Where do words come from? Do they really mean anything?

Ferdinand de Saussure, semiologyHow do we use language? We use it to express ourselves through speech, to record our experiences or to invent and tell stories in writing. But before all that begins, before a word leaves our lips or a pen hits the page, we use language in our heads. This code we share is more than a “simple naming process.” It’s the means by which we form our thoughts and interpret the world around us.

One of the first people to articulate this concept was a Swiss linguist named Ferdinand de Saussure. Saussure wrote and taught in the late 1800s, and though he died in 1913, he remains one of our heroes here at Dictionary.com. Saussure understood that thinking about language was essentially thinking about thinking. He put language under his own theoretical microscope the way biologists study cells, looking at words as the building blocks of our thoughts.

The foundation of his project is breaking down our idea of a word into its component parts: the concept and the sound-image. Let’s do an experiment. First, picture a tree. It can be a tree you’ve climbed or a generic tree you’ve invented in your head. Regardless of the exact form, this abstract idea of a tree is a concept. Now picture the letters T-R-E-E. These four letters, when placed in this order, form the sound-image in that they can be spoken, written, or read. But without the imagined tree behind them, the letters are meaningless. Only by uniting concept and sound-image will “tree” evoke the mental picture you just conjured.

Saussure does not call this fusion of concept and sound-image a word, instead he calls it a sign, and it was through this code of signs that he built the discipline that’s given us so many tools to know our language: semiology. In Saussure’s words semiology is “a science that studies the life of signs within society,” named for the Greek word semeion, meaning “sign.”

In his book A Course in General Linguistics (the ground-breaking tome that this is coming from), Saussure replaces the term conceptwith signified(referring to that which is signified, i.e. the image of the tree) and sound-imagewith signifier(that which does the signifying, i.e. the written/spoken “tree”).

From there he drops a bomb that puts a new spin on the whole business: the signifier (written/spoken sound-image) is arbitrary. That’s right, according to Saussure the only function of the word “tree” is to be different from every other word. For all he cares it could be “blarg” as long as every speaker of a language recognizes that “blarg” signifies a leafy wooded plant.

Saussure points to the fact that onomatopoeias for the same sound vary greatly from language to language, and speakers are often conditioned by their language to perceive certain sounds as beautiful. (What words do English speakers find beautiful?)

This is the first in a series of three posts on the strange and wonderful world of semiology and Ferdinand de Saussure. We’ll tell a tale of love, loss, and forgiveness as we take Saussure’s “science of signs” into the real world.

Here’s the second installment: Was Saussure wrong?


  1. Justin -  September 6, 2013 - 9:45 pm

    “From there he drops a bomb that puts a new spin on the whole business: the signifier (written/spoken sound-image) is arbitrary.”

    This is an absolutely idiotic sentence. Aside from rare cases of onomatopoeia, no reasonable person has ever thought words were anything but arbitrary. The ancient Greeks certainly knew it; Even Aristotle marked the distinction between symbols and their signs, as did John Locke who wrote:

    ” There is no natural connection between particular
    sounds and particular ideas (if there were, there would be
    only one human language)”

    Neither philosopher felt he was making some dramatic discovery in noting these things, and only bombastic grandstanding would attempt to turn common sense into deep profundity. Nor am I unconsciously arrogating the hard-won truths of earlier thinkers – the fact itself has always been manifest, since we first learned to abstract language into syllabaries.

    I have not read Saussure, and am at any rate not be qualified to judge his contributions to the theory of language. But the patronizing tone of this writer, snipping off banalities like they were cosmic insights, is a painful thing to read.

  2. carteles -  April 12, 2013 - 3:13 am

    Thank you Dictionary.com on the fascinating information about Saussure,excellent post

  3. Unknown -  February 24, 2013 - 9:55 pm

    Amazing article. I have been around for a long time but I have actually never heard about this.

  4. Megan -  February 4, 2013 - 11:46 pm

    Of course all words are arbitrary. Otherwise, why would different words be used for the same thing in different languages?
    Even words used to represent animal sounds aren’t the same. “cock a doodle doo” in English becomes “cocorico” in French. One may guess what animal is being imitated, but it isn’t the same word.

  5. Ahmed Ragab Nabhan -  February 4, 2013 - 6:00 pm

    I study word frequency distributions according to leading work of Zipf, but never asked “Where do words come from?”. This is an interesting article!

  6. Language in a nutshell » foisan.com -  February 4, 2013 - 12:18 pm

    [...] and has happened in the past, for more information on language and where words come from refer to this post on dictionary.com.  Posted by Obligatory at 3:18 pm  Tagged with: apple, language, [...]

  7. Fedde Benedictus -  February 4, 2013 - 7:14 am

    “and though he died in 1913, he remains one of our heroes here at Dictionary.com” – is dying in 1913 a crime?

  8. niteEchoes -  February 4, 2013 - 6:58 am


    Dude! so you wanted them to maybe say: ” … the ground-breaking tome from whence this cometh … ” ?

  9. The Blue Spade -  February 4, 2013 - 1:19 am

    Thank you Dictionary.com on the fascinating information about Saussure. Am looking forward to your next two posts along in this series. Is there any chance followers can expect any reference to the practice of semaphore in one of the remaining two series posts?

  10. Wesley -  January 30, 2013 - 11:28 am

    Sublime reading! Celestial is a word I find beautiful; both in sound and meaning.

  11. Interactions -  January 29, 2013 - 7:40 am

    This is well-written and inspiring — thank you. I’ve been thinking about what and how we communicate, and more importantly: Why. This offers insight and brood for thought as I continue to explore language and our interactions.

