not reacting to a set of sounds, but to the meaning with which that set of sounds has been symbolically endowed. As a matter of fact, how sound symbolism is processed in our brains has not yet been fully explained in the field.
Simply put, the key point of semantics lies in, not the words definition, but our own semantic reactions, which occur when we respond to things the way they “should” be, rather than to the way they are. If a person was to tell a shockingly obscene story in Arabic or Hindustani or Swahili before an audience that understood only English, no one would blush or be angry; the story would be neither shocking nor obscene— indeed, it would not even be a story. Likewise, the value of a dollar bill is not in the bill, but in our social agreement to accept it as a symbol of value. If that agreement were to break down through the collapse of our government, the dollar bill would become only a scrap of paper. We do not understand a dollar bill by staring at it long and hard. We understand it by observing how people act with respect to it. We understand it by understanding the social mechanisms and the loyalties that keep it meaningful. Therefore, semantics belongs to social studies and potentially underpins the integrity of the social sciences.
Questions 27 – 31
Choose the correct letter, A, B, C or D.
Write your answers in boxes 27-31 on your answer sheet.
27 What point is made in the first paragraph?
A. The aim of education is to teach people to read.
B. Semantics focuses on the definition of words.
C. Printed words only carry meaning to those who have received appropriate ways to respond.
D. Writers should ensure their works satisfy a variety of readers.
28 According to the second paragraph, people are judged by
A. their level of education.
B. the closely-related people around them.
C. how conventional their responses are.
D. complex situations.
29 What point is made in the third paragraph?
A. Standard ways are incapable of defining words precisely.
B. A dictionary often provides clear definitions of words.
C. Infinite regress is a common occurrence in a dictionary.
D. Mathematicians could define words accurately.
30 What does the writer suggest about Louis Armstrong?
A. He is a language expert.
B. He demonstrated there are similarities between music and language.
C. He provided insights into how words are defined.
D. His good skill in music helped him do research in other fields.
31 What does the writer intend to show with the example of the “personnel manager”?
A. The manager hates applicants from Harvard University.
B. Meaning can be unique to one person.
C. The manager has a bad memory of Harvard University.
D. People’s behaviour usually doesn’t agree with their words.
Do the following statements agree with the views of the writer in Reading Passage?
In boxes 32-35 on your answer sheet, write
YES if the statement agrees with the views of the writer
NO if the statement contradicts the views of the writer
NOT GIVEN if it is impossible to say that the writer thinks about this
32 Some statements are incapable of being proved or disproved.
33 Meaning that is unique to an individual is less worthy of study than shared meanings.
34 Flags and words are both elicited responses.
35 A story can be entertaining without being understood.
Questions 36 – 40
Complete each sentence with the correct ending, below.
Write the correct letter, A-H, in boxes 36-40 on your answer sheet.
36 A comic strip
37 A dictionary
39 A story in a language the audience cannot understand
40 A dollar bill without public acceptance
A. is meaningless.
B. can have a lasting effect on human behaviour.
C. is a symbol that has lost its meaning.
D. can be understood only in its social context.
E. can provide only an inadequate definition of meaning.
F. reflects the variability of human behaviours.
G. emphasizes the importance of analyzing how words were used .
H. suggests that certain types of behaviour carry more meaning than others.