Semantics: The Power of Language

Language is a phenomenon which allows human beings to interact in a meaningful way with one another.  Language began as a rudimentary system of hieroglyphics and has evolved into a highly complex system of the spoken and written word.  As language in both spoken and written form has developed, so has man’s understanding of it.  This understanding of both words and sentences has evolved along with the language itself and with the people who use it to create meaning.

Word formation has occurred throughout time through several processes.  Words were developed initially through other languages, through etymology and then progressed into the formation of new words altogether, which can occur through a variety of means.  Next, words are arranged into sentences which carry both literal and implied meanings which can be based upon sounds and even the previous knowledge of those conversing.  In many ways, word economy has resulted by adopting new words from existing words or from portions of existing words in an effort to simplify language.

The process of economized words, which are words formed from existing words which then become commonly understood words in the language, is a major way in which the words of the language are formed.  Coinage is a process of inventing completely new words from a source which seems to embody its meaning. One way in which this occurs is to create the word kleenex from the brand name of Kleenex (instead of tissue) and xerox as a verb after the Xerox brand of copy machines.  Furthermore, eponyms can be created from individuals’ names such as to hoover from Hoover who invented the vacuum cleaner and the concept of the sandwich from the Earl of Sandwich (Yule, 2006).

Another process of economizing words is called blending.  Blending occurs when the beginning of one word is combined with the ending of another word.  This new word then enters the language as an original word.  For example, a blended word for the product of gasoline made with alcohol is gasohol.  The meal which is a combination of breakfast and lunch has become represented with the word brunch.  Of course, this process can occur with the beginnings of two words as well.  The word modem is a blend of modulator and demodulator, and the new concept of Spanglish is the blending of English and Spanish (Yule, 2006), made even more popular by a recent motion picture of the same name.

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By blending words together, the meaning from the original words is already intact.  Thus, the meaning of the resulting word does not have to be suddenly relearned.  The meaning already exists because the words already exist.  In this way, the economy of the English language is maintained without the need for learning new definitions and uses.

A third process of word economy is referred to as clipping.  With this process, a longer word is reduced to a shortened form of itself. This shortened from, like blending, carries the same meaning as its original.  The only difference is the shortened form of the word.  For example, the word facsimile, with its proliferation of used, has become shortened in modern language to the word fax.  Likewise, the word condo represents its initial longer form of condominium.

Words that are reduced to a single syllable and then joined with an –ie or –y are a type of this process known as hypocorism.  Words like movie for moving picture, bookie for bookmaker and hankie for handkerchief are examples of this type of word economy (Yule, 2006).  This type of word economy is popular in England, where the word television has even been shortened to the popular, telly.

As the process of word economy develops, some words are backformed.  Backforming is a type of word economy because it uses the same root of a word to convert it into a different part of speech.  One basic word root becomes the basis for two or even three words.  This process takes a form of a word and reduces it to another form.

For example a noun can be reduced to a verb.  From the word television, a noun, comes the verb televise.  The verb babysit was derived from babysitter.  Basically, in English, words that end in –er comprise the noun forms while the same word minus the –er make up the verbs.  An example is worker to work or player to play (Yule, 2006).  This particular backformation becomes a pattern in language, thus repeating itself over and over with new words without any additional units of meaning.

This change itself is known as the process of conversion.  This process changing verb phrases into nouns and vice versa.  For example, if a secretary is ordered to print out a form, the resultant form is known as a printout.  If a company wants to take over another, they initiate a takeover.

This can happen in the other direction as well a dirty room can be converted into the verb to dirty, as in “the boy dirtied the room.”  It can even occur from adjectives as well.  A person who is in a ballpark often, such as a player, may become a ballpark figure.  Thus a noun becomes an adjective (Yule, 2006). Again, it is easier to learn, understand and use a language if the meanings can be used in multiple situations.

Anther popular method of creating words is through the use of acronyms.  These are word forms that result from the initial letters of a set of words.  A CD is the acronym for a compact disk.  A PIN is a personal identification number.  These words are constantly added as the result of different jargon such as that of business, international relations and education (Yule, 2006).  For example, NASA, INTEL, and RAM are specific to particular industries and would not exist if it were not for those industries.

Finally, some words are created by combining two or more of the above techniques.  For example, English borrowed the word delicatessen from the German language and then clipped it to the Americanized deli.  The words snow and ball were compounded into the noun snowball and then converted to the verb – to snowball.  Adding the suffix –ish to the acronym formed from White Anglo Saxon Protestant results as WASPish (Yule, 2006).  All of these words now become an integral part of the language which people widely understand and use as part of their daily language.

Beyond the mere creation, usage and understanding of words is the combination of words into sentences.  Many argue that words themselves would not be meaningful without the construct of a sentence to give it basic background.  Individuals generally communicate through sentences which are basically formed with a subject, verb, and a complete thought, as students are taught throughout school.  Thus, forming words into syntactical patterns and creating a context in which they are used is vital to understanding both written and spoken communication today.

However, many linguists also argue that conversation can be understood in its reduced form based upon certain inherent techniques.  This enables individuals to understand conversation that is not composed of perfectly constructed sentences.  In this way, a person can understand a word as a sentence because they already understand the context of the meaning in which the word was spoken (Palmer, 1981).  Thus, sentences, too can be economized just as words can.