  12. jd -  January 28, 2013 - 10:31 pm

    didnt like it

  13. cool32609 -  January 28, 2013 - 12:37 pm

    makes you think…

  14. Milan -  January 28, 2013 - 12:10 am

    to further reiterate (randomly) i also think that words from what ever language they might come; words allow a person to subjectify both subjects and objects.
    However when it comes to human beings and eg: animals/plans … they are essentially bodies – objects with a self (subjective self) , a self whose narrative may accord with the subjects (your narrative) thus … when you say hey man you’re brutal … you’re subjectifying the objects (body’s) physical movements or characteristics.

    This is where this mind body conflation occurs in the social (social) the network or the web of interlocution … where you receive the SELF that is being sent to you from the object aka another human who also has a self/agency , an agency which has found its (self) by according to your narrative and or the overall linguistics of the region/state or a speaking background.

    This is where value consensus of heterogeneous world comes to play and is through this social interaction process homogenised and both bodies – in objective terms … the subject observing the other object )(the body of a person – the self) actually comes to a point where he subjectifies him/her and vice versa through reflexivity and constant checks of what each subject/object and vice versa are doing.

    Man now i wish if i could go back and scan through all my books and reference the (supra) lol

    kind regards to you all
    Milan Korda

  15. ala -  January 27, 2013 - 8:10 am

    @ dan wilt
    Yup, fortunately the editor is smone who knows English, not smone like u who shouldn’t have graduated highschool (have u haha?)
    @ Mary
    sorry, it’s not interesting
    he (saussure) actually doesn’t say anything
    the words (most of them) ARE arbitrary NOW (doh, genius),
    but WEREN’T “chosen” arbitrarily by our ancestors when languages appeared
    if he were to explain how that happened, THAT would be interesting
    as it is, he’s just a wanker getting praise for nothing, like so many others in our days (not so many in his, granted hjx)

  16. Kayla -  January 27, 2013 - 8:06 am

    This is the part of language that really interests me. Maybe it’s because I’ve always had sort of an understanding of Saussure’s concept that I’m so good at picking up (and inventing new languages).

    Peek pu eht doog krow!

  17. Jon -  January 26, 2013 - 8:38 am

    @Tom…good one.

    Conceptualization is another level of understanding, another plane of existence from the obvious physical world, different but not disparate.

  18. Zoran -  January 26, 2013 - 5:58 am

    The words, of course, have their genesis and are typically not arbitrarily chosen. But once launched, they develop a life of their own which can be just as unpredictable as our lives. The original meaning attributed to them can be modified, altered, even turned into something completely opposite. That happens within the same language, not to speak about the words borrowed from different languages. As a speaker of Serbian, English, French and Italian, I can attest to it. It’s a marvelous process, although quite often clumsy, through which they do get associated with certain concepts for a given period of time. And surely, their surface meanings as well as hidden, and clusters of words called sentences, not only affect our way of thinking but are an integral part of it. They help us understand ourselves and the world around us, as well as relate to others, which is with a degree of good will and meaningful effort, always possible.

  19. cherry -  January 26, 2013 - 5:21 am

    how did people discover how to use their vocal cords?
    and how did they relay to eachother that a word meant a certain object when they were creating the word? was pointing sufficent? I loved the article, but it only arouses more questions. it is odd to think about our ancestors akwardly grunting while moving their mouths and it is even harder to imagine. And how did ANIMALS ancestors create their languages?

  20. cherry -  January 26, 2013 - 5:07 am


  21. Gary Rae Jones -  January 25, 2013 - 9:11 pm

    I wonder how many words were used in this commentary. Even the slang used was fun and an act of communicating. But all English speaking people also need to remember that you actually think in words and images. The word tree alone will not always give the listener or reader the same visual image. It may bring to mind an oak tree, a pine, or any number of other species of trees. Now go speak to somebody who speaks and thinks in a language different than your own. Use word, a word they don’t know, that describes something, and try to guess at what they see in their mental image. That I believe was the moral of the story, was it not. Correct me if I am wrong.

  22. Talmid -  January 25, 2013 - 5:08 pm

    Where do words come from? It’s very complicated and quite amazing. Do they really mean anything? Yes. Always. For people (and animals) are objective realities. Our mistake is in thinking that if our thoughts and experiences are subjective, then they can’t also be objective. When it comes to the mind, ‘subjective’ is not an antonym of ‘objective;’ it is a hyponym. Oh Homo sapiens, such a funny creature! He uses his own emergent properties to deny their very existence.

    • chris -  October 7, 2015 - 10:21 am

      Can you elaborate on the notion that “when it comes to the mind, ‘subjective’ is not an antonym of ‘objective;’ it is a hyponym.” Where does objectivity and subjectivity come into play elsewhere beside the mind? I’m having trouble disconnecting these terms from the field of perception and cognition, thus I don’t understand how the concept of subjectivity can subsume the concept of objectivity (nor vice versa), i.e. I can’t bring myself to except these words as hyponymous. Can you offer sources showing where you’ve gotten this idea or what brought you to this idea? Am I right to say Nietzsche would wholeheartedly disagree with this idea? Is he not the original source for what you call a mistake in our thinking “that if our thoughts and experiences are subjective, then they can’t also be objective.” I think he does a fair job of defending (if not also proposing) this notion. Why do you or who has helped you object to the Nietzchean notion that humans cannot remove themselves from their experience, which is subjective or at least not fully objective, because they can only be individuals of one type of life, and they can’t be every individual of every type of sentient (or perhaps even non-sentient) being, definitely not at once, in the same instance, (it seems a fact that a being comes into the world as a type (e.g. species or individual) and does not change into a different type, at least not in that same life span)? I think we can obviously be fully subjective and most often are, and we can be somewhat to very objective but never fully get there. AH…is this the hyponymous relationship, but reversed from what you presented? We can be
      1) fully subjective or 2) partly subjective/ partly objective or 3) never solely objective… Hmmmmm?

  23. Tom -  January 25, 2013 - 9:52 am

    I can think of tangible items and easily envisioned acts (nouns and verbs) in my mind without language. I can envision a tree, and I can envision throwing something under the tree without using an inner-dialog. But it is impossible for me to think about or envision the abstract idea of subjectivism (to throw under). I have tried many times. It doesn’t work.

