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Symbolic Nature of Language Discussion

Forum Instructions

Each student must post (1) substantial initial post for each with a minimum of 300 words per topic by Wednesday of each week before 11:55 PM. The student must also reply to at least (2) reply posts per topic each at a minimum of 150 words per reply by Sunday of each week before 11:55 PM.

All initial posts and replies must contain at least (2) professional references, one may be the course textbook, properly cited in the current APA format. All replies in the discussion forum should enhance the discussion. All non-informative messages posted in the discussion forum will not be counted towards the required number of replies for that topic.  *Late discussion posts are not accepted in this course.

Initial Post: 30 points

Reply Post: 10 points (5 points per reply)

APA Style Formatting & Required Resources: 10 points

Total = 50 points

Discussion Topic

Identify the 4 types of language ‘meanings’.  Also, talk about how/why these 4 meanings are different.  Be sure to use information from the textbook and at least one other Virtual Library resource to support or expand on your writing. 


Copy/Paste from my TEXTBOOK:

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The Symbolic Nature of Language

As human beings, we are able to communicate with each other because of our ability to symbolize, or let one thing represent something else. Words are the most common symbols we use in our daily life. Although words are only sounds or written marks that have no meaning in and of themselves, they stand for objects, ideas, and other aspects of human experience. For example, the word sailboat is a symbol that represents a water-going vessel with sails that is propelled by the wind. When you speak or write sailboat, you are able to communicate the sort of thing you are thinking about. Of course, if other people are to understand what you are referring to when you use this symbol, they must first agree that this symbol (sailboat) does in fact represent that wind-propelled vessel that floats on the water. Language symbols (or words) can take two forms: They can be spoken sounds or written markings.1 The symbol sailboat can be either written down or spoken aloud. Either way, it communicates the same idea. Because using language is so natural to us, we rarely stop to realize that our language is really a system of spoken sounds and written markings that we use to represent various aspects of our experience. language A system of symbols for thinking and communicating. Language is like a set of symbolic building blocks. The basic blocks are sounds, which may be symbolized by letters. Sounds form the phonetic foundation of a language, and this process explains why different languages have distinctly different “sounds.” Try having members of the class who speak other languages speak a word or a few sentences in the language they know. Listen to how the sound of each language differs from those of the others. When humans are infants, they are able to make all the sounds of all languages. As they are continually exposed to the specific group of sounds of their society’s language, they gradually concentrate on making only those sounds while discarding or never developing the others. Sounds combine to form larger sets of blocks called words. Words are used to represent the various aspects of our experience—they symbolize objects, thoughts, feelings, actions, and concepts. When you read, hear, or think about a word, it usually elicits a variety of ideas and feelings. Describe the ideas or feelings that the following words arouse in you: college education, happiness, freedom, creative, love. The combination of all the ideas and feelings that a word arouses in your mind make up the “meaning” of that word to you. Although the meanings that these words have for you are likely to be similar in many respects to the meanings they have for other people, there are likely also many differences. Consider the different meanings these words have for the two people in the following dialogue: A: For me, a college education represents the most direct path to my dreams. It’s the only way I can develop the knowledge and abilities required for my career.

B: I can’t agree with you. I pursued a college education for a while, but it didn’t work out. I found that most of my courses consisted of large classes with professors lecturing about subjects that had little relation to my life. The value of a college education is overblown. I know many people with college degrees who have not been able to find rewarding careers. A: Don’t you see? An important part of achieving happiness is learning about things you aren’t familiar with, expanding your horizons about the world, developing new interests. That’s what college can give you.

B: I have enough interests. As far as I’m concerned, happiness consists of having the opportunity to do the things that I enjoy doing with the people I enjoy doing them with. For me, happiness is freedom!

A: Freedom to do what? Freedom is meaningful only when you have worthwhile options to select and the wisdom to choose the right ones. And a college education can help provide you both!

B: That sounds very idealistic, but it’s also naive. Many of the college graduates I have met are neither wise nor happy. To be truly happy, you have to be involved in creative activities. Every day should be a surprise, something different to look forward to. Many careers pay well, but they don’t provide creative opportunities.

