In the dynamic realm of language education, the quest for understanding and conveying word meanings is a fascinating journey that navigates the intricate pathways of human cognition. Within the confines of the Language Lab, where grammar and vocabulary are meticulously dissected, I often embark on thought-provoking voyages with my language learners delving into the elusive nature of word meanings.
Here’s a brief sample of this linguistic exploration.
Thought Experiment no 1: What is the meaning of life?
…I ask my learners during our Language Lab sessions in which we explore grammar and vocabulary features, while putting the word Life in a circle on the whiteboard.
And before they even think of an answer to my ambiguous teaser-question, I repeat the question about Love and Freedom and jot them down as well.
The initially baffled students usually attempt to describe some of their feelings when thinking about these words, which I listen to tentatively, pointing out their diversity.
Text by: Panoraia (Rea) Balali
And then, I add Liberty to the board, and elicit different words or sentence collocations and visual representations or sensory associations that my learners attribute to the words ‘Freedom’ and ‘Liberty’, while gathering a wealth of information from their brainstorming such as:
freedom of choice
along with images of a flying bird, an open window or a cage door, the feeling of breathing fresh air, to name but a few examples.
Next, I request my students to try to come up with some definitions in groups for each of these concept words as nouns, but they usually find it more difficult to provide me with satisfactory ones, so I propose checking the dictionary for an official one, while assigning each group a different source (Cambridge, Oxford, Merriam-Webster, Macmillan, WordReference and Google Dictionary).
That is when the perplexity of the meanings which these concept words carry becomes even more evident. The bewildered learners realize that almost every dictionary provides multiple and even CEFR level-graded definitions. At this point, we can conclude that, trying to articulate the meaning of a word in a dictionary can be complicated and nebulous. And using metalinguistic terms I mention that it requires some different semantic tools to pin it down.
Thought Experiment no 2: What is the meaning of the word ‘chair’?
In pairs, I invite my students to examine if dealing with concrete objects this time is going to make it easier to come up with a definition.
I typically receive this type of answer with minor variations: A chair is an object usually made of wood or metal with a back and four feet that people use to sit on.
I then display some visuals to accompany my initial question, like images of chairs in different shapes, sizes and forms that they see daily, images of chairs with different purposes like:
a toy chair
a beanbag chair
an electric chair
Then, I list a set of critical thinking questions on the whiteboard:
- is it a chair if it’s made of plastic?
- if it’s inflatable?
- if you sit on the floor on it?
- if it’s a state-of-the-art/ abstract design/ displayed in a museum?
- if it's a miniature scale like a toy chair?
- if you rest your feet on it?
- if it’s used to kill people?
- is the digital representation of a chair on your computer screen still a chair?
I normally elicit a plethora of interpretations and different viewpoints, along with further questioning and constructive doubt that comes up from the students themselves such as:
- what specific characteristics does a chair need to have to fit into a definition?
- who defines it?
- where, when, and how do we draw the lines?
We finally reach the conclusion that there is no easy answer to these questions.
It largely depends on the person being asked that question. It seems to be a matter of social and cultural conventions.
Thought Experiment no 3: What does it mean to study meaning?
I invite my learners to examine the sentence:
The John to went Lily’s office knocked on door and hello said
that I have written on the whiteboard and to check its meaning.
They come to realize that despite the unacceptable syntax - according to the syntactic rules and conventions of the English language, we are still able to recognize all the meanings of the words and can infer how they logically come together. Thus, meaning is conveyed.
Consequently, we agree that Syntax has to do with meaning in some sense.
But then, I ask them to compare and contrast the previous sentence with the well-known: Colourless green ideas sleep furiously that I have quoted from Noam Chomsky’s theory in the book Syntactic Structures (1957) to explore further and even contradict the previous inference on the importance of syntax, by asking questions like:
- how can ideas be green and colourless at the same time?
- do ideas have any colour at all?
- how can ideas sleep?
- how can anybody sleep furiously?
After a rigorous scrutiny of the above-mentioned examples that illustrate how a syntactically well-formed sentence can be semantically odd, we draw a new conclusion:
A grammatically accepted structure CAN be semantically nonsensical (Chomsky, 1957).
Thought Experiment no 4: Why is a horse called ‘horse’?
- does the word ‘horse’ follow the shape of the four-legged galloping animal?
- is there any special or natural connection between the form/sound of a horse and its meaning/concept?
- does the word horse signify or entail a certain universal symbol that is interconnected to the animal itself?
The curious and intrigued by the nature of the questions learners engage in conversations and set out in group investigations to discover the origins of various words - concepts or objects - that I assign to them, while exchanging their prior knowledge.
Soon, they are advised to look into etymological dictionaries, and also check the words’ meanings in other languages to cross examine any similarities.
As regards the word horse meaning, their findings in other languages are:
- άλογο in Greek
- pferd in German
- cheval in French
- cavallo in Italian
- caballo in Spanish
- uma in Japanese
- mǎ in Chinese
- hest in Danish
Apart from the similarities discerned between sister languages like French, Italian and Spanish which share a common Latin origin, or Japanese and Chinese which carry common cultural background and writing systems, it is evident that there is no universal or natural or straightforward link between the words and the concept of a horse, reaching the conclusion that human language meaning is arbitrary and does not necessarily match the objects it denotes.
As the learners’ diverse perspectives unfold through unravelling the tapestry of meanings, associations, and emotions entwined with words under scrutiny, it is obvious that this exercise not only reveals the complexity of word meanings, but also underscores the challenge of defining them with precision. Guiding them through the labyrinthine world of dictionaries, reveals the nebulous nature of word meanings. It becomes evident that attempting to encapsulate the essence of a word within the confines of a dictionary definition is an intricate endeavour, one that demands an arsenal of semantic tools. Our exploration into the multifaceted realm of word meanings has just begun, paving the way for a deeper understanding of the intricate web of language and human cognition.