    Archaeology finds the first evidence of language and abstract art (representative, or signified) around the same time, 50,000 ya.

  24. stephan -  January 25, 2013 - 12:48 am

    Sorry, Sanders.

  25. stephan -  January 25, 2013 - 12:48 am

    I find it boggling that amongst such linguistic nerds (myself included) that would even bother to read, much less comment on an article about semiotics, we have not seen a single reference to Charles Samuel Peirce.

    Long story short: There are three necessary elements for the act of signification to occur. What Saussure neglects in his signifier/signified model is the role of interpretant.


  26. Marc -  January 25, 2013 - 12:22 am

    So every time I’ve heard “Marc, in the end, those are just words”, I was actually being hit with a little philosophy?

  27. shah -  January 24, 2013 - 8:34 pm

    Lol @Dan Wilt, that phrase is absolutely grammatically correct.

    What’s much more questionable is the sentence you used in your question: “This grammar got by an editor.”

  28. Narrative -  January 24, 2013 - 4:52 pm

    What I really find fascinating is that in this forum of linguistics there are so many spelling mistakes. Are they actually typos caused by the passion and excitement of trying to get the words out or are they simply flubs by the writers who have carelessly jumped from one word to the next.

  29. Steve Walker -  January 24, 2013 - 3:12 pm

    Two new definitions of the word “old.”
    1. Pre-Dead.
    2. Wrinklly Challenged.

  30. waz -  January 24, 2013 - 2:58 pm


  31. Amelia -  January 24, 2013 - 11:51 am

    I think it really doesn’t means maybe it would convert to blarg

  32. dr -  January 24, 2013 - 11:02 am

    I would not think of it as such a “bomb” that he would say that the signifier (written/spoken sound-image) is arbitrary. Just realizing that different people in foreign lands speaking different languages from our own and thus using different written/spoken sound-images for the same objects from what we use, would make that obvious.

  33. pbergn -  January 24, 2013 - 9:55 am

    I disagree: Not all words are arbitrary. There are a lot of words that phonetically similar to the sounds produced by the verbs they represent or are derived by combining otehr words that are depicting the essence of the subject or action… So, no, while the labels may appear to be completely random–they are not! And teher are some sounds some can produce better than others; that is also a factor in teh creation of sound and sign labels for the objects and actions surrouning us…

  34. bradster -  January 23, 2013 - 2:25 pm

    i think this is a coll thing we will never fully comprehend.

  35. steve -  January 23, 2013 - 2:21 pm

    Words are not the building blocks of language; utterances are–any use of language, written or spoken, short or long, that has a change in speaking subjects, a finalization of the utterance, expressive intonation, and addressivity. Compare the word “freedom” in the dictionary with “Freedom!” on a placard at a political protest–and you will know what I mean. See Bakhtin’s “Problems of Speech Genres” for a much more compelling theory of language than Saussure’s.

  36. akash -  January 23, 2013 - 2:09 pm

    What about prefixes and suffixes? Many words not known previously become known if you know the prefix or suffix. For example, the word centripetal is understand able through “centre”, meaning circle.

  37. Jon -  January 23, 2013 - 11:15 am

    @DJ…Thanks for that, it was pretty cool.

    It really goes to the heart of our relationship to the world around us that our brains automatically process these sounds, that we call words, into “signified”meanings.

    Those signs are, of course, then mixed with grammatical structures to produce individual or shared understandings through what we classify as ‘language.’

    The fact that we can’t willingly shut that inner-processor off really exposes the depth that our minds, as agents of our brains, are intertwined with the world.

    Many like to think that an organ of the body, is a part of said body solely because of the physical connections of veins, muscles, nerves, etc., but it’s fun to understand that physical connections are not the only type of connections that exist and affect us as beings.

    Does the liver “speak” to the kidney? Surely it cannot be denied that through nerve connections messages are sent, yea, even ‘expressed’ between parts of the body using nervous system connections.

    So it’s not a leap to understand that just as the physical make-up of our nerves are the medium through which messages are sent through the body, air is a medium through which we use sound, or action, to communicate with other members of a greater body.

    Communicate…commune…com/ union. To come together(even live, be alive) in union. To EXPRESS ideas. To express myself to you… send ‘me’ to you. The better we express ourselves, the better we “EXPRESS”(send) ourselves to one another. To become one(uni.)

    The separation is an illusion. It’s easy to see unions when we know that the liver and the kidney come from the same body and have physical connections, but it takes deeper understanding of the world around us to see the connections when the medium is invisible air.

    It’s easy to get bogged down in the study of language itself, the distraction, without looking up to see what it all really infers.

    This only scratches the surface, and is long enough for now lol, but sometimes a forum such as this can offer an opportunity to expand our horizons. :)

  38. Becky -  January 23, 2013 - 11:00 am

    And after this, are you going to treat us to a nutshell version of some of Derrida’s theories, including his concepts of “auto effecting” and “effacing the trace”? Very interesting, though mind-boggling.

  39. disgusted -  January 23, 2013 - 9:08 am

    @Cor; He wasn’t commenting on the word “tome” he was commenting on the words “that this” following the word “tome” The word “that” should not have been used. Also; rather than “coming from”; “referring to” might have been more apropos.
    One should probably understand what other people are saying before they open their mouth and proclaim their ignorance to the world…

  40. Kate -  January 23, 2013 - 9:06 am

    Great article! Interesting man with simple yet powerful ideas.

    I’ve always thought it intriguing how the word for “mom” is so similar across many languages. The “m” sound is easily made, the vowel sound isn’t difficult either, so it seems quite likely that these would be the first sounds a baby would make. And of course, the mother would like to think the baby is talking to her, and so the word “ma” comes to mean “mother”. It makes sense conceptually, anyway. I like thinking about how the development of a language would progress and where this would lie within that progression. It’s plausible that “ma” was the first signifier — whether there’s any significance to this line of thought, I don’t know, but it’s fun to think about.

