Language as a Way of Knowing

as a
Way of Knowing
Denotations and Connotations
The most literal and limited meaning of a word,
regardless of what one may feel about it or the
suggestions and ideas it implies.
The suggestion or implication evoked by a word
or phrase over and above what they actually
mean or denote. A connotation may be personal
and individual, or general and universal.
Names and connotations
Shakespeare wrote, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any
other name would smell as sweet.” Would it have made a difference to the
story had Romeo fallen in love with “Harriet” or “Susan,” not “Juliet”?
Does your name (first name, last name) mean anything? If it doesn’t, is it
easy to imagine exchanging it for any other name?
In your society, are there more common and less common last names?
Do certain names have certain socio-economic, political, religious, ethnic,
or other connotations?
When you hear names like “Smith,” “Goldstein,” or “Gomez” do particular
associations come to mind? Where do these come from? Are these
assumptions or connotations true in the same way that saying triangles
have three sides is true?
What would your view be of someone what you have casually spoken to
whose business card you happened to find on the floor and whose name is
accompanied by: MD, D.Phil, CEO, Mrs., III, Junior?
How might your preconceptions about names influence your perception of
the people you meet? How might others’ preconceptions of your name (or
nationality, religion, skin color, etc.) affect how they perceive you?
“What’s in a Name?” by Gloria Naylor
Language and Knowledge Issues
In trying to determine whether we are being given a factual
report, think about the following knowledge issues when using
language as way of knowing:
Out of all possible events or details that could have been reported,
what has been chosen? Is it possible to compare the description
with another by someone else? Recognize that the purpose of the
report and its intended audience affect what details are included.
Out of all the events and or details reported, what has been
stressed as most important, and, again, what do the guiding values
or criteria seem to be for this emphasis? How has the emphasis
been achieved: through placement of ideas in the main clause
rather than the subordinate clause of the sentence? through
placement in emphasized position, such as the final words of a
sentence or paragraph? through more detailed treatment of some
details rather than others?
Language and Knowledge Issues
Word Choice
What kind of language has been used, and does it seem to be
appropriate to the apparent purpose of the description? Is it
denotative, factual language, or is it connotative and suggestive?
What emotions are expressed? What values, positive or negative,
are expressed or suggested? Is there evidence of bias? Is a
person described as “courageous” or “reckless,” as “relaxed” or
“lazy,” as “curious” or “nosy,” as “assertive” or “pushy”? The
choice of words in the description may tell you more about the
writer’s values than about the person being described.
In what context has the description been placed, and how might
this framing affect the overall meaning of the passage? What does
its purpose seem to be?
Problematic Meaning/Knowledge
Issues in Language
Many words are intrinsically vague, and their meaning
depends on context.
Without thinking too much about it, write a figure down for
each of the following:
1. John lives close to his school. How near does he live?
2. Mr. Smith is middle-aged. How old is he?
Do you think communication would be improved if we got rid
of vague words, or do you think they sometimes serve a
Useful purpose?
Problematic Meaning/Knowledge
Issues in Language
Many words and phrases are ambiguous. “The duchess
cannot bear children” can mean either that the she is unable
to have children, or that she cannot stand them.
Each of the following sentences is ambiguous. Give two
different meanings for each.
1. They saw Mrs. Jones and the dog sitting under the table.
2. Visiting relatives can be boring.
To what extent can punctuation help to reduce the ambiguity
of a sentence?
Problematic Meaning/Knowledge
Issues in Language
Secondary Meaning
Denotations, connotations, and use of euphemisms
are all important.
Explain the different connotations of each of the
following sets of words:
• slender, skinny, thin
• stench, smell, fragrance
List some euphemisms for “ugly” or “stupid.” Why are these
more “acceptable” terms?
Problematic Meaning/Knowledge
Issues in Language
We also give language implied meanings.
Explain the differences between the two following sentences:
• “My brother is a butcher.” And “My dentist is a butcher.”
Irony means that we cannot necessarily take a
statement at face value, and it adds another layer
of ambiguity to language.
Misplaced Modifiers
Fine food expertly served by waitresses in appetizing forms.
For sale: an antique desk suitable for lady with thick legs and large
Wanted. Man to take care of cow that does not smoke or drink.
Have several very old dresses from grandmother in beautiful
Mixing bowl set designed to please a cook with round bottom for
efficient beating.
Remember in prayer the many who are sick of our church and
Missing or Mutilated Modifiers
The following are examples of missing or mutilated modifiers, again
all from real life signs, ads or notices:
Dinner Special -- Turkey $2.35; Chicken or Beef $2.25; Children
Now is your chance to have your ears pierced and get an extra
pair to take home, too.
For those of you who have children and don't know it, we have a
nursery downstairs.
Don't let worry kill you -- let the church help.
The hotel has bowling alleys, tennis courts, comfortable beds, and
other athletic facilities.
Language Questions
What is the role of language in knowing? How does it influence
what we know and how we know it?
How could you know about the world if you had no language or
means of communicating with other people?
How easy is it to misunderstand the body language of someone
from a different culture?
What words have entered the English language due to
technology? How does technology affect language as a “way of
Do animals have language? How do we KNOW?
How would you try to explain to a blind person what the word
“red” means? What does this suggest to you about the limitation
of definitions?
Language Questions
To what extent is your use of language accompanied by images? Does
every word conjure up an image or only some of them?
Do you think communication would improve if we got rid of vague words
or do they sometimes serve a useful purpose? What do you think Charles
Sanders Peirce meant when he stated, “It is easy to be certain—one only
has to be sufficiently vague.”?
How does one translate idioms into another language? Try these:
“David is barking up the wrong tree.”
“Samuel was only pulling your leg.”
If you are fluent in more than one language, to what extent do you think
differently when you switch between languages?
Does the way you describe something affect how you feel about it?
Should offensive language be censored?
Does math have its own “language”?