Alan Kirker


November 29th, 2021 by

Semantics is the study of meaning (Wikipedia, retrieved November 2021). According to linguist Stephen Ullmann in “The Principles of Semantics” (1951), the popular approach to semantic study based on the work of Swiss philologist Ferdinand de Saussure sees language as a “system of supra-individual synchronous symbols” where meaning derives from discrete differences across a “chess-board” network (1951, p. 2).

In a book titled “The Tyranny of Words” (1938), economist and social theorist Stuart Chase describes his choosing to study semantics: “I was looking for means to communicate ideas about correcting what seemed to me certain economic disorders, and I found that greater disorders were constantly arising from defective communication” (1938, p. 9). Chase states language’s ambiguous aspects are addressed by the semantic study, as “There is no perfect “truth”, “happiness”, “Heaven”, or “peace”. To rely upon them is to feel hopeful before being betrayed. Look to the context. Find the referent. What is true about this? What is useful about that?”

“What the semantic discipline does is to blow ghosts out of the picture and create a new picture as close to reality as one can get. One is no longer dogmatic, emotional, bursting with the rights and wrongs of it, but humble, careful, aware of the very considerable number of things he does not know. His new map may be wrong; his judgment may err. But the probability of better judgments is greatly improved, for he is now swayed more by happenings in the outside world than by the reverberations in his skull” (1938, p. 49).

Ullmann observes the nature of language; its historical mutations and broader problems of interpretation which are shared amongst overlapping spheres of logic, linguistics, anthropology, psychology, and philosophy; lead some to suggest the meaning of meaning itself is fraught (1951).

Beyond a “system of supra-individual synchronous symbols”, philosopher John Searle argues that the proper unit of semantic analysis should not be the individual word, nor what Ullmann refers to as the sememe; a “unit of discourse” (1951, p. 5). Rather, it has to be a whole sentence; a string of words that expresses a complete thought, as “only the sentence can give us truth conditions or other conditions of satisfaction” (2020, p. 54). Searle notes how much meaning can be embodied in a single-word sentence, while an infinitude of sentences may be used to describe a single symbol. “The sentential form allows for a vastly greater expressive power. You can say more things about subjects than you can with symbolic forms” (2020, p. 49).

The sentence form uses constraining, finite sets of building-block letters and words, that together with its attributes of compositionality, generativity, and discreteness, enable the creation and understanding of completely new thoughts and ideas. If a symbol or picture is worth a thousand words, can a sentence therefore be worth a thousand such pictures?

A Sheaf of Golden Rules from Twelve Religions | Tenrikyo Shinto:
“Irrespective of their nationality, language, manners, and culture, men should give mutual aid, and enjoy reciprocal, peaceful pleasure, by showing in their conduct that they are brethren” (1946, p. 310).

Chase, S. (1938) The Tyranny of Words. London, United Kingdom: Metheun & Co. Ltd. [HTML document] retrieved November 2021 from

Hoople, R. E., Piper, R. F., & Tolley, W. P. (1946), A Sheaf of Golden Rules from Twelve Religions in Preface to Philosophy: Book of Readings (pp.309-310). New York, United States: The Macmillan Company (1952 ed.)

Searle, J. R. (2020), Semiotics as a Theory of Representation, in Mimesis Journals, Volume 1, Number 20, 2020 (pp. 49-57), DOI: 10.7413/19705476017 [PDF document] retrieved November 2021 from

Ullmann, S. (1951) The Principles of Semantics. Oxford, United Kingdom: Basil Blackwell & Mott Ltd. (1957 ed.) [PDF document] retrieved November 2021 from


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