  41. disgusted -  January 23, 2013 - 8:45 am

    I am working a job in a country where English is not the primary language. Native English users tend to use phrases when speaking rather than words with definitive meanings. This manifests when I use Google Translator. We also think in these phrases, kind of a language shorthand. Example, we all know what “ballpark figure” means a rough estimate. But, it does not translate as rough estimate. I have had to revise my English so that translations are literal to what I mean. Interesting insight into myself…

  42. disgusted -  January 23, 2013 - 8:34 am

    Well said, JG.
    A “tween” with parental issues; Oh joy. (Too bad Dict.com doesn’t have a screening process….)
    Zues Vapor: being disgusted by sex is only a certain (to remain un-named) religion’s affliction and was dreamed up by out-dated puritanical old men with secondary motives whose own sexual predilections were questionable. The majority of humanity has no problems with it. If they did; we wouldn’t be here. How can an entire species be disgusted about procreating itself? Lame.

  43. Jason Matsoukas -  January 23, 2013 - 6:36 am

    So, I don’t know if this can be relevant to the article, but John Lennox discusses briefly the relation of semantics as evidence for something beyond nature, namely, God. It’s interesting!


  44. firefoot123 -  January 23, 2013 - 6:20 am

    Dearest Cherry,
    You may be correct in your imagination world, but to the rest of us, you are just a snob. Please stop.


  45. Milan -  January 23, 2013 - 4:34 am

    It is true indeed, the words are meaningless unless we can assign them to certain situations and orientations ; where those mere orientations were a particular end result of previous actions or the proposed set of actions that are meant to take place.

    I have read a little bit on Saussure as he was mentioned in many texts and journals.

    It is however also interesting how by discovering vocabulary allows the (self) to find the (truth) thus allow to know its existence in the objective and physical world.

    Moreover we we borrow from Descartes … the mind + body split it is essentially asking for more , perhaps to find sources in writings of Augustine and Plato regarding the higher order of things…turning towards the “inner” or in to the “Interiore” to allow reason to access our memory thus link us with reality (objective reality) … where mere objects , what ever significance those objects may have could perhaps allow us to infer the significance that such objects have for us.

    I might add that words are eternal … the body is not , therefore discovering the true ontology behind a particular word would mean that the individual inquiring in to the matter would discover the true sense of self and his body.

    This therefore simply means that words attached or ascribed to such objects allow us to accord with what they mean to us.

    I wish i was a linguist, hard work. Perhaps if i was an English teacher would help.

    Milan Korda

  46. Dave -  January 23, 2013 - 1:19 am

    fascinating topic but terribly written article.

  47. KRIBABE -  January 22, 2013 - 5:39 pm

    does all this mean, “a rose by any other name is still a rose”?

  48. RS 7620 -  January 22, 2013 - 5:21 pm

    if you say a word repeatedly for a long time, it doesnt sound like a real word, and it gets harder to say that word fast.

  49. Word Nerd -  January 22, 2013 - 2:50 pm

    The best example of this idea in action is when you hear a new word. When you learn the meaning your mind attaches personal “signifiers” to it so you can recognize it in the future. These may be built of personal signifiers that have a similar meaning to the new word, or may even have to be created for concepts completely new to you. Personally I still don’t know what “Hizzle” or “Schizzle” mean, and I’m not curious enough to find out…

  50. Felina -  January 22, 2013 - 2:05 pm

    What about animal language? Huh?

  51. Scott -  January 22, 2013 - 10:23 am

    Once heard an Orthodox priest in Alaska say: “Communication is the art of getting the meaning in your head into someone elses head.”

  52. Billy Bones -  January 22, 2013 - 7:53 am

    It’s from dicionary.com that I originally found this two years ago:


    1570–80; < Late Latin < Greek onomatopoiía making of words = onomato- (combining form of ónoma name) + poi- (stem of poieîn to make; see poet) + -ia -ia

    "Making of words", eh?

  53. Kevin -  January 22, 2013 - 7:47 am

    Words and lanugage are a funciton of the mind. The mind is an activity, just like walking. He is also a recording of our past and all the wonderful human conversations that have taken place over time..

    The center to precieving and understanding the material world we live in is through our Conscous nature. It is the witness to our existance. Music and sound reflects feelings, not words. And by passes the mind and goes directly to our through the heart into our consciousness.

  54. cor -  January 22, 2013 - 5:37 am

    @Dan Wilt,
    If you would have looked up the word than you would have seen what it meant and why they had used it in that sentence.

    tome [tohm]
    1. a book, especially a very heavy, large, or learned book.

    So like normal people if you don’t know a word…look it up before you open your mouth.

  55. Raags -  January 22, 2013 - 2:21 am

    Wat’s the bottom line!!!

  56. Thomas Johnson -  January 22, 2013 - 12:13 am

    Great article. Look forward to the next. Does this apply to numbers? We learn to count by the repetition of an object usu drawn. Then we learn to write numbers and jump to that level. So as fluent speakers, we see the number, “3″, or the word, “three”, and don’t see the repetition of an object that many times. We envision the numeral only. True? False? So, why? Why don’t we see some familiar form of that number, say, dominoes?

  57. jg -  January 21, 2013 - 7:39 pm

    Cherry – If words mean nothing unless one person says so, then any words that person uses would be meaningless to anyone else. To use words to express that thought assumes they have meaning to others.
    This leaves us readers in the position of having to decide that EITHER the words you used do have meaning to us, thereby contradicting your assertion that only you determine the meaning of words, OR your words do not have any meaning to us, therefore your post is nothing more than unintelligible gibberish.
    (And if you understand what I am expressing with these words, that is additional evidence that your assertion is incorrect.)
    Others – Please continue your intelligent conversation about the original post. I enjoy learning from your thoughts. Thank you.

