Author: Deus Noctem
Posted: March 18, 2000
Semantics: The Meaning o Meaning
Semantics, a relatively new word, but an old concept. This paper will cover three different areas in an attempt to explain the meaning of meaning. This paper will explain the meaning of semantics, it’s history, and will go on to show how words were used by famous writers to convey meaning.
Semantics is the technical term used to refer to the study of meaning.1 The word “semantics” first appeared in a paper read to the American Philology Association in 1894 titled “Reflected meanings: a point in semantics.”2Basically semantics is the meaning of meaning. The term “Significs” was used in a book, “Semantics: studies in the science of meaning”, written by Michel Breal to refer to semantics as “not meaning itself, but the change of meaning.” Breal’s book was not widely read and never lived on, but it was what started semantics. C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards further expanded on Breal’s “semantics” with the book “The Meaning of Meaning”, a book which was the real catalyst in the spread of semantics. Semantics was first a philosophy, then used in psychology and psychiatry, and finally became assimilated into the science of linguistics.
Now that the history of semantics has been explained, the branches of semantics will be explained. Though not officially called “semantics”, the concept of semantics has been carried on through history’s great philosophers. One such philosopher was Socrates. Socrates had a way of asking men certain questions to further explain what they meant. He was asking them to define their words that they knew. After hearing their definition, Socrates would then tell them that what they said could also mean something else; and before they knew it, they were in deep philosophical and semiotical argument. This was a start in philosophical semantics or semiology. A good example of semiology is in Lewis Caroll’s “Alice in Wonderland”:
“Then say what you mean”, the March Hare went on.
“I do”, Alice hastily replied; “at least - at least I mean what I say - that’s the same thing, you know”.
“Not the same thing a bit”, said the Hatter.
This humorous, but self-reflective, use of semiology raises the question: If we mean what we say, do we really say what we mean? or, moreover, how can the words fail to mean what they mean? Well, hopefully words mean what they mean, but too often do words fail at meaning the same to the sender as they do the receiver. Nietzsche observed this problem in his book “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”:
When Zarthustra had spoken these words he beheld the people again and was silent, “There they stand,” he said to his heart; “there they laugh. They do not understand me; I am not the mouth for these ears.”
The great and wise Zarathustra tries to explain to them the overman, but they do not listen because they do not understand his words and their meaning. All through Nietzsche’s book Zarathustra tries to explain to the people, with good intentions, his philosophy, but to his dismay, he does not mean the same to them as he means to himself. Like Zarathustra, we are faced with this problem all through life. Without semiotics we would never understand anything that anyone else meant.
Semantics is used in psychology and psychiatry. Freud interpreted meanings of dreams by analyzing what happened and what was said in the dreams. Though it doesn’t seem like semantics, after further observation, the connection with semantics can be revealed. We associate many different symbols and objects in life with other things. Freud used the basis of different associations and symbols in our life to psychology. An example: a woman has a very hard time with getting emotionally close to men. After further analysis, it is discovered that she was abused by her father. Freud discovered, after long observation, that certain mannerisms in our lives mean something happened earlier in life to cause that certain mannerism.
Viktor E. Frankl used semantics in his psychiatry, “logotherapy”. In his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning”, Frankl explains “logotherapy” as a way to find meaning in one’s life. By listening to certain things said and interpreting their meaning, Frankl can then tell the person certain things about them that might help the person understand his/her meaning in life. Thus semantics are used in psychology.
Linguistics assimilated semantics very shortly after semantics was well-known. Linguistics is the study of language and, moreover, the meaning and origins of language. Odin, the highest Norse god, was the first linguist. Odin, according to legend, lost one of his eyes for the meaning of language. To date, no other linguist had to go to that length to know the meaning of language; but, to date, no other linguist has ever found out the meaning of language. Linguistics comes to the belief that hundreds of words are associated with one object, but none of the words associated with that one object mean the same. If this is confusing, here’s an example: the English word “house” and the French word “mason” are both attached to the same object, but “house” doesn’t mean “mason” and vice versa. Linguist do not know what the first word was or the first language, for that matter. Linguist do know the extensive origin of Modern English and the rest of the Indo-European languages. The poem “Far Traveler” and “Beowulf” are thought to be the first examples of written English known as Old English. Very little Old English can be understood by Modern English people. After 300 years, Old English evolved into Middle English. Middle English was used by Geoffrey Chaucer in “Canteburry Tales”. Middle English is a little easier to understand than Old English. After another 300 years, Middle English evolved into Modern English. William Shakespeare’s English is considered Modern English. After Modern English was appeared, words from all different languages were brought into the English language to finally make up what is know today as English or Modern English.
