August 20, 2017

Words and models – a systems approach to linguistics

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Published in Kybernetes (the International Journal of Cybernetics and General Systems) Vol. 1 Iss. 4, 1972, pp. 243-249.

What is the unit of semantic analysis? A word by itself does not mean a great deal. It means more when associated with other words, i.e. when used in a specific context. Together they can be regarded as constituting a model. When building a model one must choose the appropriate variables for them. Words suitable for one context or model are not necessarily appropriate for another. Thus the words used in ordinary language are not always appropriate for the more objective models built by scientists; they were developed for a more subjective model that has come down to us as part of our cultural heritage.

The fact that contexts are often implicit rather than explicit makes it possible to use words in such a way as to convey to them their meaning when used in a totally different context. This is the basis of many ambiguities and verbal tricks. It is facilitated by our tendency towards ‘nominal realism’, i..e. towards regarding words as real things as opposed to units of a model designed to represent real situations for specific purposes. It is only by regarding them in the latter way that such ambiguities can be avoided.

The only possible reason for building models is to make predictions. The value of a prediction will depend on the model on which it is based, which in turn will depend to a large extent on the choice of its variables. It is possible to formulate the qualities that are required of those variables that will be used in an effective model.

I shall content myself, however, with taking one of them: their most basic feature, they must be functional. They must have a particular function to play within the model. For this reason when building a model the tendency is for scientists to develop those variables that they require rather than make use of those that happen to be available.

Such concepts as the atom and the pi-meson did not come about because they happened to be there or corresponded to any observable phenomena, but because they were required as variables for a model. In the same way, an engineer building a motor car does not use odd pieces of machinery that he might find in his backyard, which were designed for quite a different purpose, e.g. for building a lawn mower or a washing machine.

Unfortunately, most of the classifications, in terms of which we are accustomed to think in less satisfactory sciences than physics, such as the various social sciences, are not designed in this manner, but simply correspond to concepts that are part of our cultural heritage and that were in fact designed for totally different models of a simpler and more subjective nature.

In order to grasp why such terms are so unsuitable, it is important to understand the relationship between words and things. It can then be shown why we have a tendency to attach importance to existing words and how this blinds us to the real issues at stake, which cannot, in fact, be examined in terms of them.

The relationship of words to things is merely one of representation. There is clearly no necessary connection between a word and a thing. Any number of different words could be devised and in fact, are, to represent any given thing.

A word is in fact nothing more than a symbol that has been chosen to represent something. This symbol may have been chosen for various reasons, etymological, even onomatopoeic. Whatever they may be, it still remains true that any word can theoretically be abandoned and replaced by another. For instance, as it has been pointed out, if Lord Cardigan had invented the sandwich, and Lord Sandwich the cardigan, we would be wearing sandwiches and eating cardigans!

Ogden and Richards [1] illustrate this principle in the following way:

A thought is connected to the symbol or word that represents it. The thought is also connected to the referent or thing. However, there is no connection between the symbol and the referent save indirectly through the thought. If the thought is placed at the apex of a triangle with the symbol and the referent at the other two angles, the triangle will have no base:




Symbol                   Referent


Nominal realism

To attribute a necessary connection between the word and the thing is tantamount to attributing some sort of reality to the former. This fallacy is normally referred to as ‘nominal realism’ and is committed to a greater or lesser degree by all save the most scientific writers. It is particularly pronounced in children and also in primitive man.

This is because, with the appearance of language, the environment to which man learns to react is no longer composed exclusively of things, but of things and words. It is thus only to be expected that behaviour towards words should, in the first instance, be determined by the same mechanism as behaviour towards things.

Even when the representational role of words is fully accepted, as must undoubtedly be the case with modern philosophers, unconsciously they will still continue to regard words as things and as a result this fallacy persists, as is evident in the case of Oxford linguistic philosophy. I think it is worth looking a little more closely at the more extreme forms of this fallacy.

