Semantic implications of language 

Posted on Oct 11 2013 - 6:25am by Carl Case

In today’s society, we are encouraged to be politically correct. But what does this term even mean? This phrase can certainly be a tad bit ambiguous. Whether or not you know exactly what this term refers to, you know implicitly how to abide by its implications (at least some do).

All of this falls under the semantics feature of language use. Semantics simply refers to the meaning speakers derive from words and sentences. Political correctness is encouraged because of the semanticity of the words that may be exact synonyms to those they replace. (After all, isn’t this all about synonyms?)

Along with semantics come the perceptions that each speaker holds. The meanings one person perceives from a phrase or sentence may vastly differ from another’s.

The denotation, or dictionary meaning, can start to detach itself from the way the word is actually used, or the connotation of the word. I cannot count the amount of times I have heard “literally” used in the wrong context. Even though you and all your sorority sisters think “literally” means “actually,” it indeed does not, though in some cases “actually” can be substituted for “literally” with the meaning changing some.

The same can be said of “random.” Speakers have taken this word away from its dictionary meaning to mean “weird.” Speakers of a language determine what words mean without much consideration for the dictionary.

Since people are the ones who decide what something means, aren’t the speakers of a language the same ones who determine if something is bad or taboo? Our society dictates what is appropriate to say and what is not, which is especially important in the South. Our culture is steeped in manners and politeness with “yes, sir” and “no, ma’am,” practically taught to you at birth. We are encouraged to use words that are politically correct so as to not offend someone, but it goes without saying that many do not abide by these encouragements.

I believe the language we use with people is so important here at our university with its rich history and its propensity to attract controversy. With the amount of diverse students here, it becomes monumentally important to use tolerant and more politically correct language. We should all strive to show tolerance through our language.

Though not everyone takes the phrase “watch your words” literally, much can be learned through the way in which we speak. The implications of our words go far beyond the utterance of sounds and syllables. The perception of listeners must also be taken into consideration.

As a member of a community, each person must take responsibility for the effects their words have on others, good or bad. College allows the opportunity to learn so much more than professors teach in a classroom. As Helen Keller said, “The highest result of education is tolerance.” We have a unique advantage here to learn and grow because of the environment of our university.

Carl Case is a senior psychology and Spanish major from Brookhaven.