Value Unit 03

Value of Words

What is a word?  What does it mean to “give me your word”?  Words are signs; they are not the thing in themselves, but signs which point to the thing in itself.  Similar to signposts on the highway alerting you to the direction and distance of the next town over, words are signposts to the location of a reality.  According to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, one can not truly know the meaning of a word unless they can accurately define it!


Key Terms: Words

The study of words and language is covered in many different academic disciplines, such as linguistics, philosophy, philology (less common today), semantics, and more.


Similar to etymology, linguistics studies the history and origin of words; but more than just words, linguistics is the study of languages as a whole, where they come from, how they impact on (and are impacted by) culture and history. The word “linguistics” comes from the Latin word “Lingua” meaning tongue. Etymology of "Linguistics" >


A movement begun in the 20th century that emphasises clear, precise language, to avoid confusion and to capture the “essence” of reality in a straightforward and understandable way. Primarily, Imagism refers to a movement within poetry, but more broadly is used to describe a move away from “flowery” or “convoluted” use of language. Etymology of "Imagism" >


This is the study of the meaning of words, and how meaning is conveyed through the use of word-signs. For example, what am I saying to you when I say, “hello”? Am I getting your attention, or showing you I mean know harm? Or is it a casual greeting? It could be all of these things; so how do we know the difference between intentions in the use of words? Semantics is concerned with these kinds of questions. Etymology of "Semantics" >


In order to understand a word properly, you have to be able to define it. But defining words is not easy; most people would struggle to define the word “reason” for example, or even the word “pencil” in a way that does not confuse pencils with other writing implements! To define something properly, we need to know it’s four causes, and what constitute its necessary, and not only sufficient, attributes. Etymology of "Definition" >


“Eteos” is the Greek word for “true” or “origin” and “logos” is the Greek word for study, or investigation. From these words we get “etymology”, or the study of the true meaning and origin of words. Why is this important? Because words are like living things, with a history, a culture, a life of their own. Unlike dictionaries, etymologies give us the roots of words and show us where they come from. Etymology of "Etymology" >


The order of words in a sentence is the sentence’s “syntax”. Syntax includes punctuation, as this can also change the meaning of words. For example, consider the following two sentences: “I told you today, you can go with me.” “I told you, today you can go with me.” Notice how the placement of the comma changes the meaning of the sentences. Also consider: “You should help her” And, “Should you help her” By changing the places of “you” and “should” the syntax goes from being a statement to a question. Etymology of "Syntax" >

Origin of Language?

Many of us grew up believing (and even being taught in school!) that language developed in “caveman” times during which one cave man would point to something and utter a sound (“Rock!”  “Meat!”) in order to convey meaning, and so language was born.  This theory of the origin of language is called the “ostensive” theory, whereby language is thought to originate from pointing to things and naming them.


But this doesn’t seem possible; the famous Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein illustrated that this seemingly simple task of uttering a sound to stand as a sign for some other reality, to be conveyed to another with the same meaning, is remarkably complex and already involves a sophisticated use of syntax.  In other words, the ostensive theory of language already requires a complex understanding of semantics even before the first word is uttered.

The truth of the matter is this: no one knows how language started!  It is a mystery; one which lead the ancient Greeks to call language a "gift of the gods".

Further Reading

Arthur Miller

"The Crucible"

Introduction to Sematics

Introduction to Linguistics