In recently playing with the word "linguistics," I found myself making this statement to someone:

"The linguistics are not the semantics."

Perhaps I made that statement to myself.

I've long insisted, even before discovering general semantics, that I say or do things, but just because I say or do the things, I don't necessarily mean the things I've said or done. Hence, "the linguistics are not the semantics."

However, more than overwhelmingly, I come up against the belief that things-said or things-done equal or indubitably-mean things-meant, even when such is obviously untrue.

I've had a fascination with the seemingly "preposterous" concept that someone can commit murder or some such egregious crime and not have a motive. For example, all of the collected evidence may point to a specific motive for a crime, but it could possibly in the moment have been a thrill kill, a fake killing gone real, or some such manifestation that lies beyond the pattern of evidence before the investigators. The killer may have even had the intention to kill for financial reasons or jealousy reasons, but in the actual moment of the kill, could have just done it because he wanted to see the other guy's blood then and there, a fact that might not show in the evidence.

I've run across this tendency toward equating linguistics with semantics repeatedly on another message board I used to frequent. I would say things, clearly to me intended as a joke or silliness, but several readers, whom I "knew" with a degree or so of real-life separation, would interpret what I wrote as something quite intentional. From a more g.s-perspective, these people seemed to react *with certainty* that what-they-heard must have been what-I-meant, even if there was really a disconnect between the two messages. Subsequently, these people would get very upset and accusatory and judgmental and and and, all seeming to be the result of interpretations THEY made without checking with me about what I MEANT beforehand. "Word was thing."

I underscored my intentions strongly and repeatedly--that I'm a rather nice guy, mean very little harm, and rarely outright attack anyone else's perspective. I treat people with respect, even if it's seen or "heard" as otherwise--that the benefit of the doubt probably ought more often to lean toward me than away. Basically, "remember this before reacting strongly and negatively to something I write on that board, because it's more than likely a joke or a statement you don't get yet."

Despite my underscoring this perspective, the *certain* attitudes that what-I-said equaled what-I-meant pretty much without exception spread amongst their friends (presumably with closer degrees of separation between them) on this message board I frequented. More recently, I decided to label the negative behavior directed toward me, particularly without provocation, akin to "hegemony," for people whom I'd never even met had these mean opinions of me and what I'd post on this message board that seemed to sprout more from the observed negative behavior of others toward me than from direct interaction with me. I got pretty depressed by the treatment, let me tell you!

One of the more interesting tidbits about that board is it is frequented primarily by long-form improvisers. Long-form improvisers are essentially actors in that they perform scenes and play characters. And they joke a lot--saying charactery things, but obviously not truly meaning the things they said. So usually there is a disconnect between what they would say in their own lives in the context, and their characters' lives in the context of a scene onstage. I find the distinction between "character" and "player" (actor) fascinating, which eventually brings me back to the statement "The linguistics are not the semantics."

The medium of the message board made it harder to understand the true intentions of the writer, when I was playing myself or playing a character-of-sorts. You may have had similar difficulty in communicating true intentions, say, in email or other electronic media, where sarcasm is made especially difficult to communicate without using agreed-upon emoticons (and even with those, someone can use them to mask true meaning). Friends tend to get sarcasm that strangers do not, likely because friends better understand your intentions rather than those who've had no contact with you.

Time and again, a message board full of improvisers disappointed me that they couldn't recognize when I was "playing a character" (not really meaning/intending what I was saying) and when I was being myself (meaning what I was saying). I would repeat essentially "I did not mean what you interpreted" but such chants seemed to fall on deaf ears, or at least closed ones.

To understand this dynamic better, you can look at a scene. A scene, be it traditional drama on the stage or screen or improvised in a comedy show, contains a conflict. In long-form improv you're coached to find the "game" of the scene. In the eyes of a game theorist, games parallel conflicts in structure so one might say that "game" and "conflict" are nearly synonymous concepts, but it would be quite aristotelian to say they are the same-in-all-respects. Games are more like metaphors for conflicts. And scenes are metaphors for real life, their characters metaphors for real people.

We can look at the game of chess as a helpful metaphor/model for understanding a scene's structure as well as looking at the relationship between linguistics and semantics.

In a game of chess, you have white and black. But you don't just have white and black; you also have the player operating white and the player operating black. So instead of one conflict going on in a game of chess (the conflict between white and black), you have another, somewhat "hidden" layer of conflict going on "simultaneously" (the conflict between the player operating white and the player operating black).

Presumably, you may have additional layers of conflict going on--a player may behave one usual way when he's around his chess buddies, but this time he may also be tired from a lack of sleep, nutrition, sickness, etc., from a fight with his wife, co-workers, children, etc. These are essentially "conflicts/games he's playing out still" but may not be sharing with his chess buddies; however, they certainly affect his behavior to some degree.

With at least two layers of conflict going on in a chess game, the chess game is not "just about" the conflict between the pieces; the players operating the pieces inform their conflict. They influence it. So you cannot separate the character and the player as the player informs and influences the character; to talk about the character without the player would be to abstract that which exists more intertwined.

