Semantics and General Semantics: A comparative approach

The word semantics was introduced into linguistic literature by Michel Breal, translated from the French in 1897. He originated this concept semantics with his book Essai de semantique in the same year. It is derived from the Greek semainein “to mean, to signify”. Hence, Breal opined that semantics as the meaning of words in their verbal levels.

Semantics is the study of meaning. Basically in linguistics, semantics is the sub-field that is devoted to the study meaning, as inherent at the levels of words, phrases, sentences and large units of discourse. The word semantics itself denotes a range of ideas, from popular to the highly technical. Apart from that semantics can be referred ordinary language to denote a problem of understanding that comes down to word selection or connotation of individual words. In general, it is the study of interpretation of signs or symbols as used by agents or communities within particular circumstances and contexts. Within this view, sounds and written language as well as facial expression, body language and proxemics can have the semantic interpretations.

This views of semantics, as an innate finite meaning inherent a lexical unit that can be composed to generate meaning for larger chunks of discourse. As factors internal to language, context serves as the input, but the interpreted utterance also modifies the context, so it is also the output. So, the interpretation is necessarily dynamic and the meaning of sentences is viewed as context change potentials instead of propositions. At the same time factors external to language also, i.e. language is not a set of labels stuck on things, but “a toolbox, the importance of whose elements lie in the way they function rather than their attachments to things.”

Meanings are not complete without some elements of context. To take an example of a single word, ‘red’, its meaning in a phrase such as red book is similar to many other usages, and can be viewed as compositional. However, the colors implied in phrases such as ‘red wine’ (very dark), and ‘red hair’ (coppery), or ‘red soil’, or ‘red skin’ are very different. Indeed, these colors by themselves would not be called ‘red’ by native speakers. These instances are contrastive, so ‘red wine’ is so called only in comparison with the other kind of wine (which also is not ‘white’ for the same reason).

The input to the semantic stage of analysis may be viewed as being a set of possible parses of the sentence, and information about the possible word meanings. The aim is to combine the word meanings, given knowledge of the sentence structure, to obtain an initial representation of the meaning of the whole sentence. The hard thing, in a sense, is to represent word meanings in such a way that they may be combined with other word meanings in a simple and general way

First, we should go back to our syntactically ambiguous sentences and see how semantics could help:

Time flies like an arrow.
Fruit flies like a banana.

If we have some representation of the meanings of the different words in the sentence we can probably rule out the silly parse. We might look up ‘banana’ (maybe in some frame or semantic net system) and find that it is a fruit, and fruits generally don’t fly. We might then the able to throw out the reading “flies like a banana” if we made sure that sentences which mean “X does something like Y” require that X and Y can do that thing!

Sometimes ambiguity is introduced at the stage of semantic analysis, for example:

Sham went to the bank.

Did Sham go to the river bank or the financial bank? We might want to make this explicit in our semantic representation, but without contextual knowledge we have no good way of choosing between them. This kind of ambiguity occurs when a word has two possible meanings, but of them may, for example, be nouns. To obtain a semantic representation it helps if you can combine the meanings of the parts of the sentence in a simple way to get at the meaning of the whole. The output of the semantic analysis stage may be anything from a semantic net to an expression in some complex logic. It will partially specify the meaning of the sentence. From “Sham went to the bank” we might have two possible readings, presented in predicate logic as: Good representations for sentence meaning tend to be much more complex than this, to properly capture tense, conditionals, etc., but this gives the general flavor.

Semantics is the study of the meanings of linguistic [removed]as opposed to their sound, spelling, etc.) and of course, ‘meaning’ is a notoriously vague and ambiguous term; many different kinds of meaning are part of semantics. As Semantics starts with the assumption that meanings are inside of words, but at the same General Semantics starts with the assumption that meanings are inside of people – which they are.

General Semantics, a process-oriented, problem-solving system, helps individuals better evaluate and understand the world and therefore make more intelligent decisions. This theory was originally formulated by Alfred Korzybski, a polish engineer and intellectual in 1933 because it deals with the nervous reactions of the human organism-as-a-whole-in-environments, and is much more general and organismally fundamental than the ‘meanings’ of words as such, or signifies. Korzybski based his system on the ideas and work of thinkers such as Alfred North Whitehead, Bertrand Russell, and Albert Einstein. He wanted to use the scientific method of explore and understand the importance of language as a shaper of perception and thought. He believed his system would help humanity avoid future conflicts by helping people improve their ability to examine their hidden assumptions and solve problems with a better understanding of the thinking and evaluating process. The system stresses precision in description, understanding the differences between the general and the specific, becoming aware of the dangers of overgeneralization, and discovering hidden assumptions underlying how we think and act. To achieve more precise use of language, the system uses tools and techniques called as extensional devices which are discussed briefly with a fundamental prospective.

Problem-Solving through the scientific method

To help solve everyday problems more effectively, General Semantics advocates use of the scientific method, Identify a problem- Analyze it- Form possible solutions- Experiment- Observe- Form conclusions (Identify a problem, test, evaluate). This approach, which has produced many important and useful scientific discoveries, views problems as challenges that call for active responses.