Literature is the greatest example of the use of semantics. All through time authors have reflected upon the logistics of words and their meaning. Masters of prose and poetry cleverly use words with multiple meanings to make obvious the amount of confusion language causes. Words are also used to try and describe a certain situation so that the reader might have an idea of what the experience was like.
Such is the case in Dante Alighieri’s “The Divine Comedy”. Even the title is semiotic. A book about the horrors of hell, the trials and tribulations of purgatory, and the paradise of heaven is ironically named a “comedy”. But it is a comedy. It starts out peaceful, turns disastrous, and finally ends in paradise. It is divine because it is a book of heaven and hell and every thing in-between. So, it truly is a “divine comedy”. Dante goes on to use the meaning of words to try and convey a message of the extreme horrors of hell:
“Large hail, and turbid water, and snow, pour down through the darksome air; the ground, on which it falls, emits a putrid smell.
“Cerberus, a monster fierce and strange, with three throats, barks dog-like over those that are over those that are immersed in it.
“His eyes are red, his beard greasy and black, his belly wide, and clawed his hands; he clutches the spirits, flays, and piecemeal rends them.”3
The grotesque picture painted with his words shows a part of hell that is unimaginably horrid. Cerberus, the demon, is the epitome of those epicures and gluttons who reside in the third circle of hell. Dante goes on to describe more worse fates than those in the third circle:
“From the mouth of each emerged a sinner’s feet, and legs up to the calf; and the rest remained within.
“The soles of all were both on fire: wherefore the joints quivered so strongly, that they would have snapped in pieces withes and grass-ropes.
“As the flaming of things oiled moves only on their outer surface: so it was there, from the heels to the points.”4
The Eighth Circle, reserved for traitors and Satan, holds torturing of the extreme. The sinners are held underground with only their feet to be seen. Their feet are then burned with varying degrees of heat according to the sinner’s guilt. They are face down because they are traitors, they are not worthy to see; but the nightmare doesn’t end there:
“When my sight descended lower on them, each seemed wondrously distorted, between the chin and the commencement of the chest:
“for the face was turned towards the loins; and they had to come backward, for to look before them was denied.”5
This is the fate of those who desire to look into the future. Their faces were contorted, and their head was turned around so that they faced and walked backward. They have to look backward because they pried into the future. The last of the circles of hell, the Ninth Circle, contains the worst fate and punishment of all:
“Whereat I turned myself, and saw before me and beneath my feat a lake, which through frost had the semblance of glass and not of water.
“Never did the Danube of Austria make so thick a veil for his course in winter, nor don afar beneath the frigid sky...
“...so livid, up to where hue of shame appears, the doleful shades were in ice, sounding with their teeth like storks.
“Each held his face turned downwards; by the mouth their cold, and by the eyes of sorrow of their hearts is testified among them...
“...their eyes, which only inwardly were moist before, gushed at the lids, the frost bound fast the tears between them, closed them up again...
“...And one, who had lost both ears by the cold...”6
The Ninth Circle, also known as the frozen circle, is reserved for betrayers of their native land and of their family. They are kept in the farthest part of the universe, a place without God, without hope, and without redemption. Each punishment is according to the sin and is symbolic of the certain sin. Not everyone is sent to a hell of fiery pits and devils. Each punishment is the sin turned against the sinner. Gluttons are tortured by a great demonic glutton; traitors were faced downward into the dirt, looking at their fate; prophets and magicians who sought to see the future had their heads turned around and were forced to look backward, to look forward was forbidden; those sinners that sinned the greatest were sent to Cain’s circle7, a place for murderers and traitors of their native land and family, wherein they were frozen and sent to a place where they had no family, no God, nothing.
In Purgatorio8 Dante describes purgatory, the place where souls are in between Heaven and Hell. Dante describes a part of his trek up the Mount of Purgatory as a game of dice:
“When the game of dice breaks up, he who loses stays sorrowing, repeating the throws, and sadly learns:
“with the other all the folk go away: one goes in front, another plucks him from behind, and another at his side recalls him to his mind.
“He halts not and attends to this one and to that: those to whom he stretches forth his hand press no more; and so he saves him from the crowd.
Such was I in that dense throng , turning my face to them.”9
Dante described part of his journey up the Mount of Purgatory because he was being jerked about. He would be going forward then he would be pulled back, and so on and so forth. Without a concept of semantics, one reading the passage might not
understand what Dante meant because it doesn’t make sense if it is taken literally. Dante goes on to explain what it was like to be in Purgatory:
“Neither did our speech make the going, nor the going, more slow; but, talking we went bravely on, even as a ship driven by a fair wind.
