S.I. Hayakawa



Of course, much of what has been pointed out will not necessarily come as a startling revelation.  None of the ideas are new, and many under different names, have been used by intelligent people who have never heard the word "semantics," let alone been exposed to the writings of Korzybski and others.  So much the better!  Our concern is not so much with how people distinguish between a "map" and the physical territory that it describes, but that they do distinguish.  George Orwell writes, "What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around...Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one's meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations.

No one is suggesting that all abstractions be distrusted. "In demanding that people cease reacting to abstract names as if they were realities in themselves," says S.I. Hayakawa, "we are merely saying in another way, 'Stop acting like suckers.' "And until we do give more disciplined attention to words, we will continue to stockpile symbols and labels while the "precious commodities" which are being symbolized and labeled escape our detection and comprehension.  The argument-ending remark, "it is only a matter of semantics," must give way to the significant recognition that the "real" search for "meaning" may very well start where words leave off.


Semantics and the Study of Cultures


Illustration from www.masterpies.com

Consider such words as poverty, underdevelopment, hot, cold, democratic, progressive, backward, and the like.  Dictionaries carry definitions, but people carry connotations--and it is connotations that influence thinking and rule behavior.

Throughout history, many writers in many cultures have called attention to the fact that words misinform as well as inform, but it was not until 1897 that a Frenchman, Michel Breal, created the term “semantique,” or the science of meaning.  More recently, in the 1920s, in the United States, a movement called General Semantics was pioneered by Alfred Korzybski and subsequently popularized by researchers and writers, including Stuart Chase, Wendell Johnson, S.I. Hayakawa and Irving Lee.  Borrowing ideas from these and other writers on the subject, we have drawn a number of examples to illustrate the contribution and understanding that semantics can make to any study of other people, and other ways of life.


The nature of the world is one of dynamic flow--”a mad dance of electrons”--in which no two things are identical, no one thing remains the same and, as Heraclitus expressed it over 2,000 years ago, “one cannot step in the same river twice.”

The nature of humans is that--unlike other living things--we can “receive gifts from the dead” through the use of language, but our internal experiences are literally “unspeakable”--that is, they defy description.  Abstractions take place when we try to substitute words for reality.

The nature of language is like that of a map; it is useful to the extent that it describes the territory accurately.  Maps and territories are not the same, however, nor are words and reality interchangeable.


Adapted from: Learning about People and Culture, editor, Seymour Fersh (McDougal, Littell and Company, 1974).