Fragments of sentences that are closely linked in meaning can be combined in such a way that some parts of the sentence is omitted.  This is known as an elliptical formation.  One way that this happens is through analyzing both the surface structure and the deep structure of meaning.  The surface structure is a literal meaning of the sentence, while the deep structure is the figurative, implied, abstract meaning of the communication itself which may depend on former knowledge by the partners (Palmer, 1981). Both structures are necessary to understand communication, but the deep structure may help the individual differentiate between various meanings in context.

The two types of language features that are inherent in this process are prosodic and paralinguistic features.  Prosodic features deal with actual sounds of the language such as tone, stress, volume, rhythm etc.  Paralinguistic features include the visuals of language, such as the speaker’s facial expressions, gestures, etc (Palmer, 1981).  Thus, both the way the communication sounds and the visual cues of the speaker can contribute to a fuller understanding.

Tone and stress is used by speakers to indicate which part of the sentence is to be given the most emphasis. This emphasis indicates the most important information of the system.  Speech acts can serve a variety of functions even while the same sentence is being uttered.  These purposes can be warnings, threats, promises, pleas, etc. and can change the meaning of any sentence.  Sentences can be insinuations which carry some inherent truthfulness in them.  The sentence/question “Do you still beat your wife?” insinuates that the subject has at one time been a wife-beater, which suggests an accusation which the speaker intends for the listeners to realize (Palmer, 1981).

Other meanings are based on the relationships between the individuals.  Some conversation is meaningless and carries no specific information.  Other sentence meanings can be derived simply from its grammatical structure.  Finally, sentence meaning can be based on how the sentence is said.  Ultimately, the sentence that is truth-conditional is not concerned with grammar but with the meaning of the proposition of the sentence.  Is it based in truth or not?  For example, if someone is cited directly, that is considered more truthful than if he is cited indirectly, even though both may not be formally proven within the context of the particular sentence (Palmer, 1981).  Ultimately, the ambiguities of language and the situations in which it exists, create the problems of interpretation which depend upon so much more than the mere words.

The spoken language is far more complex than the written language.  Palmer (1981) gives four ways in which this is true.  First, human beings spoke long before they wrote.  Second, a child learns spoken language far earlier than he learns how to write.  Third, human beings speak for more during their daily lives than they write.  Finally, writing can be converted to speech without much loss; however, this process cannot happen the other way around (Palmer, 1981).

The tone and stress of words was mentioned earlier as a way to decipher emphasis in spoken communication.  Combined with pitch, or the rise and fall of words, people can gain even more meaning from the exchange.  If a particular word of syllable is accented, the listened gains a particular set of meanings which may be different if another word or syllable is accented.  This information unit (this tone group of pitch, accent, etc) counts more to the listener in terms of understanding the meaning than does the simple grammatical components of the sentence (Palmer, 1981).

Rises in pitch are concerned with certain types of meanings, like indecision or questions, while falls in pitch are more concerned with statements.  Likewise, certain emotions can be expressed through intonation as well.  These meanings may vary from language to language (Palmer, 1981).

The topic and comment of an utterance represents these differences.  The topic is basically the main informational unit of the sentence while the comment is the opinion or emotion attached to it.  These two units may, generally, be distinguishable from one another (Palmer, 1981).

Word order is one way in which these distinctions are made.  The word at the beginning of the sentence generally indicates the topic of the sentence.  Manipulation of word order can indicate the topic and its emphasis (comment).  The example give in Palmer (1981) is “The man over there I do not like very much.”  Similarly, new information in a sentence is usually given more toward the end of the sentence and is accompanied by a rise in pitch (Palmer, 1981).

Thus the ordering of the words and the rise and fall of their pitch can give indication to the meaning.

Other utterances are less a function of giving new information and more a function of naming an action.  These actions can be explicit, which literally name the act, and implicit, which do not.  Certain presuppositions are contained within implicit actions.  These actions may not be obviously named, but they are known because the listener is familiar with the context of the utterance.   This presupposition can be contained in other remarks as well, such as “John drank another beer,” which implies he has had at least one drink.  The author asserts that it is difficult to make a distinction between what is explicitly stated and what is presupposed (Palmer, 1981).

Finally, implications may be even more far removed from the explicit meaning of the words.  For example, if a person makes a statement “It’s hot in here,” he may be actually implying that he would like someone to turn on the air conditioner.  The conversation is reduced in that the individual does not have to fill in the intermediate information for the listener (Palmer, 1981).  A question of “Did you take out the garbage?” may be followed by “It isn’t Thursday” would have no meaning to anyone who didn’t know that the garbage man comes on Thursday.  However, a married couple would have the perfect understanding of this exchange because of their shared context.

Spoken English and written English are composed of words, which have been produced from a variety of sources and through a variety of processes.  In addition, these words are arranged in such a way as to give them the power of meaning in context.  While written conversation is more in tune with grammatical constructions, spoken language also carries the nuances of tone, stress, pitch, volume and even implicit meanings.  Thus, meaning can be derived from words, sentences, sound and visual cues and even an implicit understanding of context.

Word economy has created more words from current words while preserving the meanings.  This reduces the need for new words to be invented and aids in the process of understanding.  In addition, the same concept can be applied to sentences.  The original grammatical meaning of the sentence can be expressed by sound and visual cues from the speaker in many different ways.  As a result, the meanings may be multiple while the actual words that make up the sentence remain the same.  Clearly, the evolution of both written and spoken language is a dynamic force that will continue for all time.


Palmer, Frank R. Semantics. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981.

Yule, George. The Study of Language. 3rd ed. Cambridge : Cambridge UP, 2006.

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