3.1 Words and Their Meaning

It may seem a superficial question to ask “what is a word?” However, this question has stymied some of the greatest minds on history. Ferdinand de Saussure once said that a word is like a coin. It has two sides in that it has form (the sounds that make up a word) and meaning (the concept associated with it). In this sense, we could say that a word links form with meaning.

Words also have some properties that go beyond these observations. For example, words are free as they can appear in isolation. “How was the hamburger?” “Delicious”. A perfectly sensible word that provides meaning on its own. Words are also movable. They are not bound to a particular position in a sentence. Consider these examples:

  • John is making a hamburger.
  • Hamburger is delicious.
  • Jenny loves to eat hamburgers for dinner.

The word hamburger can appear as the first, last or middle word in a sentence. However, now consider whether the meaning of words is inseparable from the form. We know we can break up a word’s form into phonemes. Can me break up a word’s meaning in the same way?



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Psychology of Language Copyright © 2021 by Dinesh Ramoo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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