P126 – Social Sciences Language
Passage (Question 1-5)
As Josephine Baker, the early 20th century French dancer, activist, and French Resistance member, once said of her infamous performances, “I wasn’t really naked. I simply didn’t have any clothes on.” To those who demand literalism in all interpretive endeavors, such a sentence is unintelligible and communicates nothing. And yet, we all have a sense that Baker means something in what she is saying to us, even if we might argue what that meaning actually is.
It is common sense that a word or an expression rarely has only one meaning. On the contrary, a word almost always has more than one dimension of meaning. One can think in terms of literal meaning and figurative meaning, descriptive meaning and sociocultural meaning just to name a few. How are we to understand the significance inherent in the concept of “meaning”?
The linguistic study of meaning generally falls into two opposing camps: the semanticists and pragmaticians. The former focuses on the literal meaning of a word or phrase, or more generally, the core of the multitude of meanings taken as a whole. In linguistics, this would be called the denotative meaning which a layperson might call the “dictionary definition.” Semanticists are on a tireless quest for the “true meaning” of a thing.
The pragmaticians on the other hand focus on the implied meaning of a word or phrase. They read between the lines, focusing as much on what is not said as what is. The pragmaticians call this process of interpretation “implicature.” Implicature is generally considered to be more extended and enriched in comparison to the literal meaning of a word or phrase. Implicature, then, necessitates the use of factors such as context, intention, and the viewpoints of the communicators themselves.
The idea that a word has a multiplicity of meanings is called polysemy. It is this basic characteristic of words that allows for implicature but also is the basis of interpretative disagreement. If polysemy is conceived of as communicative potential by the pragmaticians, it is conceived of as fodder for communicative misunderstanding by the semanticists. While the semanticists find comfort in the idea of true meaning, it is plain to any dispassionate observer that such a stance is untenable.
Take for example the word “hand.” The word could refer to, and often does, to the distal aspect of a human’s forearm. Such an understanding of the word would be its denotative meaning. But in addition to this, the word can also refer to a person who uses his or her hands to work or it can be used as a verb, meaning “to give” or “to pass.”
Sometimes words and expressions also have implied social meaning, which reveals something about the speaker’s social position or social background. The use of “green hand” might show the speaker’s feeling or attitude towards the person he has just called a “green hand.” We might infer that the speaker is likely an experienced and skillful expert or of a higher social status in comparison to the “green hand.” The semanticist, however, just walks away confused after being called a “green hand,” because he is certain his hands are not green!
To take the position of the semanticist is to ignore all nuance in exchange for certainty. But this certainty is a blunted, unreflective certainty that taken to its logical end, collapses language and communication into the babblings of a young child learning to talk. Responsible and measured pragmatism is not only necessary for communication, but it is the foundation of color, shading, and tone that makes something worth talking about in the first place.
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