Language – Not Just the Transfer of Ideas

About Semantics from The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker

Semantics is about the relation of words to thoughts, but it is also the about the relation of words to other human concerns. Semantics is about the relation of words to reality – the way that speakers commit to a shared understanding of the truth, and the way their thoughts are anchored to things and situations in the world. It is about the relation of words to a community – how a new word, which arises in the act of creation by a single speaker, comes to evoke the same idea in the rest of the population so people can understand one another when they use it. It is about the relation of words to emotions: the way in which words just point to things but are saturated with feelings, which can endow the words with a sense of magic, taboo, and sin. And it is about the words and social relations – how people use language not just to transfer ideas from head to head but to negotiate the kind of relationship they wish to have with their conversational partner.

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