I developed terminology with the help of game theory to talk about these different layers when I coach long-form improv. "Character-game" refers to the conflict/game going on between white and black, the characters in a scene. "Player-game" refers to the conflict/game going on between the players operating the pieces, the characters. "Player-game" basically encompasses all issues in the lives of the player, from interpersonal issues inside the improv group to issues outside the improv group that might be bearing down on him in the moment (lack of sleep, family crises, etc.). "Character-game" encompasses just the here-and-now visible reality, behavior, movement, and what-was-said-and-done.

In long-form improv, the character-game is the conflict going on between the characters, but just because the characters are conflicting doesn't mean the improvisers acting them are conflicting--more than likely, they're actually cooperating with each other while their characters are conflicting! Problems that do develop in the playing of the character-game often can be remedied by attitude adjustments in the player-game from a competitive mindset about the conflict to a cooperative mindset--changing how the players see the scene/conflict/game they're in a wee bit can change how they play their scenes drastically.

All this talk for what reason? Well, there doesn't have to be one. :-)

Actually, though, all this talk serves as other examples that there does not exist a strict 1:1 correspondence between what-one-says and what-one-means. That there does not exist a strict 1:1 correspondence between map and territory, player and chess side, player and character, "Freudian slip" and actual meaning, action and intention, etc. There can exist a disconnect. Words don't necessarily mean things.

But a still common perception I've encountered in my life is that the linguistics "must" correspond with the semantics, that they're pretty much the same thing, that their difference is trivial. Sometimes people say in an argument "That's just semantics," when I think maybe they better mean "That's just linguistics."

As simple as it is put, the statement "The word is not the thing" sometimes comes off confusingly to me.

Do you find the statement "The linguistics are not the semantics" structurally similar, perhaps parallel in structure, to Korzybski's "The word is not the thing"? Might this alternate phrasing clarify issues more?

Ben Hauck

My own understanding of "The word is not the thing."parrallel's the opening verse in Lao Tzu's text "The Tao Te Ching" which reads: The Tao that can be spoken is not the Eternal Tao.

To take Lao Tzu's verse and put it into Korzybski's phraseology it would be: The Word that can be spoken is not the Eternal Thing.

Things = are human inventions of a word that is a pointer to some object/thing that is either pre-human or nonhuman [objects like trees,rocks, stars, etc that have existed before or without any human making, etc., things that have existed before or without any human making], and lastly things that are nonverbal human creations [objects that are human made but are the physical tangible thing, examples : pencils, books, television sets, computers, wires, any and all humanly made objects.]

words= human linguistic spoken or written labels for any and all things humans have encountered or imagined.

The word/linguistic label is not the same as the nonhuman/prehuman/nonverbal thing. This is what I understand Korzybski and Lao Tzu to be describing in their own way with their own phrases.

Another example of the difference between word and thing is I beleive clearly shown when we use Lao Tzu's phrases: the Tao is his word for the Infinite Divine - whatever that maybe, and it is also his word for the label we humans give to the Infinite divine. Thus his phrase becomes : The name we humans give to the Infinite Divine [Jesus, Ayn Sof, YHVH, Allah, Brahman, Zues, Shiva, etc,]is not the same as the actual nonhuman reality of the Infinite Divine in all its manifest glory and being. The name and the human idea of the divine is not the same as the reality of the Infinite Divine. We humans made up many names to describe the Infinite Divine.

Just as we humans have made up many linguistic labels for physical, immaterial, imagined, etc objects, things, events.

Your "The linguistics are not the semantics." seems to be describing a different kind of mixing up of two things. Mixing an assumed meaning that the listener/reader has with the actual intended meaning that the speaker/writer had. You are correct that there is a disconnect often between the two. This is different than "the word is not the thing".

Gary Jaron


As you said, all this talk for what reason? There doesn't have to be one. Let me address the joke part where you have said something so completely off the wall that everyone should know it is a joke, and someone takes you seriously. I have embarrassed myself with that kind of situation, and had to explain what I meant. Really ruins the joke.
Within the last week the Wall Street journal had an article about stroke victims who lost certain abilities, even though their intelligence seemed to remain. Then the article touched on the premise that a certain part of the brain must funtion properly for people to understand jokes, especially double entendre. Maybe you were dealing with brain damaged people.
And as far as the word is not the thing, read about my experience with yogurt in the last Time-bindings. You would think I would have known better.

Frank Gastner

"Maybe you were dealing with brain damaged people." Ha! I doubt they would see themselves as such!

I'm curious how the concept of player-game and character-game (real meaning and joke meaning) might look on the Structural Differential. Words point to things, yes, but what about when those words point to fictitious entities or processes (rather than misinterpreted entities/processes)?

Unicorns and characters-we're-'playing' aren't exactly ideas abstracted from the territory ...

Ben Hauck