“And the shades, that seemed things twice dead, drew in wonderment at me
through the pits of their eyes, aware of my being alive.”
The souls that were on quest to heaven were amazed at seeing Dante, someone alive, to be on the Mount of Purgatory. It shows how long the souls have been on the Mount of Purgatory by telling of their amazement when they see that Dante is alive.
Friedrich Nietzsche, unlike Dante, analyzed the problems of semantics and knowledge in “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”. Zarathustra woke up one morning filled with wisdom. Wanting to share his newfound wisdom with the people, Zarathustra went to town. Upon arriving, Zarathustra began to preach to the people. After hearing
Zarathustra, the people laughed at Zarathustra because his words had no meaning to them.
Zarathustra realized this and reflected:
“But Zarathustra became sad and said to his heart: ‘They do not understand me: I am not the mouth for these ears. I seem to have lived too long in the mountains; I listened too much to brooks and trees: now I talk to them as goatherds. My soul is unmoved and bright as the mountains in the morning. But they think I am cold and I jeer and make dreadful jests. And now they look at me and laugh: and as they laugh they even hate me. There is ice in their laughter.’”
This is the problem with semantics and knowledge. Nietzsche goes on to further analyze semantics:
“It is not possible to understand the blood11 of another...”12
Nietzsche simply stated the central problem of all language and semantics. Nietzsche knew that the line could be understood and interpreted several different ways; thus the statement holds true for itself. Humans had speech long before written language; with written language comes problems of interpretation: humans understand more from listening than they do from reading.
Shakespeare was very good at using semantics to make his writing interesting as well as entertaining. A good example is in his play “Romeo and Juliet”:
“SAMPSON: Gregory, o' my word, we'll not carry coals.
GREGORY: No, for then we should be colliers.
SAMPSON: I mean, an we be in choler, we'll draw.
GREGORY: Ay, while you live, draw your neck out o' the collar.
SAMPSON: I strike quickly, being moved.
GREGORY: But thou art not quickly moved to strike.
SAMPSON: A dog of the house of Montague moves me.
GREGORY: To move is to stir; and to be valiant is to stand:
therefore, if thou art moved, thou runn'st away.
SAMPSON: A dog of that house shall move me to stand: I will
take the wall of any man or maid of Montague's.
GREGORY: That shows thee a weak slave; for the weakest goes
to the wall.
SAMPSON: True; and therefore women, being the weaker vessels,
are ever thrust to the wall: therefore I will push
Montague's men from the wall, and thrust his maids
to the wall.
GREGORY: The quarrel is between our masters and us their men.
SAMPSON: 'Tis all one, I will show myself a tyrant: when I
have fought with the men, I will be cruel with the
maids, and cut off their heads.
GREGORY: The heads of the maids?
SAMPSON: Ay, the heads of the maids, or their maidenheads;
take it in what sense thou wilt.”13
The humorous play on words transitions through the whole dialogue. Each guard plays off eachother’s words. Finally, the whole dialogue is reflected upon with: “...take it in the sense thou wilt.” Whatever is said can mean whatever one prefers. Juliet makes a famous quote about the logistics of words:
“JULIET: What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet”14
Names are just sounds we attach to objects. If a house was called a “dog” instead of a house, we would know the building in which we live as a “dog”. The titles we give objects do not change the object. No matter what the title given to an object it is still the same object. Shakespeare constantly used semiology in combination with metaphors to explain certain things. For example:
“MACBETH: To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a
Told by an idiot, of sound and fury,
The meaning of McBeth’s soliloquy is one of a man realizing his fate. We are only known for a moment; what we say, what we call words are nothing but sounds; they mean nothing.
Without meaning, words are just sounds, vibrations of air; but once a meaning is attached to the sound the confusion begins. Semantics is the study of meanings in words. The meaning of meaning. Everyone uses semantics in their every-day life; they might not know it, but they do. Words are the only way to effectively communicate knowledge. Without understanding the meanings of words, knowledge is useless. Without knowledge evolution is prevented. Knowledge is power; knowledge only comes from comprehension; comprehension is ability to understand meaning in context; therefore, comprehension is semantics.
Author: Ang Xi Bing
Posted: November 12, 1999
The Ultimate Purpose
The Ultimate Purpose
Someone once asked me, what are we in pursuit of in life. To begin answering this particular question aptly is a task not easily accomplished and probably takes some serious dwelling in the words of Aristotle. However, as part of the "we" mentioned, I do have my humble two cents worth.
