Semantic Tyrannies

In a recent article, 'Just Words', inspired by Thucydides, I looked at how human beings can change words’ meaning to fit new situations, turning complements into criticisms, once apparently innocuous terms into taboo tokens of prejudice and phobia, humour into hate. I also suggested that, whilst using language is clearly important to changing and reframing thinking in order to combat damaging and divisive stereotypes, an excessive emphasis on redefining language and using the new correct language isn’t actually solving the problem. It can instead, however unintentionally, fuel an abuse of the linguistic shift demonising the aggressive bigot and the careless slip of the tongue or simple disagreement all alike. In the end all that happens is that one source of division is uprooted by another; no problem is solved; in the name of wiping out oppressive and offensive use of language, what emerges is an aggressive abuse of language in the name of freedom, that sadly threatens to become every bit as oppressive as its predecessor scenario.

An examination of the origins of the term semantic will further illuminate just how powerfully we can use language’s malleability for meaningful and powerful, but not always entirely positive change. The word semantic comes from the French sémantique. when Michel Bréal applied the word to the psychology of language. However, ultimately the term comes to us from Greek:

σημαίνειν - to show, signify, point out, give meaning to

σῆμα - sign, mark, token, signal; (even) portent (good

or bad)

σημαντικός - significant, indicative

It is also worth pausing to clarify the word ‘significant’ as used in defining the above Greek words. ‘That is significant’ we say, using ‘significant’ in the sense of ‘important’. This meaning derives from the sense of the Latin ‘significo’ – ‘show by signs, make known, publish, mean’. Both the Greek and Latin have the sense of ‘make public/display something that matters’. It is important, because you have made a point of communicating it. So, in linguistic terms, semantics is the study not only of the meaning of words, but how they acquire their meanings, and how these are changed. LEXICO online gives the following definition:

“The branch of linguistics and logic concerned with meaning. The two main areas are logical semantics, concerned with matters such as sense and reference and presupposition and implication, and lexical semantics, concerned with the analysis of word meanings and relations between them.”

Michel Bréal, mentioned above, linked semantics to psychology. Words were not, in his theory, entities that existed independently of humans. Humans can be influenced by the meaning of words, but ultimately, they have created them and continue to mould and change them. Just like any weapon, meaning can be used or abused, and in the latter case can become a semantic tyranny.

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