  58. Christie -  January 21, 2013 - 7:11 pm

    Ferdinand de Saussure said that words are meaningless unless there’s a signified attached to it.

    Does anyone else think that words take on their own meaning sometimes?

    Have you ever met someone and who looked more like an Eric than a Mark? What is that all about?

  59. Alamander -  January 21, 2013 - 5:37 pm

    Yes, people do think differently in different languages and the catch phrase is “linguistic relativity” (like Einstein’s relativity: you have a different point of view from a different position in language space.) Read “Language, Thought and Reality by Benjamin Lee Whorf. To see how long these ideas have been around “Linguistic Relativities” by John Leavitt is quite wonderful. As for Saussure, you will be entertained for weeks with John E. Joseph’s book “Saussure”. Fascinating. Poor old Ferdinand was a perfectionist, which is why his own very famous book had to be put together after he died by his students, based on notes they’d taken during his lectures.

  60. Captain Liu -  January 21, 2013 - 4:58 pm

    It is a really impressive point that I have never thought about.
    Really important method that can help me to think something clearly

  61. Katie -  January 21, 2013 - 9:21 am

    What a boring thing to read! I didn’t like it.

  62. svenjamin -  January 21, 2013 - 9:12 am

    @ Eric They say that babies all communicate the same way when they are born. Granted they don’t need to say nearly as many things, but they express their needs the same way. For example, a baby in China and a baby in the United States each cry in a certain way to explain that he’s hungry. It’s only when they hear their family talking that they learn a specific regionally appropriate language.

  63. Bubba -  January 21, 2013 - 8:45 am

    It would be interesting to see an article about words that are entirely misleading and seemingly disconnected with their meaning. One that has always bothered me and is thankfully out of use is “firmament”. I’ve only just found out that it refers to the atmosphere, not tera-firma, as one might expect. It’d be fun to get together and put in our favorite examples. (or did I miss that one?)

  64. SAM -  January 21, 2013 - 8:44 am

    if you were to take the philosophy of socrates, and combine it with this…. wow.

  65. Peter -  January 21, 2013 - 8:43 am

    This is all very well, but why do we give the sound ” T ” to this symble ? Why not some other ?

  66. Claudio -  January 21, 2013 - 6:08 am

    Who really laid down the psychoanalysis foundations was not Sigmund Freud but Ferdinand de Saussure .

  67. Gil Jones -  January 21, 2013 - 5:47 am

    IMO, the spirit, or static, that which lives in or around a body with full or partial awareness, desires communication with others. Communication, when agreed upon, becomes their reality. Quality of communication will determine affinity each has for the other. These three components, i.e. communication, reality, and affinity, are understanding.

    Formula of Communication and its precise definition is: Cause, Distance, Effect with Intention and Attention and a duplication at Effect of what emanates from Cause. This article indicates how words can effect ones ability to duplicate/understand. Without agreed upon definitions, we cannot be understood/understand ergo we are to that degree isolated…Semper Fi

  68. Cherry -  January 21, 2013 - 4:53 am

    Dear disgusted,
    I don’t do any of the things you just listed. And I’m a tween. I have a non electronic life as well as an electronic one. SO GET OVER THE FACT THAT IM RIGHT AND YOU ARE NOT.

  69. bharati M -  January 21, 2013 - 2:09 am

    Sanskrit alphabet is called devnagari which means land of the divine. This language is a mind boggling creation. Each consonant has a meaning and each vowel an energy. Knowing this meaning, one can understand any word. Due to the subtlety and abstract quality of the basic meanings, each word can have many layers of meaning, depending largely on how evolved the mind is… Also each individual anywhere in the world resonates distinctly to one particular sound, and this stays the same, like a fingerprint or DNA, throughout life; scientists have found this resonance in study of babies in the womb… this would indicate that sounds, regardless of mentally understanding meanings, can affect us deeply though subtly, with their vibrations.

  70. Rockie -  January 20, 2013 - 10:19 pm

    I don’t know what to say other than this helped me a lot for my project.

  71. stephen lenthang -  January 20, 2013 - 10:04 pm

    thou i don”t understood what other comment but i say it was nice article, good job keep it up

  72. Mari -  January 20, 2013 - 3:20 pm

    A very good article, though still with quite a few grammar mistakes. I’m very interested about the science of linguistics; words and their concepts are so fascinating to study.
    Woodenleg Smith, I believe the concept comes first, and then we form a word for it. Language comes after the word’s meaning, does it not? It’s hard to wrap it around your head.
    Cherry, who said you were wrong? Besides, being wrong isn’t a bad thing. People learn from their mistakes. No one is perfectly right. I believe there isn’t even such a thing. Plus, you are no the only one who is right and everyone else is wrong. That never makes one sound smart. I used to think I was pretty intelligent, when I realized I have so much yet to learn. I’m sorry if people rubbed it in your face that you were wrong, but (excuse me for my rudeness) unless you were joking, you cannot say things are the way they are unless you say so. That’s not how things work.
    I would love to learn more on this topic. Thanks Dictionary, for writing this article!

  73. ToDeepen -  January 20, 2013 - 10:23 am

    When I was about 10 my little brother and I would sometimes entertain ourselves when put to bed too early by simply saying a common word out loud (“apple” was one), and just realizing how wonderfully strange the word itself sounded–aside from its meaning. We’d say a word, and then laugh hysterically.

  74. Builder -  January 20, 2013 - 9:10 am

    Consider American Sign Language (ASL) for the deaf.

    It takes the concept of signifier (written/spoken sound-image) to a new level, one that includes a physical representation of a signifier.

    Consider also the concept of music as a language. It’s written form is a common “language”, easily understood among disparate cultures regardless of spoken/written language. It’s sound is understood by anyone with hearing, crossing every cultural border regardless of cultural distinctions.

