How Linguistics Can Help You Part 4: Semantics

Semantics is the study of meaning. I have a confession to make: I’ve always found the idea of semantics more exciting than the study itself. This is because academic classes on the subject involve a great deal of hard logic (scope questions, entailments, etc).  Today I’d rather approach the topic by dividing it into three writer-related sections:  A. how to choose the right word, B. connotations and allusion, and C. making up words.  So let’s dive in!

A.  Word Meaning: Choosing the Right Word

Choosing the right word is critical to getting our meaning across as writers. Here are a few initial things to think about:

1. Does this word have the meaning I’m looking for?
2. Does it supply that meaning unambiguously?
3. Does it have the proper positive, negative, mysterious, or other desired connotations?
4. Does it reflect on the attitude or identity of the point of view character?

I’m going to spend a little time on ambiguity, because linguistically speaking, even the denotation (meaning) of a word is never simple and singular.

Consider the word “dog.” When you hear it, what do you imagine? I get an instant image of something beagle-sized and brown, with floppy ears and a wet nose and a wagging tail. This is my meaning-prototype for the word “dog,” even though I know the word includes great Danes and shar peis and toy poodles and Snoopy.

A word’s meaning is like a pointillist painting – the prototype lies at the center of a scattering of points which are each possible meanings for the word. As long as the object has enough of the right features (but not necessarily always the same ones), it will be rapidly construed as a member of the set.

This brings me to the problem of ambiguity.

Very often when I critique – either editing myself or reading for others – I’ll come across words that don’t work well because of ambiguity. This is not because the writer has necessarily chosen the wrong word, but because the word they’ve picked has more than one possible meaning.

Meanings and words don’t have a precisely one-to-one relationship, much in the way that “dog” doesn’t always describe the same dog. When we hear a word, our brain brings up every known meaning for that word simultaneously. These generally occur in a hierarchical order of likelihood, but they are all present. Therefore, if the context provided does not narrow the choice sufficiently, the ambiguity can become distracting. Homonyms are a natural context for this, but so are words that appear in idiomatic expressions (they can be ambiguous between idiomatic and non-idiomatic meanings).

The example below shows a different type – a word whose part of speech is ambiguous:

“Joseph burst into the suspect’s apartment. Crashing and the tinkle of broken glass came from the back room.”

In this sequence, the word “crashing” is ambiguous between the following meanings:

crashing: NOUN a loud sound made when something breaks
crashing: VERB breaking something

Because we’ve got a verb context set up with Joseph’s sudden entry, it’s possible to misconstrue “crashing” and end up confused when it gets set up as a parallel with “the tinkle of broken glass.” So maybe we should consider replacing “crashing” or setting up a noun context by using an adjective like “horrible” to make it “horrible crashing.”

B.  Connotations and Allusion

This is actually an extension of what I was talking about in part A above, when I said that a word brings up all of its meanings simultaneously.  In fact, that’s not all it brings up; neural networks are really amazing things.

Along with all of its meanings, the mention of a word can bring up all the contexts in which we’ve encountered it. With exceedingly common words, there may not be a particular context that stands out, and the word may have a more generic feeling. With less common words, we may really notice how they evoke the context in which they were created (Quidditch, anyone?) or in which they were used. Regardless, these contexts always tag along, and they influence the way we hear a word.

Have you ever tried to use the word “ejaculate” as a dialog tag? No? It used to be common enough, but I’m guessing you can see why we don’t use it so much that way any more. (Dialog tags are often flagged as problematic because they can be distracting.)

This relates to of a discussion I had on the Analog forum about euphemisms. They tend to get “used up” and replaced by others quite quickly. Why? Because of the contexts in which they are used. If those contexts are considered dirty or low, then the quality of the context will be evoked in the speaker or writer’s mind with every occurrence of the word, and eventually the word will be sullied by its association with that context.

In my classes at the school of Education at UC Berkeley, occasionally the word “intertextuality” came up. It essentially means that a word will evoke in the reader’s mind all the texts in which they have seen it. “Monster” can bring up Frankenstein, or Monsters Inc. or any number of other things. This is one of the reasons that my friend Paul Carlson was able to put together his list of words that evoke particular genres (find it here).

When you’re writing, it might be daunting to remember that there are a million layers floating behind everything you say, particularly when you choose a word that doesn’t occur so frequently as to become semi-generic. Almost any word can become more than it is, much like the few critical words used in ancient Japanese poetry (I’m thinking primarily of tanka, not haiku).

