What is language and how does it relate to your writing?
May 15, 2019
A language is a system, which if properly controlled can produce objects called messages. These messages can be used to pass on knowledge. Our definition of knowledge allows us to further define meaning and truth. When we say or write something, we presumably express our knowledge.
Semantics is the study of meaning in language. It should not be confused with the general semantics of Alfred Korzybski, which deals with what we know about the world, and how we gain knowledge. When someone tries to draw conclusions about what is true about the world based on what is true about a word, they will argue, ‘That’s only semantics’.
Semantics is a wide subject within language. An understanding of it is essential to the study of language acquisition (how language users acquire a sense of meaning as speakers, writers, listeners and readers) and of how language changes over time. It is important for understanding language in social contexts, as these are likely to affect meaning and for understanding varieties of English and effects of style. Because of this, it is one of the most fundamental concepts in linguistics. The study of semantics can include how meaning is interpreted, negotiated, simplified, illustrated and obscured.
Semantics is often contrasted with syntax. Syntax being the analysis of the grammatical arrangement of words in speech or writing to show their connections and relation; there is a set of rules governing this arrangement. Semantics relates to what something means while syntax relates to the formal structure/patterns in which something is expressed (written or spoken).
In 1957, Noam Chomsky, a linguist and political activist, composed this sentence: colourless green ideas sleepfuriously as an example of a sentence whose grammar is correct but whose meaning is nonsensical. The phrase suggests that grammar is not the only principle underlying language, as was thought at the time. It indicates that words are symbols with associated properties that will not function if they are not used in the proper semantic context.
The point is that, though words may follow a valid structure, they cannot form a meaningful sentence, or be part of a meaningful phrase, if they violate their defined contexts. This forms the basis for sentence structure. Chomsky explains that this underlying structure (of which the definition is a component) is more important than the grammar, when meaning is communicated: sentences with the proper words may often be recomposed with more useful grammatical structure – but meaningless sentences, despite proper grammar, are lost for meaning.
What has all of this got to do with you and your writing? The use of words and their form can have many variations and will convey a different message depending on their arrangement and to a certain degree, the correct use of grammar is essential. But when you get caught up in the ‘rules’ of writing this can sometimes stifle the message you want to convey. As writers, we also need to think about words and how they are perceived in the world at the time.
For this reason, revision is a fundamental part of the writing process because it can add layers to the meaning in your writing. There are always better ways to convey a message or a perfect word that encapsulates what you want to say.