S. I. Hayakawa: Language in Thought and Action.

S. I. Hayakawa's Language in Thought and Action has been one of the course's handbooks for a memorable number of years already, but the manner in which it has been used has changed somewhat over the years.

Although the basic concern of the book is with «informal» semantics (not the formal brand of semantics concerned with, e.g. the computation of truth-value), i.e. the «symbolic» way in which utterances are used to convey meaning, it also raises the more cognitive issue of how language affects human thought and conditions behaviour, and addresses the resulting «ethical» question of how language should be used to achieve cooperation and understanding rather than confrontation and conflict. These questions (though viewed in a somewhat «optimistic» perspective) give the book additional value as one of the pioneering works in «critical linguistics», a discipline which was to develop only much later.

Reading the book, students will progressively collect a «toolbox» of notions by means of which they will in due course be able to analyse texts at a level beyond the visible «surface» of expression, and thus be encouraged to approach texts «critically», and notably to recognise, assess and if necessary denounce linguistic manipulation -- whether by politicians, advertisers or teachers; and this mode of reading will contribute considerably to the global understanding of texts which is part and parcel of the «licence» pragmastylistics and critical discourse analysis courses.

Students are presumed to be thoroughly familiar with the contents and the vocabulary of the book. This is important, since without adequate knowledge of the contents of the various chapters, much personal reflection on the texts to be read during the exercise sessions and the licence years will become more difficult. So it might be a good idea to start reading immediately.

The book will introduce a number of concepts which you will increasingly grow aware of in your own «Niagara of words», i.e. your personal linguistic universe: books, papers, journals, libraries, films, songs, videos, cartoons, radio broadcasts, advertisements, etc. The point of the course is to encourage you to recognise the workings of language in your linguistic environment, not to just learn them as «subject matter».

Thorough knowledge of the book will be assessed at the various examinations. Questions at the written and oral exams may be content- as well as vocabulary-oriented, or may require students to comment on a text or other piece of language from a critical semantic perspective.




HAYAKAWA : A summary in 36 keywords (click on the keyword to read an example) :


Semantics is primarily concerned with meaning and reference, i.e. what Hayakawa calls the relationship between the «map» and the «territory». At the word level, it will assess denotation and connotation of the terms used, e.g. individual (1) or collective (2) affective connotations (of linguistic items !), words with built-in judgments (3) snarl- and purr-words (4, 5) and euphemism (6). The issue of synonymy (7) belongs here as well, as do the phenomena of polysemy (8) and homonymy (9), which may trigger ambiguity and/or misunderstanding, or be used as attention-catching devices in headlines and advertising (10).

At the utterance level, where language operates in real-life situations, semantics will seek to distinguish between, for instance, report (11), inference (12), judgment (13) and other functions of language: directive (14), aesthetic (15) phatic (16) or presymbolic (i.e. not primarily referential) in some other way (17). The perception of the reality represented may be warped through verbal devices like slanting (18), language-induced stereotyping («the little man who wasn't there», 19) or two-valued orientation (20; not just two different or opposite opinions: rather a manifestation of a thought-system that leaves no alternative to a binary view of reality), while multi-valued orientation (21) is one of the steps towards open-mindedness.

In a communicative situation, an utterance may be more or less context-dependent: the meaning may be «public» (22), group-related (23) or  personal (24; do not confuse personal meaning with individual connotation !), while reference may be constative and univocal or «oblique»: irony (25) , allusion (26), insinuation (27: hints, innuendo), metaphor (informative, to convey a tentative truth (28) or evocative to convey emotional content (29)) and other «indirect» speech acts in which sentence meaning and utterance meaning come apart (30). But here as elsewhere, meanings intended one way by the speaker may be understood differently by the addressee or recipient (31).

In what Hayakawa calls intensional orientation,  the thought and action of people is conditioned by the (accurate or misleading) image projected by words. Give examples of the various problems that may develop when people ignore contexts (32), confuse levels of abstraction (low-level abstraction 33, high-level abstraction 34, confusion of levels 35; not just any type of confusion !), or mistake maps for territories (36).

