Be mindful of words

LEST I be thought a national moralist or a failed nationalist, I am moving away from the socio-political rantings of the last couple of weeks to the less contentious area of language which I've done some academic work in. Specifically, I'm interested in meaning – both the straightforward listing of semantic meaning in dictionaries as well as the more emotive pragmatic meaning of words in context.

In the field of linguistics, there is indeed a world of difference between semantics and pragmatics which are stand-alone fields of study. In semantics, the words of a language or its lexicon are described in terms of their denotative or referential meaning, that is what they denote or refer to in the language – thus their listing in a dictionary. For example "crocodile" refers to "a large predatory semiaquatic reptile with long jaws, long tail, short legs".

In pragmatics, the meaning of words is determined by their use in a particular context of communication. The denotative meaning of a word can be expanded to include certain emotive meanings and connotations. For example in Malay the denotative meaning of "buaya" as "reptil bertubuh besar yang hidup dalam air" can be used informally to refer to a man with special prowess, for example "Tiger Woods betul-betul buaya di padang golf."

As a language user, we choose the words we want to use when we communicate in speech or writing. In spontaneous speech or informal oral communication, we are less deliberate and have less time to mull over our choices. However even if we are not skilled language users, there is the advantage of being able to correct ourselves immediately or be corrected if our choice of words is unclear or inaccurate.

In a prepared speech or piece of writing, we have time to select the words we want to use to convey certain meanings and implications. We can explore the repertoire of words in dictionaries and thesauruses as well as the words in our own minds and pick the ones with the most bite or sting, that is if we want to "bite" or "sting".

The words are there for posterity especially when they are communicated at a formal or official event. We can indeed hold a man or a woman to his or her word. When a person's language consistently stings or has bite, he or she then acquires the reputation of being a good orator or a great writer.

Linguistic communication is intriguing for the range and latitude it allows the language user to have in influencing his hearer(s) and reader(s). In academia, language use is to a large extent "dry", objective and analytical with little room for soppiness or sloppiness.

Accuracy of meaning is of the utmost importance, and terminology and terms are used in their denotative sense with specific definitions where necessary. We cannot guess or deduce the personality of the writers when they present their research findings at a conference or in a journal. It is the expert argumentation, analysis of data and original conclusions which classify the work as good, mediocre or bad. It has no emotional effects on the audience or readership.

At the other extreme are literary writings such as poems where writers have the licence to select the most emotive words to suggest personal, subjective meanings as in the following:

Between Madness and Poetry

If this is madness, let me rave and rant
Outpourings of the mind, dreams left behind;
Ghosts of childhood, demons of youth.
Yearnings become thoughts etched in the mind's eye
Consuming reason, soaking the will dry.
The ebb and flow of mental tide
Rising like the angry wave,
Falling like the gentle wake.

If this is sadness, let me grieve and weep
Tears in the heart, sorrow and pain
Of loved ones passing, of days gone by.
Memories well into pools of passion
Devouring spirit, my being left awry.
Providence like a fickle master
Beyond human comprehension,
Beyond the heart's compassion.

If this is music, let me dance and sing
Stirrings of the senses, awakenings of the body;
The child in my spirit, impulsive and free.
Pain grows into rhythm, joy into melody
Lifting thought and nerve to an elevated high,
Solace to the intellect, comfort to the heart
Inspiring like a symphony,
Soothing like a lullaby.

If this is poetry, let me ponder and feel
Musings of the soul, reflections of the mind.
A glimpse of paradise, a view of eternity
In the labyrinth and flux of human destiny;
Nourishing the promise of immortality,
Manna in the wilderness of quests earthly
Healing like a balm,
Calming like a psalm.

I hope the words selected by the poet in the last two stanzas allow theSun's readers to experience greater emotional meanings than those in the first two.

The writer keenly follows developments in politics, culture and education. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com