I was in a meeting the other day and suggested a change to the words in a business plan draft. The author replied, they did not want to get into semantics. The word change was important to me but he did not see it as important. I looked up the definition of semantics. Try it yourself now. Nothing clever, just Google it. On Wikipedia it says: “Semantics (from Ancient Greek: σημαντικός sēmantikos, “significant”) is primarily the linguistic, and also philosophical, study of meaning—in language, programming languages, formal logics, and semiotics.” This encouraged me, in fact made me chuckle inwardly. I thought, a bit like the person drafting the plan that semantics was more about pedantry, or getting distracted with unnecessary peripheral detail. On the plan itself, I fully sympathise with him and if fact agree. But it led me to think how easily words can get misinterpreted. What I might try to say to you, and what you hear can be two very different things. The same with written communication. The same with any form of communication, so as a marketer and business person I need to have ways to keep checking what is getting through. This blog is about semantics and words the importance of people, computers and robots having a common understanding of meaning, that is just semantics that’s what I mean. A useful summary video explains this here.
The Study of Semantics
There is a pretty decent SlideShare on the Study of Linguistic Meaning you can view here from Kocaeli University. Which summarises how language users acquire a sense of meaning, as speakers and writers, listeners and readers and language changes and how meanings alter over time. The key concepts include, symbols, conceptions of meaning, words and lexemes, denotation, connotation and implication, pragmatics, ambiguity, metaphor, simile and symbol, synonym, antonym and hyponym.
The History of Semantics
As a word, Semantics was first used by Michel Bréal, a French philologist in 1883. Some of the giants in the modern world of language writing include Chomsky who since the 1960s, has maintained that syntactic knowledge is at least partially inborn, implying that children need only learn certain parochial features of their native languages. Here is another useful SlideShare explaining his Nativist Theory of universal grammar which explains his approach including Subject, Verb, Object which he says 75% of the world’s languages use. And that children are “..born with a set of rules” for language that they innately acquire and use effortlessly. Heavily influenced by Chomsky is Stephen Pinker Canadian-born American cognitive scientist, psychologist, linguist, and popular science author. He is Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, and is known for his advocacy of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind. He shares similar philosophies, he has argued that the human faculty for language is an instinct, an innate behaviour shaped by natural selection and adapted to our communication needs. He is the author of seven books for a general audience. Pinker states in his introduction that his ideas are “deeply influenced” by Chomsky.
All very interesting, well I think so, but it’s what is useful to you in communicating effectively that is important, with words. I just wanted to give a brief background into how meaning, language and the mechanics of language has an effect on effective communication. This shows there is probably an intuitive understanding of language we all share and can appeal to when speaking to one another. In the same way then, what else could be helpful to understand about people we are speaking to, writing to and sending communications to? I turn briefly to NLP or Neuro Lingustic Programming. What is NLP? Created in the 1970s it claims people have preferred communications habits: visual, aural, auditory or feeling. Whether absolutely true or not, this does make us think about checking what communications are working with our audience. And here are some infographics and videos on our Pinterest page you may find useful. It also brings us back to my blog title, on the importance of meaning in our messages: that is just semantics that’s what I mean. What do the words we deliver to our listeners and readers mean to them? This brings me to a phrase you may have heard used, a lot in recent years, The Semantic Web.
The Semantic Web
I cover this not just because, the word semantic is included in what has become a modern keyword. But because, I think the Semantic Web is central to how we communicate effectively. So what is the Semantic Web? Here is a useful video summary. And here is another video which very In 1967, Robert W. Floyd wrote a paper describing the use of language semantics in computers and has been given credit for starting the field of programming language semantics. While computers are excellent at using the simple language of mathematics, human languages are remarkably confusing in their complexity and periodic exceptions to the rules. …Without understanding context, a search engine cannot respond with efficient results for words with multiple meanings. With the World Wide Web as a foundation, and the evolution of Semantics to include natural languages, Virtual Assistants are now becoming a reality. Apple’s Siri provides a good example of a Virtual Assistant. All my washing machine is concerned about is getting across an intelligible message to the fridge! It has to have meaning. So my question to you is, do you know what I mean? That’s semantics.
Peter Eales BA Hons Chartered Marketer FCIM FIDM
Founder Director Dorset Business Angels
MD o i solutions limited