meaning (of words)
Copyright 2006 by Ralph E. Kenyon, Jr.

May 12, 2006

It is a private "myth" in the "cult" of general semantics that thinks, "word don't have meaning, only people do".

If one wants to be precise, one must include several levels of abstraction that includes the theory of time-binding and the organism-in-its-environment-as-a-whole.

When a new human being learns through the mechanism of time-binding how to interact with the humans who are in his or her environment, he or she learns many sounds and utterances and how other people act and react when he or she hears sounds or utters sounds. In the process he or she learns "names" for referring to "things" and actions, including the name 'word' which he or she learns how to use. Assuming you know, on several levels, how to use the word 'word' based on your past interactions, you have an operative understanding which we call (multi-level) "meaning" (of words). Based on the fact that the majority of individuals in your, my, his, or her, environment provide a relatively consistent pattern of responses, as well as utterances, associated with the word 'word' - as well as associated with many other words - a new time-binder learns to associate a coherent semantic-reaction such that his or her utterances provide relatively consistent similar reactions for other new time-binders to learn from. In any given culture, an investigator can inquire by interacting with members of that culture and can find highly consistent responses for any given word in the language of that culture. Lexicographers earn a living distilling these many similar reactions into a concise and abstract formulation. Such a formulation becomes a paradigm case model for teaching other new time-binders - that is, they are often told to "look it up in the dictionary".

What I call our symbolic environment can be described as a virtual reality that is accessed through interactions with others and by interactions with the written (time-bound) formulations that others produce and leave behind. Every word in our language "exists" in the symbolic environment, and it has a relatively well defined "meaning", "definition", "formulation", description, etc., in that virtual environment.

The ONLY way to access that "meaning" is by inquiring of others, either directly or indirectly through time-bound records, but the virtual meaning does not depend on any particular individual. You will get variations from individual to individual, and you can abstract a common semantic-reaction from those varied responses. We have such reactions from all our learning and interactions. It forms a background by which we understand what happens to us. This is what I call our semantic environment(s).

By the time we "ascribe" a meaning to a word, we have already formed our semantic environment by interacting with our culturally specific symbolic environment through interacting with others. To say that we "ascribe" meaning to words is a gross oversimplification of the process of the organism-in-its-environments-as-a-whole. (Note: I did NOT say organism-as-a-whole-in-its-environment.)

For a word to have meaning, it requires at least one person to use it. When there is only one person, it exists only in that person's semantic environment. But when that word is communicated to another person, and both persons use it consistently, then the word is established in the common symbolic environment. At this point another person can learn the word, and through interactions with others, contribute to its meaning in the symbolic environment of all users of the word.

When a new time-binder is introduced into his or her world, the symbolic environment "exists" as a virtual space having words and relatively fixed meanings that depend on how that word was used previously. The new time-binder does not ascribe meaning to a word until he or she is asked to define it. Prior to that he or she learns how to react to uses of the word by others and through a process of trial and error correction how and when to utter the word. He or she does this by "growing" a semantic environment representation in his or her neurological circuits.

By virtue of our symbolic and semantic environments words "have" meaning that one acquires and interprets (respectively), although the meanings are "virtual" as opposed to concrete things we can pick up.

A sound is neither a symbol nor a "word" until a person in a culture uses the sound in association with some object or action. Once a sound becomes a "word", then it is instantiated physically in neural circuits that associate all past hearing and utterances with the proceeding and following circumstances surrounding the occurrence. Such instantiation gives the individual reaction patterns for hearing and uttering the word, and which include verbal and emotional associations. We (I) call this more than just an individual semantic reaction. It is a part of the individual's semantic environment which, in conjunction with the present circumstances, generates an individual's immediate semantic reaction. Individuals can abstract their semantic environment and produce formulations purporting to define, describe, etc., their semantic environment of the term. The dynamic integrated sum of such abstractions constitutes the symbolic environment element known as the "meaning" of the word. It exists in the writings and records as well as in any transient utterances, so it is continually changing. However, access to such a "meaning" for any given individual depends on that individual's facility with other terms in the symbolic environment. No one has "direct" access to the symbolic environment. It is only through other people and through the learning process of building his or her own semantic environment that one comes to have indirect access to the symbolic environment. One can say that one's semantic environment is one's individual map of the culture's (sub-culture's) symbolic environment.

A virtual pre-existing (dynamic in varying degrees) symbolic environment exists for each culture or sub-culture, "universe of discourse", "language", etc. Each person learns to map this symbolic environment in the process of building and maintaining his or her own semantic-environment. Through the course of his or her life he or she contributes to the maintenance and evolution of the symbolic environment (as I am doing just now). A sound becomes a "word" only when an individual associates the sound with an object or action. Once a sound becomes a "word" is has a meaning. This "meaning" is private existing only in the semantic environment of the individual who made the sound into a word if the word is not shared. This "meaning" is public and existing in the symbolic environment of the individuals who use the word. In both cases these meanings are dynamic in that they are continually undergoing change. Symbolic environment meanings evolve much slower, because they depend on time-binding records. Because the symbolic environment already exists when an individual enters the world, his or her semantic environment becomes a dynamic map of a portion of the symbolic environment.

"Ascribe" comes from the Latin "to write". Here is a symbolic environment entry for "ascribe" 

synonyms ASCRIBE, ATTRIBUTE, ASSIGN, IMPUTE, CREDIT mean to lay something to the account of a person or thing. ASCRIBE suggests an inferring or conjecturing of cause, quality, authorship <forged paintings formerly ascribed to masters>. ATTRIBUTE suggests less tentativeness than ASCRIBE, less definiteness than ASSIGN <attributed to Rembrandt but possibly done by an associate>. ASSIGN implies ascribing with certainty or after deliberation <assigned the bones to the Cretaceous Period>. IMPUTE suggests ascribing something that brings discredit by way of accusation or blame <tried to impute sinister motives to my actions>. CREDIT implies ascribing a thing or especially an action to a person or other thing as its agent, source, or explanation <credited his teammates for his success>. Source: Miriam-Webster

We ascribe <meaning> to <word>. "Ascribe" has the character of inferring or conjecture, so to ascribe meaning to a word becomes to hypothesize or make an educated guess as to the meaning of a word. This works under the presumption that such a meaning "exists" and we are trying to abstract from it.

  1. As the map is not the territory, there could be "errors" in the above interpretation.
  2. As the map covers not all the territory, there would be more that could be said.
  3. As the map reflects the map maker, the above contribution to the symbolic environment reflects my personal experience.

Annotated bibliography of general semantics papers
General Semantics and Related Topics

This page was updated by Ralph Kenyon on 2009/11/16 at 10:58 and has been accessed 8761 times at 61 hits per month.