1. Individual affective connotation : a word or a phrase triggers off an emotive response, which remains individual because it is based on a single person's experience or sensitivity.

I dislike the word funeral. I've had to attend too many funerals. I've seen too many people die. - W.A. Griswell.


2. Collective affective connotation occurs when a group of people experience a shared emotive response to a word or phrase.

Black is commonly associated with negatives -- the black market, the black sheep -- anything which is supposed to be bad. (...) Whatever we do, we will be called black in the inferior sense by some. (...) In a world like that, it's hard not to believe there's something inferior about being black. - J. Briley : Cry Freedom..


3. Words with built-in judgments are words which, in a language community, immediately call forth an emotive response or value-judgment.

Zhirinowsky is xenophobic, racist, reactionary and irresponsibly populist, elevating saloon-bar wisdom to national policy. - The Independent.


4. Snarl-words are words used for their unpleasant, disparaging connotations rather than for their actual reference.

Curse the blasted, jelly-boned swines, the slimy, the belly-wriggling invertebrates, the miserable sodding rutters, the flaming sods, the snivelling, dribbling, dithering, palsied, pulseless lot that make up England today. They've got the white of egg in their veins and their spunk is so watery it's a marvel they can breed. - D.H. Lawrence voicing his anger when Sons and Lovers was rejected by a publisher.


5. Purr-words, on the other hand, are chosen for the pleasant, positive judgments or evaluations they convey rather than for the things they refer to in objective terms :

She really was a wonderful woman. - D.H. Lawrence : The Lovely Lady.


6. Euphemisms are paraphrases or lexical choices made in order to avoid the unpleasant or taboo connotations of words referring to certain (culture-conditioned) categories of meaning.

Before the war a spade used to be called a spade -- often brutally so. I remember an institution named Hospital for Incurable Diseases. How gentle, how tactful, I thought, and tried to imagine the feelings of the patient driven through the gates. But by today a dustman has become a refuse collector, a policeman a law enforcement officer, the pilot of a plane a captain, a man who sells second-hand socks from a market stall a business executive and a dog a home-protection officer. - G. Mikes : How to Be Decadent.


7. Synonyms may have the same extensional referent, but are not always freely interchangeable because they have different connotations or belong to different registers.

We are often told that the traditional belief is that [God] 'dwells' ('lives', for some odd reason, is avoided) in some non-physical 'space' beyond the physical universe of men and matter. - D.W.D. Shaw: Who is God ?


8/9. The terms Polysemy and Homonymy refer to words which, although written and/or pronounced the same, have different meanings and/or grammatical functions. For the difference between the two, see the chart on p. 25 below.

How right is Silvio Berlusconi ? - TIME

Vast bureaucracies of civil servants -- no longer servants and no longer civil. - Sir W. Churchill.


10. Polysemy , Homophony and Homonymy may cause ambiguity and misunderstanding, but may also be used in playful language use, e.g. in jokes or as attention-catching devices in headlines and advertising.

Grizzly : The Bear Facts. - BBC Documentary.

The Past : An Extraordinary Present. - Advertisement for ancient objects as gifts.


11. Reports are presumably objective accounts of reality, free of any personal selection, interpretation or value judgment. They are (in principle) verifiable by empirical observation or some other form of truth assessment.

We have just heard that the Bosnians and Serbs surrounding Sarajevo are to be given a deadline for lifting their siege or face the threat of NATO air strikes. - The News, BBC Radio.


12. Inferences are based on observable data, but are the result of a logical interpretation of those data. While the facts are in principle verifiable, the inference remains a matter of fallible human logical processing. Logical inferences may be marked linguistically by the modal auxiliary «must».

"You told us with your own mouth that there was only one God. Now you talk about his son. He must have a wife, then." The crowd agreed. - Ch. Achebe : Things Fall Apart.


