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Linguistics approaches to reality show how meaning is contained in words and their use.


Language is our way of marking things such that we can think about them and communicate about them. This is a process of meaning-making. Further, when we re-use the words, that first meaning is blended with the situational context to create variants upon the original meaning.

When a word does not exist then talking and even thinking about an item may be very difficult. In the following languages, Bassa and Shona would have great difficulty considering the difference between red and orange.


red orange yellow green blue purple


cipsuka cicena citerna cipsuka





Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913)

Ferdinand de Saussure viewed language as a social phenomenon, a structured system that can be viewed synchronically (at a moment in time) and diachronically (as it change over time).

He distinguished langue, the underlying structure of language from parole, the actual utterances. Traditional linguistics looks more at the langue of grammar, where rules are set out for the chess of speaking and writing.

Saussure viewed speaking as a system, such that a sentence is more than the sum of its words, thus defying simplistic and nominalist viewpoints. The sounds and words we make, he defined as signs, which are made up of the signifier (medium) and signified (message).  Thus a road sign is a signifier and 'Stop' is the signified message. It is the theoretical relationships between signifier and signified that lets language temporarily fix meaning in different situations.

Saussure also distinguished between syntagmatic (horizontal) relationships, which are across words in a phrase or sentence, and associative (vertical) relationships, which are alternative interpretations of a single word within the sentence.

Thus, in the sentence:

The leader showed them the way forward.

The word 'leader' gains meaning from the 'showing the way forward'. It may also gain meaning from being replaced with 'guide', 'manager', 'president' etc.

All words can be interpreted in this way, except, perhaps, for onomatopoeia.

Language also is relative. When we say 'man and woman' or 'man and beast', each word is defined partly in relation to the other word.

Saussure originated the science of Semiotics (or Semiology), the study of signs and symbols (although the term goes back to John Locke in the 17th century). This is used a great deal in all forms of communications studies and looks particularly at the parole, the signified, the associative meanings, the connotation.

Perhaps Saussure's most famous text was Course in General Linguistics (1916).

Roland Barthes (1915-1980)

Barthes looked at language through a cultural lens, whereby social contexts and histories contribute to linguistic meaning.

He differentiated between denotation, which is the simple meaning of a word, and connotation, where we add layers of deeper meaning. Thus the denotation of 'tree' is of a large plant which may be evergreen or deciduous. Its connotation, however, includes it being a symbol of strength, longevity and so on.

Within the English culture, 'Oak tree' links with the building of the sailing ships that were used to 'conquer the world' (hence the term and song 'hearts of oak') and is used to connote the spirit of being English. Likewise, the French have a very different meaning for steak (around bull-like strength, blood, etc.) than the English (who also have connotations around it).

This principle is also used by manufacturers of soap powders, etc. as discussed in Barthes' Mythologies (1973).

He talked about the performative aspects of language in that language produces that which it names.

Barthes also noted the differences between readerly texts, where the reader listens attentively to the authoritative voice of the writer, and writerly texts, where they are engaged in proactive thinking and production of meaning.


After the structuralist view of language, post-structuralists look at the complexity of meaning that emerges in use.

More recently, Jonathan Potter and Margaret Wetherall added the purpose and intentions of the actor to the simple structuralist examination of language in their approach to discourse analysis, where they add John Austin's Speech Act theory, to the conditional meaning of Semiotics and rules of conduct in Ethnomethodology.

They also showed, perhaps in a post-modernist way, how previous theories such as idealism and conventionalism do not consider the complexities of real situations.

The term 'discourse' was made popular by French structuralist philosopher Michel Foucault who viewed it as a system for regulating meaning. He was particularly concerned by how people are classified as sane and insane and the meanings thus created.

Jaques Derrida, a French deconstructionist, has taken things further by showing how things cannot be separated as we are in an open system. He used discourse analysis to destabilise key ideas such as objectivity, etc.

See also

Language techniques

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