A: Being creative means doing things you love. When you really love something you’re doing, you are naturally creative. For example, I love to draw and paint, and these activities provide a creative outlet for me. I don’t need to be creative at work—I have enough creative opportunities outside work.

B: You’re wrong! Creativity doesn’t simply mean being artistic. We should strive to be creative in every part of our lives, keep looking for new possibilities and unique experiences. And I think that you are misusing the word love. You can only really love things that are alive, like people and pets.

A: That’s a very weird idea of love you have. As far as I’m concerned, love is a word that expresses a strong positive emotion that can be directed toward objects (“I love my car”), activities (“I love to dance”), or people. I don’t see what’s so complicated about that.

B: To be able to love in any meaningful sense, the object of your love has to be able to respond to you so that the two of you can develop a relationship together. When was the last time that your car responded to your love for it?

A: Very funny. I guess that we just have different ideas about the word love—as well as the words happiness, freedom, and creative.

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As this dialogue suggests, words are not simple entities with one clear meaning that everyone agrees on. Instead, most words are complex, multidimensional carriers of meaning; their exact meaning often varies from person to person. These differences in meaning can lead to disagreements and confusion, as illustrated in the previous dialogue. To understand how words function in your language and your thinking, you have to examine the way words serve as vehicles to express meaning. Words arouse in each of us a variety of ideas, feelings, and experiences. Taken together, these ideas, feelings, and experiences express the total meaning of the words for the individual. Linguists believe that this total meaning actually comprises four different types of meaning:

  • Semantic meaning
  • Perceptual meaning
  • Syntactic meaning
  • Pragmatic meaning

Let us examine each of them in turn.


The semantic meaning of a word expresses the relationship between a linguistic event (speaking or writing) and a nonlinguistic event (an object, idea, or feeling). For example, saying “chair” relates to an object you sit in, whereas saying “college education” relates to the experience of earning an academic degree through postsecondary study. What events (ideas, feelings, objects) relate to the word happiness? Freedom? Creative? Love? The semantic meaning of a word, also referred to as its denotative meaning, expresses the general properties of the word, and these properties determine how the word is used within its language system. How do you discover the general properties that determine word usage? Besides examining your own knowledge of the meaning and use of words, you can also check dictionary definitions. They tend to focus on the general properties that determine word usage. For example, a dictionary definition of chair might be “a piece of furniture consisting of a seat, legs, and back, and often arms, designed to accommodate one person.” However, to understand clearly the semantic meaning of a word, you often need to go beyond defining its general properties to identifying examples of the word that embody those properties. If you are sitting in a chair or can see one from where you are, examine its design. Does it embody all the properties identified in the definition? (Sometimes unusual examples embody most, but not all, of the properties of a dictionary definition—e.g., a “beanbag chair” lacks legs and arms.) If you are trying to communicate the semantic meaning of a word to someone, it is generally useful to provide both the general properties of the word and examples that embody those properties. Try identifying those properties and examples for the words happiness, freedom, creative, and love.

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The total meaning of a word also includes its perceptual meaning, which expresses the relationship between a linguistic event and an individual’s consciousness. For each of us, words elicit unique and personal thoughts and feelings based on previous experiences and past associations. For example, I might relate saying “chair” to my favorite chair in my living room or the small chair that I built for my daughter. Perceptual meaning also includes an individual’s positive and negative responses to a word. For this reason, perceptual meaning is sometimes called connotative meaning, the literal or basic meaning of a word plus all it suggests, or connotes, to you.

Think about the words you considered earlier and describe what personal perceptions, experiences, associations, and feelings they evoke in your mind: college education, happiness, freedom, creative, love.