In my opinion, our generation is brought up in a way that confuses our little brains. The environment in which we grow up injects in us a certain subconscious goal. I, or rather, we, the youths of today are raised, thinking that the main thing to achieve in life is knowledge. However, the "knowledge" I mean is a very superficial kind. We go to school everyday, with only one thing on our minds: to study hard. To achieve academic excellence. To clear a path to future successful careers. Well, of course, there are exceptions to this sweeping statement. There are, after all, those who have an even more divine duty annoying the powers that be that we have come to call teachers. But, never mind about that. In school, we learn languages, we study mathematics, we analyze the sciences and we memorize the formulae. Then, when we graduate, we look for jobs. We try to impress our bosses. We meet deadlines. Although I am definitely not complaining about this general and orthodox order of t!
hings, I do think we aren't really focusing on the "real truth". Maybe it's time to stop worshipping success and start figuring out why we are here in this world.
I guess my pursuit in life is to find out what to pursue in life. Is academic excellence really the Holy Grail of life? Is having a successful career the grand finale? I do not know. Many of us don't. I guess I want to really find out what living is about. I want the crudest from of wisdom. No illusions. No layers covering that divine truth. What is it that we, as humans, and as self-professed paragon of all beings in the animal kingdom, should be looking for? What if we really are the quintessence of dust that Shakespeare once suspected? Then what? Does that change anything in our lives? Does anything like that alter our collective goal and purpose as human beings? That is exactly the wisdom I wish to obtain. We might live a happy life with fame and fortune and everything we desire, but is that the grandest scheme of things? Maybe to live a perfect life is to know the greatest concept of a successful one. Maybe that is what I want to know. Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe we are not s!
upposed to know. Maybe my thoughts are going haywire. I wish to know. That is my pursuit.
Author: Jerad W. Alexander
Posted: June 25, 1998
It’s about 12:02 in the morning Thursday, June 26th and
I’m sitting here wasting away what is to be the last days of
my naturally born, ready made, all American childhood. I can
hardly believe that it (being my childhood) went so fast
yet seemed so slow in the process. I can’t believe that in
about 96 hours I will be caught up the wave of adult life in
probably one of the worst ways: the military. Yes, that is
true. I have signed away the first four years of my life to
the United States Government to do with as they please. To
be exact I enlisted in the United States Marine Corps, the
Fraternity, or Brotherhood.
As I sit here making feeble attempts to project my
thoughts onto a computer screen time pulls me forward into
that next stage of life. I feel the need to stop and rest
but it is impossible. I’m trapped. I’m trapped by my own
decisions (which I’m not TOO sad I made) and Einstein's
stupid-assed theories of time and velocity. Their’s no
way out of this crazy train throwing me into the fray of
real-world life and situation. No escape is possible and
regardless of my minuscule attempts to hit the pause button
on Father Time he laughs and spits in my face saying: “You
knew this was going to happen! You knew!”
My mind is caught in limbo between two great forces of
time, that of childhood and that of adulthood. It’s an
insanity that I’m so glad to only have to endure once, or
maybe twice when old age is at my doorstep. In that past
hours and days of soul-searching and painful reflection I
have found that this insanity is caused by two great beasts:
Boredom and Anxiety. The Boredom beast comes from the
restlessness of being a child and living that childlike
existence. It is the cause of great pain on a hot summer
afternoon with nothing to do but sit and reminisce about
the days gone by, (primarily things like girlfriends, best
friends, experiences, etc...) watch television, and eat up
all the food in the kitchen so when my parents get home from
work they can get upset and take it out on me. The Anxiety
beast is an offspring of the Boredom beast. This is due to
the fact that I hate the Boredom beast with a passion so it
creates a child to perpetuate its wrath upon me. The
Anxiety beast with the Great Wish, the wish that it would
pass by me and head full speed into the past. It taunts me
with that wish with every waking moment. I wish it would go
away and let me into the world of adulthood which I know is
not going to be all cracked up as it sounds.
There are two weapons to fight these beasts and they are:
Occupation and Patience.
(In which I have neither of therefore I’m stuck with
my ass in the wind.)
I guess I’m writing this as a distress call to those
coming up right behind me. It is a warning to avoid what
I have done. DON’T LET YOURSELF GET SUCKED INTO THIS
CHAMBER OF HELL RAN BY FATHER TIME WITH HIS HENCHMEN
BOREDOM AND ANXIETY TORTURING YOU THROUGH SPACE!! Run!
Rage against the dying of the light! Live life as if each
day were your last and Carpe Diem for Gods sake! I know
I will from this time on!!
© 1996-2000 Justin Zak (irotsoma)
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