Rethink words: Introduction

Words are a pretty fundamental component of speech – which makes it amazing how easy it is to talk about speech without thinking about words! We’re going to change that in this module.

So what is a word?

At one level, that’s a very simple question. We all know the answer so well we rarely bother to think about it. At another level, it is one of the trickiest questions in the science of language, and this module fast-tracks you to the most important and amazing research findings.

As with many other topics we discuss at Rethink Speech, semantics (the branch of linguistics that investigates the meanings of words) is a topic in which there is a certain amount of conflict between common knowledge and scientific knowledge.

That means there is a bit of unlearning to do in order to clear the decks and build up reliable understanding.

The good news is, the unlearning doesn’t just show us that common knowledge harbours a surprising number of false beliefs (which can be a bit depressing!). It actually gives us the tools to build a foundation of more reliable beliefs.

We think you will find the ideas useful for your thinking in general. More importantly for present purposes, having a good understanding about what words are and how they work will help you to Rethink Speech.

In fact, even though semantic science doesn’t always pursue the implications in this way, the study of words gives an excellent, if unusual, entry to the study of speech.

How so?

Well, the words we use to talk about speech (words like ‘word’, ‘phoneme’, and ‘speech’ itself) are nothing more nor less than ordinary words!

Image from Pixabay

That has massive but rarely noticed implications – but we’ll get there in good time, when we have developed a few concepts crucial to the discussion.

And just to be clear from the start – this module does not aim to give a general overview of semantics, which is a massive field in its own right. It aims to put forward some ideas that are well-established in semantics, though not well understood by society at large, and that have big implications for the interests of Rethink Speech. In other words, we are on a particular quest, and must bypass many important and fascinating ideas in order to stay on the right path to our destination!

And in case you aren’t persuaded yet – here’s another reason to do this module

Rethinking Speech gives us insights that shed new light on some perennial problems in the fields of semantics and philosophy of language. We’ll introduce a few of them here (as a basis for our work on Mondegreen Theory).

Those insights are more important than ever in today’s world, where distinguishing truth from illusion, bias and spin is so crucial, yet so difficult.

Ready to get into it?