Another component of a word’s total meaning is its syntactic meaning, which defines its relation to other words in a sentence. Syntactic relationships extend among all the words of a sentence that are spoken or written or that will be spoken or written. The syntactic meaning defines three relationships among words:

  • Content: words that express the major message of the sentence
  • Description: words that elaborate or modify the major message of the sentence
  • Connection: words that join the major message of the sentence

For example, in the sentence “The two novice hikers crossed the ledge cautiously,” hikers and crossed represent the content, or major message, of the sentence. Two and novice define a descriptive relationship to hikers, and cautiously elaborates crossed.

At first, you may think that this sort of relationship among words involves nothing more than semantic meaning. The following sentence, however, clearly demonstrates the importance of syntactic meaning in language: “Invisible fog rumbles in on lizard legs.” Although fog does not rumble, and it is not invisible, and the concept of moving on lizard legs instinctively seems incompatible with rumbling, still the sentence “makes sense” at some level of meaning—namely, at the syntactic level. One reason is because this sentence includes three basic content words—fog, rumbles, and legs—and two descriptive words, namely, invisible and lizard.

A further major syntactic relationship is that of connection. You use connective words to join ideas, thoughts, or feelings being expressed. For example, you could connect content meaning to either of your two sentences in the following ways:

  • “The two novice hikers crossed the ledge cautiously after one of them slipped.”
  • “Invisible fog rumbles in on lizard legs, but acid rain doesn’t.”

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When you add content words such as one slipped and rain doesn’t, you join the ideas, thoughts, or feelings they represent to the ideas, thoughts, or feelings expressed earlier (hikers crossed and fog rumbles) by using connective words like after and but, as in the previous sentences.

“Invisible fog rumbles in on lizard legs” also makes sense at the syntactic level of meaning because the words of that sentence obey the syntax, or order, of English. Most English speakers would have trouble making sense of “Invisible rumbles legs lizard on fog in”—or “Barks big endlessly dog brown the,” for that matter. Because of syntactic meaning, each word in the sentence derives part of its total meaning from its combination with the other words in that sentence.

Look at the following sentences and explain the difference in meaning between each pair of sentences:

1. a. The process of achieving an education at college changes a person’s future possibilities.

b. The process of achieving a college education changes a person’s future possibilities.

2. a. She felt happiness for her long-lost brother.

b. She felt the happiness of her long-lost brother.

3. a. The most important thing to me is freedom from the things that restrict my choices.

b. The most important thing to me is freedom to make my choices without restrictions.

4. a. Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel represents his creative genius.

b. The Sistine Chapel represents the creative genius of Michelangelo’s greatest painting.

5. a. I love the person I have been involved with for the past year.

b. I am in love with the person I have been involved with for the past year.


The last element that contributes to the total meaning of a word is its pragmatic meaning, which involves the person who is speaking and the situation in which the word is spoken. For example, the sentence “That student likes to borrow books from the library” allows a number of pragmatic interpretations:

1. Was the speaker outside looking at that student carrying books out of the library?

2. Did the speaker have this information because he was a classmate of that student and saw her carrying books?

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3. Was the speaker in the library watching that student check the books out?

The correct interpretation or meaning of the sentence depends on what was actually taking place in the situation—in other words, its pragmatic meaning, which is also called its situational meaning. For each of the following sentences, try describing a pragmatic context that identifies the person speaking and the situation in which the words are being spoken.

1. A college education is currently necessary for many careers that formerly required only high school preparation.

2. The utilitarian ethical system is based on the principle that the right course of action is that which brings the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people.

3. The laws of this country attempt to balance the freedom of the individual with the rights of society as a whole.

4. “We are all part of creation, all kings, all poets, all musicians; we have only to open up, only to discover what is already there.” (Henry Miller)

5. “If music be the food of love, play on.” (William Shakespeare)

After completing the activity, compare your answers with those of your classmates. In what ways are the answers similar or different? Analyze the way different pragmatic contexts (persons speaking and situations) affect the meanings of the italicized words.

The four meanings you just examined—semantic, perceptual, syntactic, pragmatic—create the total meaning of a word. That is to say, all the dimensions of any word—all the relationships that connect linguistic events with nonlinguistic events, your consciousness, other linguistic events, and situations in the world—make up the meaning you assign to a word.

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