Daunting, sure – but what an opportunity! This stuff can allows you to imbue a scene with a sense of foreboding or excitement. The other thing it can do is allow you to illuminate your point of view character. All of the judgments of value inherent in a particular word will reflect on the user of that word. We see this all the time in oral language when we judge people based on their use of cuss words or insulting words for others. In a piece of narrative writing, all those judgments will be associated with the point of view character. It’s one of the ways that point of view can extend into your writing far beyond the simple first and third person pronouns.

C.  Making up words

No discussion of semantics and fiction would be complete without including that ubiquitous genre activity – the one that always drives my spell-checker insane – making up words.  This can also include redefining existing words.
Making up words contributes to an effect of foreignness. Whenever you replace an English word with a foreign one, you lose every connotation and context associated with that English word. The feeling provided by the newly created word will depend on the evocativeness of its pronunciation. This may come from an association with Earth languages that it resembles (which will give the new word some of the contextual association with the language in question), or from general principles of onomatopoeia (such as the association of voiced sounds/o/u with large or loud things, and voiceless sounds/a/i with small or quiet things). Any further associations will have to be deliberately provided by the writer.

I’ve often heard it said that “if it’s a rabbit, call it a rabbit.” I tend to agree with this. After all, why put your reader to the trouble of divesting a word of all its associations if the people in your story use a word with precisely the same associations?

Another created word context is that of words coined from combinations of other words (or parts thereof). This most often occurs in science fiction, when you’ll find people using comlinks and any number of other more exotic things. These words retain and combine associations, provided that the parts of the word are recognized and can be successfully extrapolated.

If you’re using a created word, think through what associations you want it to have. It’s not hard to show a reader through demonstration what the denotation of the word is. By all means, do so – but don’t stop there. For your word to take on life and feel real in the world of the story, it will help if it comes with some of the other types of associations that our words commonly do. I’m thinking of emotional connotations. Here’s an example.

Let’s say you have a word, Korinye, which means a particular type of police officer. In order to define it for the reader, you put one of these on a street corner (or chasing the protagonist, etc.) , point him or her out and say “watch out for the Korinye.” But that alone doesn’t tell you how the Korinye group is regarded in society, whether for example they’re a secret police for a fascist government or whether they’re just a friendly policeman on the beat (who nevertheless won’t be on your side if you steal from the shops). As you go through the story, think about whose point of view you’re in, and how that person regards Korinye in different contexts. Their view of Korinye can even change over the story. Or you can have alternate points of view to show that some people consider the Korinye to be upholders of the law, while others consider them to be ruthless brigands who pillage in the name of the law. Don’t just let your word sit; let it expand just a little each time you use it.

In general I’d suggest that you keep the most subtlety, the most extensive building and explanation only for words that are key to your main conflict. This may be a bias of mine, but why make people put a lot of effort into a word that will give them little reward? Of course, this does assume that you want the reader to feel like an “insider” with the word(s) in question. If you have a human going to an alien planet and feeling lost because all the words are different, then keeping to the human viewpoint will probably mean not explaining any of the alien words.

You can also turn this around. What if you’re in the alien viewpoint (as I often am in my stories)? It may surprise you, but my first suggestion for an alien viewpoint is this: Minimize the number of created words.

Part of putting your reader in an alien’s head means making him or her feel comfortable there. So have the alien give not very much thought to things he/she doesn’t feel are important. Names of animals, for example, can be tossed in with just a couple words of context, and even used as metaphors for other things, like “eyes as black as the cornered gharralli.” Give much more attention to those concepts that will allow readers to understand the alien’s motives. These concepts don’t even need to have made-up names.

Yes, I am suggesting that you can redefine English words rather than putting in created ones every time. Sure, your alien may have an idiosyncratic sense of honor, but you don’t have to call it “zinni” or anything else. Instead, use strategically designed context and explanations to designate the associations that you want, and pluck away the ones you don’t. In my October 2009 Analog story, “Cold Words,” the aliens have a very distinct set of social judgments associated with the words Warm and Cold (but not Hot). Since these are integral to the plot, I spend some time building them up contextually. The other word I changed in that story is “friend.” This one works slightly differently because it is a concept that the aliens do not have. I have to treat it carefully because as you might imagine, this does not mean they don’t have close relationships. In order to change it, I have my character give some conscious thought to what it means and how it fits into the relationships he is familiar with.  “Not skin-close as a littermate or consort, but closer than huntmate, because friend is independent of rank.”

You can see that I love this stuff – in particular the relation between words and social meaning.  Next month I’ll return with a couple of topics in that direction:  pragmatics and sociolinguistics.

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