The fact that children’s thinking is coloured by nominal realism is pointed out by Piaget. [2]

“Concerning words, the theories of Sully, Campayre and many others are well known, according to which it is maintained with much justice that to a child’s eye every object seems to possess a necessary and absolute name, that is to say, one which is part of the object’s very nature. M. Luque has shown that many children’s drawings bear a title simply because of this peculiarity: ‘The addition of a title has we consider no other meaning than that of expressing the name of the object, which is regarded by the designer as a property as inherent in its essence and as worthy of being produced as its visual characteristics……’

He illustrates this in the following manner: [3]

Asks Bert (7):

“Are you called Albert?”


“Could you have been called Henry? Would it have been the same?”


“Why not?”

“Because they are not the same thing.”

“And could the moon have been called the sun and the sun moon?”


“Why not?”

“Because the sun makes it warm and the moon gives light.”

Roc (6½): admits that God might have changed the names:

“Would they have been right then or wrong?”



“Because the moon must be the moon and not the sun, and the sun must be the sun.”

Asks Fran (9):

“Could the sun have been given another name:”


“Why not?”

“Because it is nothing else but the sun, it couldn’t have another name.”

The importance attached to words by primitive man is revealed by the fact that in many cultures a man’s name is considered to be an integral part of himself. We are taught, in western society, a dualism that divides us into two parts; mind and body. Among Eskimos it is said that man consists of three parts – body, soul and name. In ancient Egypt, man had his Ka, or double, as well as his name, and of these three elements according to Cassirer, the name was the most important expression of a man’s self. Even in Roman law we find the same importance attached to a name. Thus Cassirer writes:

“In Roman law the concept of the ‘legal person’ was formerly articulated, and this status was denied to certain physical subjects; those subjects were also denied official possession of a proper name. Under Roman law a slave had no legal name, because he could not function as a legal person.” [4]

Even more striking is the case of the Australian aborigine, on which subject Stanner writes:

“We tend to consider body and mind as separate. The aborigine does not seem to think this way. The distinctiveness we give to ‘mind’, ‘spirit’ and ‘body’ and our contrast of ‘body’ versus ‘spirit’ are not there, and the whole notion of ‘the person’ is enlarged. To an aborigine, a man’s name, spirit and shadow are ‘him’, in a sense which to us may seem passing strange. One should not ask an aborigine ‘What is your name?’ To do so embarrasses him and shames him. The name is like an intimate part of the body, with which another person does not take liberties. They do not mind talking about a dead person in an oblique way, but for a long time they are reluctant even to breathe his name. In the same way, to threaten a man’s shadow is to threaten him. Nor may one treat lightly the physical place from which his spirit came; by extension, his totem, which is also associated with that place, and with his spirit, should not be lightly treated.”

It is in this way that we can explain the fact that Egyptian pharaohs were known by sort of nick-names, their real names being kept a secret. Herodotus did not dare mention the name of Osiris. The true name of Allah is apparently kept secret. Jews are not supposed to pronounce the word ‘Jahweh’, who is referred to as ‘Adonai’, which means Lord or Master, and undoubtedly the Christian admonition against using the name of the Lord in vain can be traced to the same origin.

The attribution of reality to words has coloured the works of philosophers from the earliest time. Heraclitus considered words as embodying the nature of things just as Pythagoreans did numbers. Plato developed his theory of universal or abstract ideas in accordance with which such terms as ‘duty’, ‘goodness’, ‘virtue’, constituted the only reality; a preposterous theory that, unfortunately, has had considerable influence on subsequent thought. Aristotle was also guilty of the same error, according to Mauthner: [6]

“He was perhaps more than any other notable writer in the whole history of philosophy, superstitiously devoted to words. Even in his logic he was absolutely dependent on the accidents of language, on the accidents of his mother tongue. His superstitious reverence for words was never out of season.”

