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Semantics: Can You Make it Sting Some More?

June 26, 2011 15 comments

The Dragons of Grammar have been restive lately, sending out long plumes of smoke from their remote, rocky caves; making the occasional exploratory flight around the islands that they inhabit; sending me little love notes scratched on the back of any handy rock; and generally wanting to know why I’ve forgotten them.

Well, man does not live by blog alone, and the real world (American style) has been intruding on my thoughts of late. Prescription costs, much overdue maintenance on my apartment, and some trekking about in the thankfully cool Spring to meet old friends are among the items that have kept my attention elsewhere; so, I offer apologies to my scaly coterie!

And in particular, there’s that multifarious beast called Semantics, which is the study of meaning in signifiers, which include words, phrases, signs, and symbols.

1) In the context of the humble word, for instance, semantics draws the distinction between denotation and connotation–between a word’s literal meaning and the emotions and other meanings that the word suggests (and please note, this is a distinction understood by poets practically from the moment of birth 😉 ).

In other words, a word is never just a word, but a group of meanings and feelings triggered by a principle meaning. Or we could say that a word, once learned, does not remain static, but grows as we acquire its cultural associations and individual emotional responses to its use. One way to understand this is to think of how an acupuncture point works–my acupuncturist having pointed out to me on more than one occasion that there is no single point that she aims for, but an area about the size of quarter. You know you’ve hit pay dirt, she says, when the patient says, “Gee, that stings! Can you make it sting some more?”

Let’s look at this simile more closely. Suppose that when we learn a new word, we do not activate a single neuron, but a cluster of neurons. At the center is the neuron(s) containing the principle word; surrounding it are neurons that will contain closely related words. For example, a principle word might be “big,” and associated words, “large,” “giant,” “great,” “important,” and “formidable.” Thus, when a person hears any of these words, the entire cluster of meanings is stimulated.

We can say more. The needle of meaning also triggers an emotional response. Somehow, the cluster of a word’s meanings is associated with more basic emotions. I can imagine our meaning neurons lying on top (and perhaps grows out) of the primordial emotion neurons–which in turn may lie on top of even more primordial neurons associated with action. Thus, words can be seen as the topmost board of a game of 3-D chess (Mr. Spock will win the game, of course).

For instance, a person hears the word “bully.” A cluster of meanings is triggered, most negative, but which may include Teddy Roosevelt and the Bull Moose Party. Depending on how much you’ve been thinking about early 20th Century American politics lately, the word may frighten you and perhaps stimulate a “fight or flight” response. Wow!

2) Then there is the issue of the way that meanings (denotations, in this case) relate to the sounds that represent them: a) homonyms (same sound, different meanings, as in row the boat and a row of cars in a parking lot); b) synonyms (different sounds, same meaning, as in “buy” or “purchase” the tomatoes); and c) antonyms (opposite and mutually exclusive meanings, such as male and female). And how about that curious critter, metaphor, in which one idea simply stands for another, as in “grasp your meaning.”

3) I won’t hide from you the fact that semantics can be a rather abstruse dragon, often bent over a book with its reading glasses perched neatly near its eyes ; its remit includes such daunting concepts as parsing (the diagramming of sentences in natural languages); truth values (the relationship of a proposition to truth); and thematic relations  (the role that a noun phrase plays in regard to the verb in its sentence).  But it is best to remember that semantics is above all a gentle creature, which easily yields up its mysteries and meanings…and invites further explorations of the amazing assortment of ways that sound and meaning interact.

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OK, team leader RT admits to being a wee bit tired at the moment–it’s time to bring our visit to rocky locales to a close for the day. But have no fear, though we’ve explored many of the amazing beasts associated with grammar, there are still more to come. Stay tuned!  

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Photo: Chinese Barefoot Doctor Performing Acupuncture; author, D. Henrioud, World Health Organization; WikiCmns; Public Domain.

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Collapse

June 26, 2011 2 comments

Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse, (Viking, 2005), is one of the most challenging books I’ve read in some time (for one thing, at 591 pages, it may require a dedicated space on your nightstand). Drawing on a plethora of historical examples, both ancient and recent, Diamond tries to determine the causes behind the collapse of human societies. To underscore the relevance of this task to humanity’s current predicaments, the book starts with a discussion of ecological problems in Montana. It continues on to such exotic locales as Easter Island in the 900s AD, medieval Japan, Viking Greenland, the Mayan cities of the 1st millennium AD, and the Anasazi culture in the southwest of the United States. Contemporary environmental policies in Australia, New Guinea, and the Dominican Republic are also examined.

Collapse is a tough book; it doesn’t pull its punches when drawing attention to the greed and wastefulness of normal human life. Hierarchy, taboo, and the general human reluctance to change core belief and practise are all singled out as causes behind environmental disasters. Now that we are all part of a global economy, the question becomes, can we work out our differences and make the necessary sacrifices to save ourselves from overpopulation and environmental degradation?

On the other hand, the volume is full of arresting stories; my favorite is Easter Island, a tiny speck in the Pacific Ocean (and certainly one of the most remote places on the planet), covered by a lush, semi-tropical forest until the arrival of the first people (Polynesians) about AD 900. I was (and am) fascinated by the fact that among the tree species in the forest was the Easter Island Palm, the tallest palm tree that has ever existed. The settlers created a  complex civilization (which included the sculpting of the island’s famous statues), but by about AD 1600 had cut down the entire forest–only a few of the smaller plant species have survived.

One might think that this a doomsday book, focusing on examples of human inability to cope with tough problems, but Collapse offers several examples of successful environmental management resulting from factors that range from heroic individual sacrifice to extremely tough governmental policy. The book points out attitudes and policies that can create consensus on the environment and help our global culture survive into better times.

Informed, level-headed, and focused on finding solutions, Collapse is one book to keep an eye peeled for on your next expedition to the bookstore.  RT

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Image: The Russian vessel “Rurik” at anchor off Easter Island, 1816, artist, Louis Choris; Source: Wikipedia; License, Public Domain.

Update on Eight (& tomorrow I turn 51)

June 9, 2011 5 comments

File:Balloons-KayEss-1.jpeg

 

Folks:

Things have been hectic here (in a mid-Atlantic, sultry June kind of way), and the good news is I’m closing in on finishing Tablet VIII. I never like to count my chickens before they hatch (and this is doubly true with Gilgamesh), but it’s mostly word choices & a couple of stanzas at this point. Somehow the heat has been helping me (maybe it’s the new *ultra* fan and the fact I do most of my work at night). Fond wishes to all from sweltery Martinsburg….   RT

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Photo: Birthday Balloons; Author: User: KayEss; License: CC3 Unported.