Question: Why don’t cannibals eat clowns? Answer: Because they taste funny.
Jokes often use semantic ambiguity where one word has two meanings. Cannibals eat people. Clowns are supposed to be funny. But Cannibals don’t eat clowns because they “taste funny.” Here we see wordplay in the different meanings of “funny.” We don’t like to eat food because it tastes funny in the sense of strange. But it would be strange not to eat something because it tastes funny in the sense of humorous. That would be like saying, “Carlos doesn’t like to eat humorous salad.”
With semantics, linguists study meaning systematically. To clarify the meaning of semantics, we can contrast it with pragmatics, which focuses on speaker meaning. For example, Steve asks Jill, “How are you?” And Jill yells in an angry voice: “PERFECT.” Here we believe the speaker means “not perfect” or bad because her tone of voice and body language tell us that she is not perfect, and so in this case, we do not believe her semantic meaning.
Semantics is Complex
Leading linguist David Crystal (2010, p. 355) claims that “the meaning system of a language is immensely complex.” For example, Paul Nation (1990, p. 31) lists eight different aspects of knowing a word. When we know the word “love,” we know (1) what it sounds like and how to pronounce it. (2) We know what it looks like and how to write and spell it. (3) We know the grammatical patterns of the word “love,” its morphology and how it is used. For example, to know the word “love” is to know how to use it, as in: “love, loves, loved, loving, lover, lovely, lovelier, loveliest, loveliness, loveless, lovelessly, lovelessness, etc.”
(4) We know “love’s” collocations, that is, what words are commonly used with “love” and what words commonly come before and after it. For example, we say things like, “he feels love for his country;” “I’m in love with her.” “We are falling in love.” “We share a love of music.” “She’s the love of my life.” (5) We know something about its frequency, how common “love” is. (6) We know about the appropriateness of the word, if it’s rude or polite, and we know where and when it should and should not be used. For example, I heard an English learner say, “She is my lover.” He meant only “She is my girlfriend.” But “She is my lover” means “She is my sexual partner.” He didn’t mean that, and that is generally not an appropriate thing to say in public conversation. Of course, “She is my lover” is different from “music lover,” which just means “a person who likes music.”
Besides appropriateness, we (7) know the conceptual meaning of the word; and (8) we know its associations; that is, we know words with similar meanings (love, affection, fondness, adoration), and we know the different nuances of the word “love.” “Love” can mean an interest in something, like love for football. “Love” can mean a romantic feeling: “We fell in love at first sight.” To do something “for love,” means we do it for pleasure and not for money. Thus, with these eight aspects of knowing a word, we can begin to see that semantics is complex. Even knowing the one word “love” is a complex situation!
Many Meanings; One Word
We especially see this complexity when we look at the many different meanings that one word can have. When a word has more than one nuance or meaning, we call it a “polysemic word.” Here “poly-” means many, and “semic” comes from the Greek word for “sign.” Though many scientific words are monosemic, (only one meaning), in daily conversation and reading, we will meet many polysemic words. Crystal (2010) says that in a dictionary of 100,000 words, we will meet about 2.4 different meanings for every headword. Therefore, every time we meet a common word, it has on average 2.4 different meanings, which we need to understand.
Some English words have hundreds of meanings. For example, the word “set” has over 200 meanings. We can say, “Set the date. Set the price. Set a record. Set the clock. The sun will set.” But the word “run” appears to be the winner. The New York Times reports that “run” has about 645 different meanings. We can say, “I run in the mornings. He scored a run in baseball. He ran his fingers through her hair. I ran a red light. My nose is running. I have a run in my stockings. Let’s run a test. The car runs on gasoline. We ran an advertisement in the paper. The water has run dry.” If this weren’t complicated enough, the meanings of words are changing over time. Of course, we could spend much more time learning about the basics of semantics. But with polysemy and the eight aspects of knowing words, we can begin to see the basics and the complexity of semantics.
Cross-Cultural Semantics and Linguistic Relativity
Semantics becomes even more complex when we look at meaning across cultures. If you speak with bilinguals, they might say that they think differently depending on the language they use. This is the idea of linguistic relativity or linguistic determinism, a theory made popular by the linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that the structure of a language affects the way we think. The strong version is “linguistic determinism.” It says that language determines the way we think and the way we see the world. This view is not supported by evidence and is not even testable.
However, the softer version of “linguistic relativity” is testable, and recently, a number of scholars have found evidence for the idea that differences in languages do cause their speakers to think differently. One star of linguistic relativity research is Lera Boroditsky. Her research shows many different ways language can subtly influence the way we think. For example, English and Spanish speakers describe “intentional” events using similar language. That is, when someone breaks a glass on purpose, Spanish and English speakers use the same kind of sentence: “She broke the glass.”
On the other hand, when describing accidents, English speakers will still commonly use the phrase “She broke the glass.” But Spanish speakers will commonly use a phrase like: “Se rompió el cristal,” which we can translate as “The glass broke itself.” In an experiment (Fausey & Boroditsky, 2011), Spanish and English speakers remembered the agents of “on purpose” events equally well. However, English speakers tended to remember the agents of accidental events better than Spanish speakers. Borodidsky and Fausey claim that this difference is caused by the linguistic differences between English and Spanish. That is, the phrase “The glass broke itself” seems to cause Spanish speakers not to remember the agent as much as English speakers because the English tends to use the agent in the subject: “She broke the glass.”
This is evidence for linguistic relativity. Some scholars disagree, but when we look at the total of Boroditsky’s research, we see a clear pattern. We see finely nuanced ways in which language differences cause speakers of these languages to think differently. Hence, with semantics, we realize that words don’t just have many complicated meanings. We also see that semantics becomes even more complex when we work with linguistic meanings across cultures.
Fausey, C. M., & Boroditsky, L. (2011). Who dunnit? Cross-linguistic differences in eye-witness memory. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 18(1), 150–157.
Crystal, D. (2010). Semantic targeting: past, present, and future. Aslib Proceedings, 62(4/5), 355–365.
Nation, P. (1990). Teaching and learning vocabulary. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.