  75. leah -  January 20, 2013 - 8:27 am


  76. Milan -  January 20, 2013 - 1:33 am

    To add furthermore …

    language (words) have a meaning to us ( they are also culturally different )

    some cultures see a word (beautiful) differently thus are not culturally universal …

    while we might observe people argue or act in a rude manner to each other we might label such an activity as “brutal” or “barbaric”

    thus … the words are visualised in our head … this also accords with our narrative/vision – moreover triggers the meaning what it actually means to us and us only; generally within a particular social and cultural context.

    as words are socially constructed and a particular word is generally subjective way of seeing (objective world) or the world as seen from the naturalist perspective or biosocial/biological reductivist point of view and or eg: physics, chemistry or scientific paradigms.

    We are all (human agents) with (self) and identity; all striving to orientate ourselves to the GOOD and on the principle of pleasure versus pain (Bentham) and Kantian (rational agent) we learn how to respect each other … moreover this has created the modern notion of RIGHTS – furthermore being codified in statutes and international law/common law principles.

    kind regards
    Milan Korda

  77. Milan -  January 19, 2013 - 11:19 pm

    Charles Taylor himself in his great work called Sources of The Self described us humans as language creatures whom use language to think thus shape our identity within the webs of interlocution or networks amongst other selves (people) while he also mentions other writers and philosophers in this book whom state that we’re born in the world that already existed before us , perhaps Merleau Ponty. Ponty stated that we’re constantly trying to describe the world thus find its truth hence the knowledge about it , yet the world already existed (objectively) … it is how we actually engage with the world as subject and what meaning it offers for us.
    Thus we could perhaps draw some links with the language used…we visualise objects that have a subjective meaning to us , Taylor goes through this by adducing things he calls “values” , goods and hyper goods…how we categorise things that allow us to take action and articulate between what we thing is right and wrong (viscerally) however from our own internal autonomous and rational self.

    It appears that the language (moreover) the new vocabulary empowers us to create the new identity , identity with new things, new horizons that project our self towards the (GOOD).

    If anybody reads this book you will have a chance to understand exactly how our self is formed and where we get our moral guidelines…and whether those guidelines are paternalistic (heteronomy) and or are they what we chose to believe and do as free selves.

    Michel Foucault can be used here too to emphasise the autonomous self further as a self governing entity (agent) as per perhaps what Kant had to say about autonomous rational agents.

    kind regards

  78. Brian Eargle -  January 19, 2013 - 9:25 pm

    You wrote, “…looking at words as the building blocks of our thoughts.”

    That is examining the elephant through the fingertips of a linguist.

    As a non-linguist, I usually think non-verbally, independently of language. If a thought is worth communicating, I must then frame it in words before I can speak it, write it, type it, sing it, or sign it.

  79. riddler -  January 19, 2013 - 4:30 pm

    All words are intentions of thought.
    Banish the Negative, kill it on the spot.
    Enrich the love of positive motive’s.
    SMITE the plight of the dead and
    burning wings of evils’ flight.
    Give Faith in Opto-Votive.

  80. Camille -  January 19, 2013 - 4:05 pm

    This idea is mentioned in the Tao Te Jing (book of the religion Taoism)
    a quote:
    The name that can be named
    is not the eternal Name.

    The unnamable is the eternally real.
    Naming is the origin
    of all particular things.

    tao refering to a natural order of things, theres another quote in the book that goes something along the lines of ‘i use tao, for lack of another word’

  81. SEMIOLOGY | BLOGCHI@mayopia.com -  January 19, 2013 - 3:50 pm

    [...] ‘Semiology’ of Signage — An emoticon without a face — Signifying Nothing — Except a word to take a place — We have no direct knowledge of anything — Saussure to us a Brand new name — The ‘Blarg’ or knowledge presented here — We overlook any other point of reference — Our ignorance is clear — Beautiful for there to hear — Beauty is the preference. — We believe we need a beer.– Maybe Now or Later – Hence the Semiology of deference. — Still Context Communicates with the Dater… >>L.T.Rhyme This entry was posted in DICTCOMHOTWORD, L.T.Rhyme and tagged LT, LTRhyme, the HOT WORD on January 19, 2013 by LTRhyme. [...]

  82. Don Bates -  January 19, 2013 - 2:35 pm

    Language is thought, thought is language. Why are they chickens and when are they eggs? We’ll never know. The transaction is too fast, probably on the order of the speed of light.

  83. Mystery Lady -  January 19, 2013 - 11:43 am

    That article was very interesting, really made me think, a great experience for
    me, I am inspired so thank you :)

  84. Rob -  January 19, 2013 - 11:25 am

    Words the way we think.
    In English we would say ‘The fast green shiny car.’
    No idea what the person is talking about till the punchline/ noun.
    In Spanish they would say ‘The car that is fast, green..’.
    We could say it that way, but we don’t.

  85. Supersinger -  January 19, 2013 - 8:47 am

    Hadn’t thought about language beginning in the mind. So thoroughly enjoying this topic/concept introduction and subsequent comments.
    Thank You all…

  86. Unknown -  January 19, 2013 - 8:37 am

    Saussure was one of the first to look at language through the lens of thought and perception. Ludwig Wittgenstein pushed this idea to include the notion that a word can mean so many things that it would be more fruitful to look at them as tools we use to achieve a particular purpose. These language philosophers paved the path that initiated the deconstruction movement of the mid 20th Century. This discussion flourished in the late 1900′s through literary critiques such as Northrop Frye (Modes of Language), and language philosophers such as John Lakers(Metaphors of power and judgement) , and Walter Ong. (Orality and Literacy). It took tens of thousands of years for humans to develop to the point were we could recognize not only the universe that lies outside of us but to come to explore the universe that lies with in ourselves and the language we use to describe it.
    This often leads to questions of. “What motivates me to use words in the way I do?” or “Why do I think in the way I do?”. Thinking about thinking promotes “honest self reflection” (Lakers).
    Thanks to Saussure and others who followed we are beginning to move away from arguing about the right or wrong meaning of words and are beginning to understand language as one of the many forms of communication that displays the unique color of each individual person.
    Remember that how we define words in our thought process determines what we think which in turn determines how we feel and how decide to act. Language is a much more than, “Verbs kicking around nouns” (Frye).