Mental maps – The way to better planning and prediction

There is an analogy in General Semantics that words and statements are like maps that describe territories. The purpose of the analogy is to remind us that words, like maps, only represent reality and is not reality itself: the map is not the territory. Many people live by inaccurate maps (they have incorrect definitions or perceptions of persons, places, or things). And many confuse their maps with the territory- e.g., labeling a person ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘intelligent’ or ‘stupid’, ‘happy’ or ‘sad’, can keep you from observing the full range of attitudes and behaviors of that individuals. General semantics training emphasizes the importance of constructing accurate verbal maps of persons, places, and things and of limiting and refining one’s maps to most accurately convey one’s meaning.

For example: “Choose an advertisement and test the product. Are the words in the advertisement accurate maps of the territory (the product)?”

The “is of projection”- The perils of projection

When we say “Raaj is stupid” or “Sonu is smart” we imply that ‘stupidity’ or ‘smartness’ are characteristics of Raaj and Sonu. However, when we make these statements we are really talking more about ourselves than about Raaj and Sonu. We are talking about our own values, concepts, and standards of intelligence. Someone might have different views. Since ‘being smart’ or ‘being stupid’ are opinions they are intensional statements. However, a statement such as “Raaj is stupid” sounds to most people likes an extensional (factual) comment. We are projecting when we use “is of projection” statements we can use qualifiers such as “seems”, “appears”, and “to me”.

When people say:

People with PhDs are smart- How do you define “smart”? Are people with PhDs “smart” in everything?

The French are arrogant- How do you define “arrogant”? Do all French people act the same way?

Going to film is a waste of time- Have you seen every film? Can you learn something from things you dislike?

The word in each of the above statements that caused disagreement is the word is and its variant forms. So, people need to become careful while using this tricky two-letter word. Making use of who, what, when, and where descriptions and substituting ‘to me’, ‘seems’, ‘appears’ make the above mentioned statements more reasonable and less argument-provoking.

Non-allness, and etc. – ‘Everything about anything can not be said’

The world is in process. When people notice anything in their environment they are selecting and abstracting from infinity of possibilities. This selection is individualistic and dependent on one’s nervous system, purposes, hopes, past experiences, etc. The words we give to our abstractions of reality are themselves abstractions. No word can tell all about anything. We can only reflect a personal selection of details. It is useful for us to think of a ‘silent etc.’ when we make allness statements to remind us that there is always something left out of any description. General Semantics suggests adding a silent “etcetera” to our thinking to remind us that there is always more that can be learned, more that can be said.

“Indexing” – Getting closer to what is really going on

No two of anything have ever been found identical, that is, alike in all respects. Indexing is used to show that there are no universals in the real world. Each person or thing is unique and has unique characteristics. But when we speak we talk as if things were identical. For Examples:

Boys like sports.

Girls like to dance.

There is a way to make our thinking more realistic that comes from mathematics. It involves assigning numbers to persons, places, or things. Thus boy1 isn’t boy2, isn’t boy3, etc. This method of using numbers to more accurately think and communicate is called “indexing”.

Distinguishing facts from inferences – statements and reality

To make accurate assessments of situations, and to avoid jumping to wrong conclusions about them, general semantics emphasizes the value of distinguishing facts from inferences. This ability is especially important when we assess ourselves. For example, thinking oneself a failure is an inference that can lead to a poor self-image that can negatively affect our capacity to learn and perform well. Believing we are failures, we begin to act that way and so create a condition known as a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” In addition, if we strongly believe the labels we give ourselves, we may act in ways that can help to create “other-fulfilling prophecies” and have people behave toward us as if the labels we have assigned ourselves are true.

The art of questioning – How to avoid “unsane” questions

Many people get into difficulty because they ask themselves question whose solutions cannot be tested. Korzybski termed such questions “unsane.” Scientists ask questions which can be tested. Always scientists ask for a productive question to state the problem in such a way as to suggest a useful way to solve it as well as find out the real approach to solve problems of everyday life. For examples:

Unsane question: Why was I born?

Productive question: ———–? (e.g., what biological processes caused my birth?)

Unsane question: Will I be a success?

Productive question: ———–? (e.g., what can I do to prepare for my job interview?)

Unsane question: Why couldn’t I have been born (rich, smart, a member of the opposite sex, etc)?

Productive question: ———–? (e.g., what useful thing can I do right now?)

So, from some of these above principles of General Semantics, it has been clearly noted that though both “Semantics and General Semantics” sound same , but their approaches are different taken into consideration with different prospective. As semantics typically refers to the field of study that is concerned primarily with how symbols (language) relate to their referents (the objects to which they refer) in the ‘real’ non-verbal world, but General Semantics goes beyond semantics and includes the at-the-moment responses and interactions of the individual humans who participate in a communicative process. General semantics truly represents an interdisciplinary methodology that invokes not only semantics but linguistics, grammar, behavioral sciences, physiology, etc. Alfred Korzybski explained that “in revising semantics, I’m adding the word General, and also have enlarged the meaning in the sense that it turns out to be a general theory of values; evaluation, etc.”