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New Semantics, Old Philology

ISSUE:  Winter 1942

Semantics, The Nature of Words and Their Meanings. By Hugh R. Walpole, W. W. Norton and Company. $2.50. The New Testament in Basic English. E. P. Dutton and Company. $2.00. Language in Action. By S. I. Hayakawa. Har-court, Brace and Company. $2.00.

In “Semantics,” written by Mr. Hugh R. Walpole (not, be it said, the novelist) we have one of the latest in the group of books attempting to popularize the theories of Ogden and Richards, who maintain that human languages are imperfect methods of communication at best, that their imperfections have confused all our thinking, and that by careful attention to the nature and use of language symbols we could avoid a large measure of this trouble. For this set of beliefs the name “semantics” has been borrowed from philology, in which it is used to designate the study of meanings both as they have developed historically and as they appear currently in language. Scientific philologists are by no means uninterested in the nature of language symbols, as the reader of such a philological handbook as Bloomfield’s “Language” will discover. The semanticists, however, have all too often failed to consult such works, and have hurried instead to what they consider their primary task, the improvement of communication.

On the side of the improvement of communication, the semanticists tell us that we should examine our statements to see if they contain emotive words such as “broad-minded,” which do more to define the speaker’s emotional attitude than describe the characteristics of the person spoken of. Discussion as to whether Mr. A is broad-minded or narrow-minded is merely exasperating if it tries to define his broadminded-ness in terms of what he does or does not do, since all that such discussion really involves is whether or not the speaker likes or dislikes Mr. A. Semanticists likewise warn us against an indiscriminate use of abstractions, which, necessary as they may be, confuse us because we forget their fictional quality and treat them as if they had concrete reference. In their generalized use, without reference to particular cases and experiences, abstractions have no existence. For example, there is no such thing as “justice”; there is only what to do about Mr. Jones’s lawsuit, Mary Smith’s back wages, Mr. Brown’s employees who want a closed shop.

All this is sound enough, though not so very new since logicians, lawyers, teachers have been pointing out these fallacies for a long time. Such discussion and advice, practically useful as it may be, seems trivial in contrast with the fundamental problem of language, which is the nature of symbolism. But when Mr. Walpole goes on to discuss the nature of symbolism he seems not fully aware of the problems involved. As a diagram of the symbol process he has borrowed the Ogden and Richards “triangle of reference.” At one side of this there is the object or referent in the real world, say a pig. At the top is the speaker’s perception or “thought,” and at the other side is the symbol, in this case the word “pig.” This is certainly convenient as a simple diagram of some symbol situations, but it is not adequate for all situations. What happens if we say “pig” when there is no pig before us ? What has then become of the referent side of the triangle? What happens when we use an emotive phrase such as “pretty girl”? Is the referent in the outside world, as in the pig triangle, or hidden inside us, or both? Bloomfield, in reviewing the work of Ogden and Richards, long ago pointed out this difficulty in the triangle. Mr. Walpole in his discussion of the nature of symbols leaves these problems exactly where they were.

It is obvious that a large part of the semanticist’s task in improving communication must of necessity be the substitution of a better language for the imperfect one we now have. The Basic English invented by Mr. C, K. Ogden is now explained anew in Mr. Walpole’s book. The principle of the language is radically different from other attempts at international languages. Other systems have chosen a vocabulary common to many tongues, so that learners will be able to guess meanings, and in grammar and phonetics they have often set up artificial systems to avoid the difficulties of actual languages. The results have sometimes been grotesque enough, as when Esperanto insists on gender in adjectives. Basic English selects words neither on the principle of commonness to many languages, nor frequency of occurrence in English. It thus omits such extremely common and certainly international words as “auto” and “theater.” Instead, Basic selects words which are representative of fundamental ideas, and so makes up an apparatus supposedly sufficient for paraphrasing any word not on the list. It can thus be seen that the principle of selecting is philosophic rather than linguistic. Most of the 850 words are concrete nouns and adjectives, and the verbs are kept to a bare minimum of general paraphrasers, Such a language is certainly valuable in forcing the user to speak simply and clearly, but one wonders whether such complete disregard of frequency makes it an easier learning device for foreigners than ordinary English with a vocabulary limited to the most common words. In actual practice, moreover, it seems certain that there is a good deal of unconscious fudging, since many of the simple compounds have to be learned as arbitrarily as new words. “Put out” is certainly as much a new word when applied to a lamp as “extinguish” would be.

