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1: Meaning in language

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    Language is meaningful

    Meaning is BIG and meaning can be conveyed in all sorts of ways. Imagine we are sitting at a table for dinner with some friends, for instance. If I kick you under the table while glaring at you, I am able to convey meaning to you. (In this case, that meaning might be something like "shut up".) 

    As linguists, we’re interested in how language is used to convey meaning. Think of our dinner party scenario again. Instead of kicking you under the table, I could convey meaning to you using language. For example, I could tell you directly:

    1. Shut up!

    Or, if I want to be more subtle, I might use language to change the topic:

    1. Who's ready for desert?

    In both cases, I have used language to convey meaning to you.

    In this book, we will explore the ways in which many linguists explore how language is used to convey meaning. Some of the major themes we'll see throughout this book are that:

    1. The way meaning is encoded and conveyed in language is incredibly systematic
    2. Meaning in language can be scientifically studied and analyzed

    This is good news for us, because it means we can ...


    Semantics vs. Pragmatics

    You may have noticed that this book is about semantics and pragmatics. ...

    How we can study meaning


    Semantics and pragmatics as descriptive linguistics

    As in any subfield of linguistics, we are approaching the study of meaning through a descriptive lens, rather than a prescriptive one. That is, we are interested in investigating what words and sentences actually mean, rather than what we think they should mean. 

    But what happens when we disagree? What if you think a word or sentence can be used to describe something that I think that word or sentence is absolutely not applicable to?

    Think about what you would call the potato product in the image on the left. Now think about what you would call the potato product in the image on the right.

    french friespotato chips in a bowl

    StockSnap, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons; Samuel Wiki, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons 

    If you're from Bellingham, Washington, there's a very strong chance you thought 'french fries' and 'chips'. And if I asked you whether you could describe the image on the left as 'chips', you might look at me strangely and say 'no'.

    But, I, a speaker of Australian English, can and do apply the word 'chips' to the image on the left. Does this mean I am incorrect? No! It means I speak a different variety of English than the average person in Bellingham, Washington. And in Australian English, the word chips covers the potato products in both images. The word chips means different things in different varieties.

    Not only do the meanings of words and sentences differ between Australian English and varieties of American English, but they can also differ between individual speakers who otherwise speak very similar varieties of language. .... etc

    Overview and structure of the book  

    1: Meaning in language is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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