Semantic Triangle of Meaning
“He who knows does not speak, he who speaks does not know.”
- Lao Tse (Ogden and Richards, 1927, p.1)
Often, when one communicates, he or she does not give any special attention to how he or she communicates. As a result, communication between parties is either diminished or lost altogether. Scholars have spent countless years analyzing human communication and have spent the same amount of time formulating theories that attempt to answer questions pertaining to how we communicate and why we choose the methods we do. One such scholar, I.A. Richards analyzed human communication and co-formulated a theory known as the “Theory of Meaning” (Ogden and Richards, 1927). Ogden and Richards’ theory attempts to not only describe the approaches humans take when communicating, but also to understand how communication is “lost” when not done correctly.
Generally speaking, in science, a theory is centered on a single idea, which the theoretician wishes to provide an answer. Usually, there is only one component to the theory being generated, that being the single idea that is in question or needs to be explained. Unlike traditional scientists, Ogden and Richards take a completely different approach in developing their theory. Rather than focus on a single idea upon which to base the theory, they deconstruct the idea into many parts, thus creating a multi-faceted theory to explain communication behaviors. The facets explored by Ogden and Richards include “Meaning Theory, ” “Definition Theory, ” and “Symbol Theory.” Though the focus of this paper is Ogden and Richards’ theory on symbolic meaning, particularly the “Semantic Triangle, ” it is important to possess a basic understanding of the theories surrounding it in order to better understand how they “fit” together and enable the “Semantic Triangle” to function. While this paper will not cover all theories in depth, it will provide a summary containing the overarching ideas contained in each.
The “Theory of Meaning” is a concept that has been present in communication since the first humans learned to communicate. As communicators, we are aware that nearly everything we say has meaning on some level to ourselves as well as those we share our words with. The fundamental difference between how we previously looked at meaning and how Ogden and Richards look at it is that many scholars argue that for every word, there is a single, correct meaning associated with it (Craig Online, 2002). Ogden and Richards counter this claim with their theory of “Proper Meaning Superstition, ” which states that there is not a single “correct” meaning associated with each and every word because each word means something different to each person, or more simply, meanings don’t reside in words, they reside in people (Erickstad, 1998).
Consider, for example, the word cold. Since there are variations in word meaning among people, if one were to ask someone what the word cold means, he or she would likely get a response pertaining to a condition in temperature. However, consider the advent of slang and, again, ask someone what the word cold means and one could receive a response pertaining to types of attitudes expressed toward other people or objects. Now, consider the previous example spread throughout the languages of the world and one could perceive the problem of meaning and how there can be no single “correct” meaning for any word.