13. Judgments are subjective evaluations, in which the speaker produces utterances which rate or classify items in terms of a scale of values. Judgments sometimes dress up as reports, but may be diagnosed when the question of their truth-value or verifiability is raised.

Ann Clwyd : British Coal and the Secretary of State have lied through their teeth.
The Speaker : That is a statement that is unacceptable in this House and I ask the Hon. Lady to rephrase it.
Ann Clwyd : Madam Speaker, I will withdraw that and I will say that the Secretary of State and British Coal have told blatant untruth. - BBC TV Westminster Daily.


14. Directive is the term for uses of language by means of which one person seeks to condition another person's course of action : orders, commands, advice, ...; directives may be direct or indirect.

O ye people : Worship your Guardian Lord who created you and those who came before you,
that ye may become righteous. - The Holy Quran.


15. When language is used in its aesthetic function, priority is given not to its referential , «informative» function, but to its visual or sonorous features. In some extreme cases, meaning may be sacrificed altogether; more frequently, it is only of secondary importance.

Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Mo !
Catch a tiger by the toe,
If he squeals, let him go. - English nursery rhyme.


16. In phatic use, the focus is not so much on what is said as on the interpersonal, communicative function, on the faculty of language to «keep lines of communication open» and reach easy agreement through relatively insignificant small talk (or writing).

Hello John, how are you ?
Not too bad. How are you ?
And how's your mother ?
She's very well, thanks. - M. Geddes, Elementary Conversation.

* In the following example, the initial phatic nature of the conversation is not acknowledged, and Liza invests the subject «weather» with a representative meaning, i.e. turns small talk into a meteorological report.

Mrs. Higgins : Will it rain, do you think ?
Liza : The shallow depression in the west of these islands is likely to move slowly in an easterly direction. There are no indications of any great change in the barometrical situation. - G.B. Shaw : Pygmalion.


17. Language may be used «presymbolically» in other ways, i.e. in other situations where the important thing is not so much «what is said» but the function it fulfills : in this manner, words may be used without people actually believing, understanding, or meaning what they say, e.g. in ritual, but also (more simply) when singing under the shower.

They began in unison, "I pledge allegiance to the flag of..." "Just a moment," the new teacher said, "what does pledge mean ? What does allegiance mean ? I think it is quite wrong for you to have to say something with long words in it if you don't understand what you're saying." Danny said, "Miss Warden - well, she never told us. We just had to learn it and then say it, that's all." (...) "It's like a, like a, well, sort of sign, isn't it ?" - J. Clavell : The Children's Story.


18. Slanting is a linguistic device through which a speaker (or writer) deliberately gives a biased, subjective account of a given reality (e.g. a favourable or unfavourable view) and chooses 1) the features to be described and 2) the terms in which these features are communicated in such a way as to make certain value judgments inescapable.

[The press] ridiculed [the strike] by the way they presented the argument : to constantly refer to a «miners' strike» when it was in fact a «coal dispute». There were three parties, miners coal board and government, yet the whole thing was put on the back of the miners. (...) There is a way in which miners' communities are seen as unimportant as compared to, say, the needs of government or the coal board to make or save money. In that way people's lives are ridiculed. - Mike Power interviewed about his Media Hits the Pits.

(Note that slanting is not just voicing two opposite views or opinions, but exploiting both selective perception and differential description (i.e. linguistic means) to make certain value judgments inescapable).


19. Stereotyping is a form of «classifying» language use, in which a number of beliefs or judgments are automatically projected onto a group of things or people, very often regardless of the features of the individuals belonging to the group.

He keeps on talking about a gypsy encampment. Why didn't you say so before ? They're the villains, without a shadow of doubt. Those sort of people are always thieving. - Dupont in Hergé's The Castafiore Emerald.


