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Phonology, morphology, syntax, and ... squirrelly semantics.

Whenever a teacher sets out to give a course on a subject which covers an extremely wide area, such as semantics, he or she obviously has to choose between focusing too narrowly and hence treating only a small part of the field, and trying to deal with too much and therefore taking a shallow approach. In looking for a middle way, one can try to provide a rather wide coverage with an appropriate depth for each topic. My Linguistics course includes an overview of "linguistic" and "non-linguistic" semantics. The former includes lexical, grammatical, and discourse analysis. In the latter case I devote most of the time to my description of general semantics.

The available educational material determines, in large part, my success or failure in striking an appropriate balance between professor-to-professor shop talk and skimming over the field too shallowly. If I have a book or an article which explains the main points of a subfield in a nutshell, I have a great chance to succeed. With such a map of a vast territory we can deal quickly with one topic and pass on into the heart of another. A good overview provides the basis for assigned reading in primary sources plus dealing with specific important cases.

We have a variety of books and booklets available for students' first acquaintance with general semantics. In this connection I include the Scriptographic booklet by L. Channing, About Semantics, Don Fabun's well-known Communication: The Transfer of Meaning, Kenneth G. Johnson's General Semantics: An Outline Survey, and a "coloring book" by D. David Bourland, Jr., and Elizabeth J. Bourland, A Course in Advanced Squirrelty Semantics.

Of course, those books differ greatly in their scope and the way they present the main issues of general semantics. Johnson's General Semantics: An Outline Survey consists of a detailed outline organized around 27 primary points. My students find it worthwhile reading after encountering more detailed descriptions of general semantics.

Fabun's Communication: The Transfer of Meaning touches upon the central issues of general semantics such as the importance of symbols in human communication, the "meaning" of "meaning," the troubles with the verb to be, the value of using etc., and so on. Still, this book does not cover all the main issues, and it does not provide the newcomer to the field with a thorough map of the territory.

Channing's About Semantics, although more superficial and sketchy, seems favored by some of my students (non-native speakers of English), due to the visual support it gives to its readers. Bold color type, clear-cut divisions of topics, enumeration, and cartoons make the reading material easy to comprehend and remember.

However, my students prefer A Course in Advanced Squirrelly Semantics by Bourland & Bourland to the above-mentioned more popular books. It seems to combine three matters that at first one might consider impossible to combine: thorough coverage, depth, and a very attractive way of presentation. It gives short descriptions of 14 main issues of general semantics (time-binding, non-identity, non-allness, multiordinality, abstracting, etc.) in a text form with references to primary sources - most often to the writings of Alfred Korzybski and Wendell Johnson. This book would have lost much of its value without its illustrations: metaphorical drawings of dogs, cats, squirrels, and occasionally people, experiencing the outcomes of symbolic aspects of "reality." The pictures lead us from very abstract formulations to their literal real-life embodiments. Students and newcomers need most of all this kind of real-life, specific, concrete, detailed presentation of general semantics notions, so lacking in the other introductory books. As a teacher I feel this difference in the feedback I get from the homework assignments. But let me tell you how I introduce this book.

I use the Squirrelly Semantics book to start the course with, and startle my students. After rather technical and specific classes on phonology, morphology, and syntax ... all of a sudden they dive into the seemingly simple and charming world of dogs, cats, and squirrels. During this "guided tour through the basic facets of general semantics" they become acquainted with the main terms and formulations, and rapidly create a system in their heads. If they choose, and most do, they stop and scrutinize one topic or another. They have both opportunity and motivation to do that - they have available a rich library of the literature on general semantics, and they may feel an urgent need to apply its methods to their own lives.

After my explanations, our discussions, and reading primary sources, the students have the task of looking for situations in their own lives that illustrate extensional/intensional approaches, the need for the extensional devices, problems with elementalism, etc. If they succeed in at least some respect, I'll feel proud of having found the shortest possible way - a short cut - from the teacher's thoughts to the students' "reality."

Dr. Ruta Marcinkeviciene teaches at Vytautas Magnus University, Kaunas, Lithuania.
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Author:Marcinkeviciene, Ruta
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Jun 22, 1997
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