The latest example of Basic writing is ‘The New Testament in Basic English,” which is a fair sample of the method. The translators have wisely not set themselves the task of supplanting the more familiar versions, and have followed fairly closely the pattern of the King James, so that there is not too uncomfortable a shock in store for the reader. They claim to have produced a translation which is easier for the. beginner in the language, and will reveal meaning even for the expert. They have considerably expanded the Basic vocabulary, even more, I suspect, than by the one hundred and fifty extra words that they announce they have allowed themselves. Artistic merit is often claimed for Basic writing, but it seems to me that artistic gain is balanced by equal loss. A phrase like “the bit of wood which is in your eye” is a gain in clarity for the modern reader. In the following familiar passage, however, there is certainly loss:

Then the kingdom of heaven will be like the ten young women, the friends of the bride, who took their lights, and went out with the purpose of meeting the husband.

The clumsy “with the purpose of meeting” is necessary because “meet” is not allowed as a verb. I suspect fudging here too, since it seems to me that a strict application of the rules would have given the even wordier “with the purpose of having a meeting with.”

The third of these books, Mr. S. I. Hayakawa’s “Language in Action,” is written by a man unique among semanticists in that he has had training in language and has made good use of it. It is a pleasure to find works by Bloomfield and Sapir in his bibliography, and an excellent essay by the Americanist Whorf in his selected readings. His analysis of the several functions of language is, as one would expect, much sounder than that of Walpole, and more tolerant than that of many semanticists. The parable of the two towns that solved their relief problems differently, with which the book opens, is a witty comment on the futility of argument over some of our most respected catch phrases, and is well worth anyone’s time, whether politician, sociologist, or teacher. There are such good things also as the description of how a dictionary is made, aimed at the old fallacy which insists that if it’s not in the dictionary, it’s not so; and a vivid and sound analysis of what makes pulp fiction pulpy, which should be a godsend to teachers hard pressed by students who like True Confessions better than “Tom Jones.”

Yet on the fundamental nature of symbolism, Mr. Haya-kawa, too, is open to criticism. Instead of the “triangle of reference” he uses a diagram known as the “structural differential” or “semantic rosary,” which was invented by Alfred Korzybski. It is essentially the same kind of diagram as the triangle, though pulled out into a straight line. At the start is the object in the real world; connected to this is the speaker’s experience of the object (Walpole’s “thought”); and connected with this is the word. Indeed, there are usually several words trailing off like the tail of a kite, arranged in increasing order of abstraction. Thus, if the object pig is our starting point, there will be first the word “pig,” then other word symbols like “domestic animal,” “mammal,” “liv-ing organism.” The structural differential looks frighten-ingly complex, since it is provided with a great display of holes, pegs, strings, circles, and squares; but it is no more adequate to all symbol situations than the triangle. Both start with the object pig, and both leave unexplained what happens when the symbol occurs without him.

Likewise from Korzybski is the distinction between sign and symbol. A sign is something which calls forth an automatic unconscious response. A symbol response, on the other hand, is conscious though in other ways it may be exactly like a sign. A sign response is considered unsane and animalistic, a symbol response properly sane and human. This distinction turns on the nature of consciousness, itself unknown, and so far, uninvestigable. Is this not defining the unknown by the unknown? An investigable distinction between animal and human use of symbols would, of course, lead to valuable results. Such a distinction might very well turn on the human ability to use symbols when no immediate physical stimulus is present, since such evidence as there is suggests that animals are largely without this ability.

Such faults, however, are outweighed by the many merits of Mr. Hayakawa’s book. Mr. Hayakawa is convinced that language is the most basic of human activities, a conviction shared by semanticist and philologist alike. His book is a valiant attempt to define and teach a body of knowledge about language which all literate persons should know.


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