20. Two-valued orientation is a widespread , and often misleading, form of simplification in which language is used to represent reality in limited, binary terms regardless of intermediary nuances. The danger resides in the reduction of a complex reality to a simple binary contrast (e.g. yes/no or for/against), which is easily adopted and absorbed and may discourage further discernment. IT IS NOT  just two different or opposite opinions, but rather a manifestation of a thought-system that leaves no alternative to a binary view of reality

Friend or foe ? - Asked by patrols and guards around military perimeters during the war. If no satisfactory answer was given, guards were entitled to open fire.

For a Communist, the world is divided into just two classes of human beings : the Communists and all the rest. - George Orwell : Essays, Journalism and Letters.


21. Multi-valued orientation, on the other hand, seeks to escape from this simplistic reductionism, and to recognize nuances between two extremes.

I am a liberal Christian who disagrees with many of the Rev. Billy Graham's theological convictions and with some of his actions. Yet I have only the greatest respect for him and his lifelong ministry. While many other televangelists measure their success in secular terms, Graham has always kept the focus on the message instead of the messenger. - TIME, Letters to the Editor.


22. Most meanings are «public», i.e. are easily agreed on by all participants in a communicative situation; that is, basically, why we manage to communicate with other people. Occasionally, however, someone may fail to acknowledge this public meaning; this may lead to misunderstanding, conflict or some other unpleasant situation.

- "[Ted Burgess] is quite a decent feller but he's a bit wild".
- "Wild ?", I repeated, thinking at once of lions and tigers. "Do you mean he's dangerous, Hugh ?"
- "Not to you or me. He is a bit of a lady-killer." (...) Lady-killer : what did that mean ? (...) I did not       think Ted would kill Marian. - L.P. Hartley :The Go-Between.

* Public meaning may also be deliberately taken outside its usual range of reference. This may cause surprise and thus attract attention (e.g. in advertising) or contribute to the natural evolution of the meaning of a word.

Since Weber's time the term charismatic has come to be used of any figure enjoying exceptional popular authority. Since such popular authority can be acquired by the exercise of fairly mundane political skills and by the manipulation of a leader's image, the word charisma has become arbitrary and subjective.- The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Political Institutions.


23. Some words, or some meanings of words, will be restricted to a particular group of people, and be meaningless, impossible to understand, or unacceptable to others.

You see that piece of shit from the Morris Office ? (Hollywood term for manuscript). - A Hollywood Lexicon in The New Yorker.


24. An extreme case of restricted meaning is the situation where an individual decides to invest words with a meaning of his/her own, or starts using a private vocabulary. When the meaning becomes too personal or deviant, this may of course make communication rather difficult.

I don't think I'm ambitious for what one would imagine the word ambitious means. (...) what I am ambitious for is to do what I happen to do. I'm ambitious to do that as well as I can and not to waste time. - Jeremy Irons: Premiere UK.


* Reference (the relationship between the word and the thing signified) may be univocal (i.e. the word may refer to the thing as directly and unambiguously as possible);

A byte is a unit of computer memory made up of a series of eight smaller units called bits. One byte is just enough memory to store a single letter or figure. - The Oxford Wordpower Dictionary.

25. In irony, the speaker/writer means the contrary of what he/she says/writes*, but often says it in such tones that the «real» meaning becomes quite clear.

That hero of democracy, Boris Yeltsin. (...) Yeltsin has shut down newspapers, produced a constitution out of his hip pocket that makes him virtual czar, forbidden candidates in the recent election to criticize his constitution on television, put off for years his own need to run for re-election and so on. - M. Kinsley : Is Democracy Losing its Romance ?

* Hayakawa (and a number of other linguists) define irony as saying the opposite of what is actually meant; stude,nts should be able to distinguish this meaning from sarcasm, cynicism and some forms of humour (under- and overstatements, «l'ironie du sort») which are sometimes also covered by the term.


26. In allusion, the speaker uses terms which are reminiscent of more or less famous earlier utterances, which may be cultural, literary, biblical, etc., and thus lend one's utterance a certain additional «weight» or value. Allusion may also be used playfully, or as an attention-catching device.