  87. Ronald h. f. neal -  January 19, 2013 - 7:29 am

    I enjoyed reading this,it was very inlighting, I’ve have gain some insightin Ty o something i never knew. Thank you looking forward to some more information

  88. Farooq Arby -  January 19, 2013 - 6:36 am

    When God created man He also created language in the form of names of certain things and taught those names to Adam. This is basics. Languages then evolved further with the passage of time.

  89. uche -  January 19, 2013 - 2:40 am

    it is just the fact.

  90. Anon -  January 19, 2013 - 1:35 am

    I haven’t read Saussure, but from your summary he seems to be in the same ballpark as Wittgenstein. If you’re interested in the philosophical implications of thinking of language as public and culturally abritrated, check out Philosophical Investigations–it’ll really change the way you think.

  91. glenn -  January 18, 2013 - 11:38 pm

    i once asked a friend who is perfectly fluent in two languages if he was a little different person when he was thinking in one of the languages as opposed to the other.

    he didn’t answer for a moment and then exclaimed that that was the case. apparently he had never considered it previously but when he thought about it, he realized it was true.

  92. Moti Lal -  January 18, 2013 - 6:21 pm

    Words, words, words! Words have meanings as they arise from the soul itself and give sense to the picture, it has been named or worded. You may find many words resembling the sound like Ah, Oh, Ouch, Wow, Ha-Ha, Flutter, Cooing, Braying etc., the list is quite big. There are words known as onomatopoeia e.g. hiss, bang and pop etc. etc.

  93. DJ -  January 18, 2013 - 5:02 pm

    If someone thought about a blarg falling in the forest but didn’t signify it, can we still say it has been signified?

    It just seems backwards to me to define a concept (signified) as something which exists only once it has been acted upon by the word (signifier) which is supposed to express it. I’m not Saussure of that. (D’oh! Sorry, had to)

    I guess I’m just complaining about semantics, here. If I understand correctly, the author here is saying that Saussure was saying that words can be thought of as arbitrary handles to ideas, so long as we share the same convention (language) in using expressing those ideas/concepts. Makes perfect sense. I’m surprised that no linguists or philosophers beat him to the punch.

    @ Jon: Check you tube for “How English sounds to non-English speakers. I don’t know if it’s accurate but I’ve wondered that myself.

  94. Laura -  January 18, 2013 - 4:21 pm

    This thought reminds me of the wonderful children’s novel Frindle by Andrew Clements, where a boy decided that a ballpoint pen should be called a “frindle,” and then get everyone in his class to agree with him.

  95. Marbie arante -  January 18, 2013 - 3:01 pm

    is it mean that if your going to say something its image should be recognized by your brain?i mean.. if you can’t figure out on your mind the words that comes out your mouth is a non sense or you don’t really know the word..?

  96. Cupcake Queen -  January 18, 2013 - 2:03 pm

    Wonderful article!

  97. Jon -  January 18, 2013 - 11:44 am

    I sometimes try to listen to English as if I were from another country and was not a native speaker. Each language has it’s own “sound,” but I have not yet been able to hear English the way I hear a language which I don’t understand, such as Russian. The understood meanings of the words get in the way of the “sound.”

    I speak Spanish quite well but I can “turn-off” my inner-translator and hear the “sound” of the language. It will be interesting to me if I can finally accomplish this with English, to hear what a non-speaker hears.

  98. glenn sutcliffe -  January 18, 2013 - 10:38 am

    I have always thought euphonious is a beautiful sounding word as are all it’s derivatives, euphony, euphonium etc.,

  99. Bob Rabinoff -  January 18, 2013 - 9:21 am

    According to Vedantic philosophy the words and grammar of Sanskrit actually mirror the subtle structure of their referents. In other words, language is not arbitrary. If one refines one’s consciousness and perception to the point that one can actually perceive the (vibratory?) structure of objects and their interactions, then one would see that there’s a one-to-one match with at least this one language’s vibratory quality.

    There’s a similar tradition about Hebrew, although it is, I believe, somewhat less developed.

    Since I’m not at a level where I can perceive with the requisite subtlety I can’t personally vouch for the accuracy of these traditions. However they are quite ancient and probably arose independently, which leads me to believe they may have some basis in reality.

    And yes, I’ve considered the question of how two very different languages can both have a one-to-one relationship with what is presumably one underlying reality. I can think of several tentative answers, but they’d be all speculation, so I’ll leave it as “an exercise for the reader.”

  100. Zues Vapor -  January 18, 2013 - 8:40 am

    In The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker, one of the world’s leading experts on language and the mind, explores the idea of human nature and its moral, emotional, and political colorings. With characteristic wit, lucidity, and insight, Pinker argues that the dogma that the mind has no innate traits-a doctrine held by many intellectuals during the past century-denies our common humanity and our individual preferences, replaces objective analyses of social problems with feel-good slogans, and distorts our understanding of politics, violence, parenting, and the arts. Injecting calm and rationality into debates that are notorious for ax-grinding and mud-slinging, Pinker shows the importance of an honest acknowledgment of human nature based on science and common sense.

    People of all cultures are born with a host of inborn predispositions – to acquire language and music, to favor kin over strangers, to desire sex and to be ashamed of it, to value even trades and to punish cheaters, and dozens more. Our common nature springs from our common biology; it is not very malleable, and it is not “socially constructed” in its entirety. Cultural diversity is not as diverse as one might think, but it is all a variation on an immutable theme; and there have never been any human cultures free of war, of greed, or of prescribed and obligated gender roles. (Any more than there have ever been any free of conflict resolution techniques, altruism, and shared parenting.)