No individual thinker has exerted such influence on subsequent thought as did Aristotle. As a result, Mauthner writes:

“For full 2,000 years human thought has remained under the influence of this man’s catchwords, an influence which has been wholly pernicious in its results. There is no parallel instance of the enduring potency of the influence of words.”

Modern thought is affected by the tendency towards nominal realism in the following way:

  • First, if words have a reality of their own, it is implied that they must have a meaning in vacuo and thus independently from the context in which they are used.
  • Second, if words have a reality of their own, the purpose for which in fact they were devised is totally forgotten, and words designed as units for a subjective model of the system are used as units of a model aspiring to greater objectivity.
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The unit of analysis

The next question is whether or not a word is the suitable unit for representing things in the world, or whether a smaller or larger unit should be used. This takes us back to the question of representation. If a model is used to represent a situation and if it succeeds in doing so sufficiently well for whatever purpose representation is required, this does not mean that the model can be cut up into the same number of sub-models; each one of which will constitute a satisfactory representation of the situation.

Let us take a model of the world contained in a digital computer. Since such a computer uses a binary code, a particular value will be represented by a corresponding sequence of zeros and ones. It is clear that the minimum unit of analysis must be at least a complete sequence, and to extract from such a sequence a sub-sequence of zeroes and ones would not give any information about the sequence as a whole.

The same is true in the case of a model using the medium of an analogue computer such as a slide-rule. Once again, particular measures represent analogous ones in the environment; nevertheless, it is meaningless to suggest that a subdivision of this measure has any capacity to represent anything in the real world.

This problem must be quite clear to professional interpreters. In order to render a particular idea from, say, English into French, the technique involved does not consist of translating each word separately, but rather in the reformulation in French of the idea contained in the English text. In many cases a text formulated in one language will require a much larger, or, conversely, a much smaller number of words, if it is to be properly rendered in the other language.

If a word by itself is not a unit of analysis, what is? The answer is a context. Korzybski [8] points to the existence of what he calls multiordinal terms:

“The main characteristic of these terms consists of the fact that on different levels of orders of abstraction they may have different meanings, with the result that they have no general meaning; for their meanings are determined solely by the given context, which establishes the different orders of abstraction.”

I maintain that all terms are ‘multiordinal’. A word by itself may contain a general set of instructions for its use – but no more.. To determine the exact meaning of a word, it is necessary to examine it, in its context.

Let us take the term ‘individual’. What constitutes an individual? Clearly the word is only meaningful if the context be specified. To give an absurd example, is a two-headed woman one individual or two? To a brain-specialist, a hairdresser or a hatter, she is clearly two; to a gynaecologist, a Chinese pedicure, or a shoe-maker, she is one.

To a theologian, the problem can only be resolved by determining the exact location of the soul. If it is situated above the neck, she is two; if below the neck, one, while the criterion applied by a hostess will undoubtedly be whether or not she is capable of carrying on two different conversations at the same time.

The extent of the context required will vary for different behaviour purposes. Thus, if we are told to expect the visit of King Leo XV, this proposition will convey sufficient information for some of the functions involved in receiving this monarch, e.g. ladies will know that they must curtsy to him. For other purposes, however, a larger context is required. For instance, it must be determined whether King Leo XV is a reigning monarch or a monarch in exile.

In the former case, it is assumed that some official reception will be arranged for him and that he will be greeted by some member of the royal family. For other functions involved in his reception, more information will be required. Thus, the size and importance of the country of which he is king is relevant in determining whether he will be received by the Queen herself or by some less important member of the royal family.

For other purposes, for instance, in order to determine whether the Prime Minister should be present at the reception, it might be necessary to know whether the king was in fact running his country, as does the King of Jordan or that of Saudi Arabia; or whether his functions were of an honorary or constitutional nature, as is the case with the kings of Norway, Sweden and Denmark.

From this it must be apparent that the term ‘context’ is in fact nothing else than a convenient word for ‘linguistic model’. What I have said about a context can be said about a model, i.e. a unit of a model is meaningless outside the model.

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