What is a word? Common knowledge, semantics, and beyond

What is a word?

Why does it matter?

Primary school education gives the impression that words are labels for things. That is definitely a useful starting point at primary level.

However, as you will know if you have studied language to any level beyond primary, it is too simplistic. You can’t always give the meaning of a word by pointing at the thing if refers to. Read the rest now >>>

 

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Even the most concrete nouns don’t really label things: the case of ‘chair’

Let’s start by looking at some very concrete nouns, the kind that most readily submit to the idea of a word being a label for a thing, and see that even in this best-case scenario, that idea is really quite limited.

Following tradition, we can take the word chair as our first example. Read the rest now >>>

 

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Words for ‘natural kinds’ also label concepts: dogs and fruit

We’ve used chair as an example to show even the most nouny words refer not directly to things but rather to concepts of things. But is it a valid example? Maybe chair is just a particularly difficult word to define? Perhaps because chairs are cultural artefacts?

Would it be easier to define a word that refers to something that doesn’t depend on what different groups of people happen to think of it – say a biological species, like dog? Read the rest now >>>

 

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Concepts and contexts: the vagaries of colour

We all know a heap of words for colours: red, blue, green and the rest. It is easy to assume that each of these words refers to a specific colour, but is that right?

Imagine you are coaching a kids’ sports team. You want them to look professional so you ask them all to wear green shirts – can you be sure they will turn up wearing the same colour (assuming they actually obey you!)? Read the rest now >>>

 

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When colour isn’t even colour as we know it: concepts vs reality

Here’s two photos of the sea, and two of shoes. Group them into shoe/sea pairs of the same colour. And don’t be insulted. It might seem like a kindergarten question, but it has PhD dimensions!

Believe it or not, some languages use one word for the colour of the top shoe/sea pair, and another for the bottom pair: strange – but is English less strange? Read the rest now >>>

 

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All words – no really, ALL words – refer to concepts of things not directly to things themselves

We’ve been discussing the idea that words relate not to reality but to concepts – hope you’ve been finding it interesting?

Now we want to wrap up, by making two further points, each important in itself, but massively powerful in their beautiful intertwining: first, all words always refer to concepts; second, even when you accept that words refer to concepts, they still seem to refer to reality. Read the rest now >>>

 

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Ok – I’ll ask: What IS a concept?

First things first – the word concept is a word. That means it refers to a concept of reality, not directly to reality itself. So there are many different concepts of what a concept is,  some appropriate in different contexts, some pretty much plain wrong (depending on your concept of right and wrong!)

We’ve been mainly focused on unlearning views scholars generally agree are wrong, but there are a couple of more positive things we can say, about what’s widely agreed to be true of concepts. Read the rest now >>>

 

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