The Nature of Words

Warning: This is a deeply practical essay (not what most people would call practical, I am afraid, but very valuable in life in a different way, I think)

This is actually a writing assignment for a class that I am taking.  The subject is that of teaching/learning vocabulary.  I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it (you might be considered a bit odd if you do, though!).


“Words are labels for concepts.”

Shall we start by taking notice of the impossibility of fully explaining this statement? Language is an amazing thing. Our experience and thought and intuition are things that are immaterial and impossible to fully capture in language. And yet, all we can do is try.

The basis of language and the ability to communicate is common ground in our experience. Because we have experienced similar things, we are able to find a way to draw out the impression left upon us by that experience. Finding a way to illicit those impressions is what language is all about. It can start so very simple and basic (indeed, it must for each individual in life), and yet it can grow to almost unimagined and illimitable complexity and depth. This is the nature of language, and it is nothing short of amazing to consider. And yet we, at this point in our lives, use it every day and probably take it for granted. I know I do.

So I return to the starting point here, that words are labels for concepts. But just what are concepts? That is further difficult to define, isn’t it? And the truth is, if we try to define it, contain it in words, we are right back to the very mistake that the chapter is trying to help us avoid: Words are labels for concepts, and concepts are not truly containable/definable by mere words.

That is why I like the form of expression that words are labels for concepts. The concept exists first. It is something that we grasp and understand either intuitively, or, more probably, through the result of some experience. A new experience causes us to understand something new. It causes us to feel something new. It causes us to see something new. This new experience imparts something to us, and we now have a new concept. We cannot really hope to convey the new concept to anyone by mere words. They simply must experience it before they have truly grasped it. The best we might otherwise hope to do is to provide them with the realization that there is another experience out there that they lack and give them enough of a framework of thought that they might be able to correctly label that experience with the right label (word) once they do happen to experience it.

Is it accurate for us to call something “understanding” if we have not experienced it? Is it even right to call it “knowledge”?

Perhaps I am moving beyond the scope of a consideration of teaching vocabulary, but I don’t really think so. Memorizing a definition of a term is not bad or wrong. But it is a relatively low level of knowledge about the true meaning of a word. I think we can truly call it knowledge, though, can’t we? But if we are able to take that word and move beyond a simple rigid definition to show how it is used in a variety of contexts and begin to experience it in the flow of normal language and living contexts, then we will begin to understand the word more deeply. That is certainly a more helpful level of vocabulary learning.

And yet, couldn’t we go further? The textbook used the example of the word “edge” to illustrate the point. The referenced dictionary definition does not really help a whole lot in trying to understand what it means (there are probably better definitions that could be given, though). But we all know what edge means, most likely. But if we were to take that definition and begin to give it context by talking about the edge of a cliff, the edge of a table, the edge of a pool, the edge of a knife, even the edge of your nerves, then we will be able to understand better what edge really means. Or, perhaps better to say, we will understand to what concept/experience the word edge refers. And it is intelligible to us because we have experienced those concepts in those contexts.

But what if we had not experienced those concepts? Then even describing contexts to us in learning the vocabulary would be limited in value. We would not really understand those contexts if we had not been in them.

But what if we could give those experiences to someone while teaching them the word? Then that word would truly have meaning to them. Take a trivial example from the culinary realm. I remember having undertaken the task of cooking some dish or other and being instructed by the recipe to beat egg whites until fluffy. I had never seen that done before. I knew what “fluffy” meant, I suppose, but not so much in relation to egg whites. I was hesitant and uncertain as to whether they were yet “fluffy” throughout the process. In fact, I don’t think I really understood it until maybe the third time or so that I had encountered this instruction and finally had success in beating them to a “fluffy” state. But once I had finally experienced what fluffiness meant for egg whites, it was very recognizable. I now had the experience of it, and so I knew what it was all about.

Or how about a much more significant example? What about the words of Jesus, for example, that a man must be “born again.” This is not something that is common experience, and so we are not sure just exactly what it means. We try to understand it. We try to explain it. We try to define it. The man to whom Jesus first spoke those words struggled greatly to conceive of what Jesus meant. He could only fall back on his experience of birth, which was that of the normal physical birth that all men undergo as they enter the world. Enter here the power and relevance of analogy. The birth to which Jesus was referring was a true birth, but of a different sort than we are used to experiencing and thinking of. And yet, because the experience is similar enough to physical birth, that analogy gives us some idea of what spiritual birth must be all about. Still, though, we can only begin to understand something of what it might be like. Until we actually experience it, that is. And then we understand it. And all spiritual things are basically of this sort. Because they are outside of the natural experience of mankind, not all men can truly understand them. In truth, none of us can until we experience them.

Returning to the mundane (not the boring, though, note you), we could consider the concept of vocabulary learning in terms of learning a foreign language. Here is a great place to consider the significance of how we go about learning vocabulary.   There is really just too much to say here, and I can’t carry on writing about these wonderful things forever, so I am forced to leave off some great discussion about how language relates to how we conceive of ideas and how other languages reveal how other peoples think differently. The semantic ranges of foreign words and their comparison to the best English equivalents to those words is an interesting study indeed! Here I will pause only to envision an exercise for learning vocabulary in a beginning Spanish class.

Take a lighter, a cup of freshly brewed hot tea, a heated gas oven with a loaf of bread baking (or should it be a griddle and a tortilla?), just ready to remove from the oven, and a jalapeno pepper. Let the student experience each of these in turn. With the lighter, place his hand near enough to feel the heat of the flame and declare “Caliente!” Let him take a sip of the boiling hot tea. “Caliente!” Open the oven door and let him feel the heat as you take out the loaf of bread. “Caliente!” Let him touch the loaf. “Caliente!” Let him eat a bite of the jalepeno pepper. “Picante!!!” I think he will probably remember these words and their differences better. Bring him again to the loaf of bread that is now suitable to eat. Let him touch it to see that it is no longer “caliente.” Give him a piece to eat. “Calientito!”

I know that such a manner of learning vocabulary is not always practical, but I am sure it would be more effective. The closer we can get to such a method, the more deeply rich will be our understanding of words. The more closely we can unite words (labels) with the experiences and concepts that they represent, the better we will understand our vocabulary.


About amspencer1984

I am a Christian who desires to serve in God's kingdom in the best way possible. I have served as a foreign missionary in southern Mexico. I have worked as a youth minister at my local church of Grace Baptist in Dickson, TN. I have also recently begun to write books with a desire to help others grow in life. I hope that they are helpful and effective in doing that. I have been married to Alicia Spencer since 2003. We have six children and give thanks to God for all of them.
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