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Meaning is a Multifaceted Notion

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Olmen (2018) defined semantics as the field of linguistics concerned with the study of meaning. With the knowledge of semantics, we can apply suitable words, phrases and sentences in different contexts that bring about meaningful communication. In the recent SNC-Lavalin affair, Financial Post reported that some commentators believed that the Public Prosecution Service of Canada did not offer deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) to the corporation simply because of the mistaken interpretation of three words “national economic interest” (Johnston, D., 2019). The prime minister had insisted on offering a DPA to protect jobs, however, SNC-Lavalin was still denied a DPA because the origin of the phrase “national economic interest” had absolutely nothing to do with protecting jobs. From this news, it clearly illustrates that “meaning is a multifaceted notion” (Finegan, E., 2015, p.189).

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To begin with, it is believed that meaning is a multifaceted notion, as a sentence could be true because the speaker is speaking the truth or because it is a fact, a logical information (Fromkin, V., Rodman, R. & Hyams, N., 2014). For example, when I introduce my sister to my friends, I say, “my sister is a doctor”. This is a synthetic statement, whereby the truth could not be determined by linguistic meaning alone (Saeed, J.I., 2009). The truth of synthetic statement solely depends on the speaker, nothing about the words used make it true. On the other hand, if I say, “my sister is a female”, we know immediately this statement is true, because analytic statement is always true by definition and does not depend on the speaker (Saeed, J.I., 2009). 

We know that this sentence is true because the word “sister” is invariably used to describe a female. This kind of statement is also called tautology, proposition which is necessarily true by virtue of its logical form (Lyons, J., 1995). Extreme use of tautologies may result in redundancy. Nonetheless, there are also some sentences whereby it is hard for us to determine whether they are synthetic or analytic statements. For example, the use of unisex names, such as Alex, Harper and Taylor, which can be perplexing.

In general we can make deductions with just language alone (Fromkin, V., Rodman, R. & Hyams, N., 2014). Given “Anna wins first place”, we can deduce that “Anna wins the competition”. This meaning relation is known as entailment. Entailment generally goes in one direction, the first sentence entails the second, but not the reverse (Bagha, K.N., 2011). When both sentences entail each other, we say they are synonymous or paraphrases (Fromkin, V., Rodman, R. & Hyams, N., 2014). For instance, “Anna wins first place” has the same meaning as “Anna is the champion”. If the first sentence is true, then the second must be true, and vice versa. 

However, we should understand that there are some synonyms which are more or less similar, but not absolutely identical. Big and large are both used to describe something of considerable size. We can say “John lives in a big/large house”, yet if John has an elder sister, we can only say “John has a big sister”, but not a large sister. Furthermore, we also need to comprehend sense meaning in order to use language meaningfully. As mentioned above, “Anna is the champion”. Even so, “Jane nearly becomes the champion” does not mean “Jane nearly becomes Anna”. Generally, the meaning does not equate with the referent of an expression (Olmen, D.V., 2018).

Next, some sentences may be well formed syntactically, but they are contradictory or anomalous (Finegan, E., 2015). “Daniel is rich” and “Daniel is poor” are examples of contradictory sentences, because one entails the negation of the other. It is either Daniel is rich, or Daniel is poor. If the first sentence is true, then the second must be false. Anomalous sentence is not contradictory but it sounds peculiar. For example, “my pen is jumping”. This sentence is anomalous because we all know that pen is a non-living object and it is not capable of doing human activities, such as jumping. Meaningful language goes all the way down to individual words (Finegan, E., 2015). “Human eat chicken” and “Chicken eat human” are sentences formed from the same words with the same meanings. Still, difference in order and structure leads to two totally different events.

In addition, if there are two or more possible interpretations of a sentence, it is said to be ambiguous (Finegan, E., 2015). “She is lying” can be read in two ways: she is making untrue statement or she is in a flat and resting position (The Oxford school dictionary, 1994). Lie, the base form for lying, are homonyms. According to Lyons, J. (1995), homonymy is a relation between two or more distinct words. Hence, a sentence is ambiguous if it consists of a word with more than one meaning. Likewise, a sentence could also be structurally ambiguous (Fromkin, V., Rodman, R. & Hyams, N., 2014). For instance, “Ella sold her car to her friend in Selangor”. 

This sentence could either indicates that the transaction took place in Selangor or Ella’s friend who is living in Selangor brought her car. “He takes the card”, this sentence is not ambiguous, because we know the subject is a male and the card refers to a particular card. Even so, details are left unspecified, therefore we are not able to know who he really is and what card it is. Thus, the sentence is identified as vague. To avoid vagueness, we can elaborate more on the details, like “Seth takes the red greeting card left on the dining table”.

In conclusion, all of the above clearly indicate that meaning is a multifaceted notion. A sentence may be true because the speaker is telling the truth or because it concerns recognized facts. Two sentences are related to each other because they are synonymous sentences or because one sentence entails the other. Lastly, a sentence may still seems odd even though it is free of grammatical errors because it is contradictory, anomalous, ambiguous or simply vague. Hence, mastering the theory of semantics is extremely important to ensure meaningful language use. Proper understanding of semantics is critical for us to learn how to develop an exact way of talking about meaning. 

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