Semantics and the Study of Cultures

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).