Some Like it Cold. - Headline, TIME.


27. Insinuation is an oblique form of language use in which the speaker communicates only part of the total intended meaning, and leaves it up to the listener to guess, infer or understand the full intention of the message. Hints are conversational insinuations (e.g. indirect directives : saying "I'm thirsty" to beg for a drink), while innuendo is most often of a sexual nature.

My brain ? It's my second favorite organ. - Woody Allen : Sleeper.


28/29. Metaphor is a special case of oblique reference, based on a double relation of resemblance-in-difference. There are different principles of assimilation, e.g. based on similar structural analogy, or on similar emotive effect.

Each time a human cell divides, it must replicate its DNA, a manuscript some 3 million characters long. - TIME.

* Some metaphors are so useful or successful that they come to be adopted as stock phrases and start living a 'life of their own' as new lexical items in the language :

Religion ... is the opium of the people. - K. Marx.


30. There is a whole range of other «indirect» speech acts, in which sentence meaning and utterance meaning come apart : understatement, overstatement, directives dressing up as reports, etc.

They stood, unwilling to part.
"The wood is so lovely now," she said. "I wanted you to see it". (...)
It was getting dark. He followed her to the wood. - D.H. Lawrence : Sons and Lovers.


31. But here as elsewhere, meanings intended one way by the speaker may be understood differently by the addressee or recipient : this misunderstanding may find its origin at the sound, word, sentence or utterance level.

"My boyfriend tells everyone that he is going to marry the most beautiful girl in the world," said Helen.
"I am so sorry," said Kate. "Perhaps he will change his mind and marry you after all." - The Book of British Humour.


32. In what Hayakawa calls intensional orientation, the thought and action of people is conditioned by the (accurate or misleading) image projected by words. Problems may develop when people ignore contexts :

Dr. Thomas Sowell reports in Forbes that recently some speakers have accused Jews of being slave traders. He explains that «to talk about Jews trading slaves is like saying that white people have toenails. It is true enough in itself, but grossly misleading if it suggests that nonwhites do not have toenails».


* The «ladder of abstraction» represents the way in which human thought may move from a low level of high specificity towards levels of increasing generality and abstraction, i.e. where more and more individual details are left out. Normally, we move «up and down» on the ladder, i.e. make general statements which are backed up with specific evidence, or give low-level accounts to reach higher-level conclusions or inferences. But occasionally, people will be «stuck» at one level of abstraction :

33. low-level abstraction :

He said, "Morning !" and I said, "You got a fine city here, Mayor." And then he had coffee with me. And then I went to Waterbury. (...) - A. Miller : Death of a Salesman.


34. high-level abstraction :

A religious revival or a great awakening begins when accumulated pressures for change produce such acute personal and social stress that the whole culture must break the crust of custom, crash through the blocks in the mazeways, and find new socially structured avenues along which the members of the society may pursue their course in mutual harmony with one another. - W.G. McLaughlin : Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform.


35. Problems may arise when levels of abstraction are confused, i.e. when low-level realities (individuals, for instance) are viewed and/or judged in terms of the connotations attached to a high-level unit (for instance, an ethnic group, a nation, a religion,...) and thus unfairly stereotyped.

I love humanity. It's people I can't stand ! - Peanuts.


36. Since words are not univocal «maps» of reality (the «territory»), people may be misled by words : they may be induced to believe that the linguistic representation is an accurate account of what they may expect the world to be like. Advertising will occasionally resort to this procedure to project a favourable image of a commercial product; but this may lead to frustration or disappointment when implied or explicit «promises» are not kept.

- What's your mother's zodiacal sign ?
- Pisces.
- That means «fish». She must be a very good swimmer. - Annick, personal anecdote.


Université Libre de Bruxelles, Homepages Membres Corps Académique.  Dernière mise à jour: 22.04.2008