  101. disgusted -  January 18, 2013 - 7:33 am

    Cherry; please stick to your little teeny-bopper texting, bloggin, facing, and tweeting (tweet has interesting relationship to “twit” don’t you think?) and leave the rest of us alone.

  102. Verbie -  January 18, 2013 - 7:28 am

    It’s not really much of a bomb-drop to realize the “signifier” is arbitrary, considering there exist so many different languages around the world — each with its own set of words to represent things, actions, concepts, etc.

    For me it would be interesting to discover to what degree the MOST COMMON expressions we communicate are composed of SHORT WORDS versus LONGER WORDS. As languages evolve to we tend to shorten the signifiers of the most used expressions? Is it fairly consistent that common words such as pronouns, conjunctions, and prepositions tend to be short across most languages? What about the names of commonplace objects or animals: dog, cat, boy, girl, arm, leg. But I note in Portuguese (the secondary language with which I’m most familiar) that list of nouns is cachorro or cão, gato, menino or rapaz, moça or menina, braço, perna — mostly more that one syllable but not long.

  103. Woodenleg Smith -  January 18, 2013 - 7:05 am

    Okay: The symbol is “semiology.” What is the concept? Which came first? Is any of this real or meaningful?

  104. Zita -  January 18, 2013 - 6:58 am

    THX! I was educated as a linguist, but back then we couldn’t use the internet for our studies when living in an university-town’s student hostels under poorest circumstances, so I always just imagined how this guy looked when studying his theses, and honestly I always thought, he was a contemporary author. My bad! (-.-)

  105. Cate jasmine -  January 18, 2013 - 6:33 am

    That was a good one considering it’s my first time

  106. Konrad -  January 18, 2013 - 6:00 am

    How about words ‘depicting’ the sound of objects they stand for (so called onomatopoeia (sing)). We could argue their structure is not completely arbitrary: whisk, purr, quack or wow!

  107. Eric -  January 18, 2013 - 4:26 am

    Do newborn humans have language? If one needs language in order to think, do is a just-born baby able to think? One of your best articles!

  108. Ananth -  January 18, 2013 - 2:02 am

    The given article excellet, I had read this fulley and I was wondered when I read this, Thanks to Dictionary.com to share this great information with every one, good I am expecting one more grat article.

  109. Swapnil -  January 17, 2013 - 10:57 pm

    It allowed me to think right from the inception of thought origination.

  110. Joe Liuzzi -  January 17, 2013 - 9:18 pm

    I often think about this, though this is my first time discovering anything like this. I’m glad I’m not the only one, and that there are names for the ideas that I have. Great article. Thanks for the answers.

  111. Bubba -  January 17, 2013 - 7:43 pm

    Dear Cherry, sounds like your’s oughtta get POPPSW

  112. Bubba -  January 17, 2013 - 7:35 pm

    Regius: Roger, copy that! …cypher within cypher. If you not from the ‘hood, you not in the know, Bro. Depending on where you stand is how you under-stand… the cosmos looks different from Venus than Mars. Finding the wave length is the TOON….and then there’s ONOMATOPOEas ( a three dollar word if I ever did do). Watched the BBC news t’other day and heard a someone say ” I heard a great ‘bla-loom’ when the bomb went off”

  113. Ice cream -  January 17, 2013 - 4:47 pm

    I didnt actually read the artical. sldkhfsodrlmj lrxkjf foiug belkv dl o fjl! Try to figure out the code

  114. Karen -  January 17, 2013 - 2:28 pm

    This is very helpful, as I am looking at Linguistics as a major. This is like the basics for a linguists, just like 123 is for mathematics… Amazing article Thank you dictionary.com

  115. Kooky Cookie -  January 17, 2013 - 1:38 pm

    Huh, I never really thought about that. Cool! :)

  116. ed -  January 17, 2013 - 1:24 pm

    Bubba, your dad was correct. In that we (humans) think or perceive things differently helps us all understand the true nature of the signified. Things are usually more than what we think they are.

    Great article, I’m looking forward to the next installment.

  117. Regius -  January 17, 2013 - 12:46 pm

    Similar to how I thought of words, but instead of signs i considered them symbols as they are more representative towards the idea of an object. They’re much like a cave paintings of the past only these idea’s are more congruent in our world today since we are subjected to these sounds before birth. Of course this works in reverse as well because every word/sound we hear has no real meaning until we give it such.

  118. Manuela Ornelas -  January 17, 2013 - 12:18 pm

    I beleive that we bridge the horizons once we learn to comunicate ideas, feelings and thoughts with others

  119. Cherry -  January 17, 2013 - 11:53 am

    Ok first, only I am right people! So realize that you are always wrong and MOVE ON!
    Second,words don’t really mean anything unless I say so.


  120. Allison -  January 17, 2013 - 10:15 am

    You had me at ‘hypnopompic.’

  121. Hamid Hameed -  January 17, 2013 - 9:02 am

    Beyoutreefruitful !!!

  122. Martha -  January 17, 2013 - 8:19 am

    That article is extremely interesting! Thank you and I look forward to future writings.
    Martha E.

  123. Bubba -  January 17, 2013 - 8:18 am

    Welcome back from wherever you were. We were all getting pretty bored around here.
    I have always been fascinated by the many facets of our language – from word origins to its construction and constant evolution.
    I remember my father telling me “those people speak a different language than us. They don’t think the way we do”. – He wasn’t a zenophobe, or a racist. Speach involves a pattern or way of thinking due to the construct of a particular language. – or did I completely miss the point?

  124. Mary -  January 17, 2013 - 6:07 am

    Very interesting; thank you. I’m looking forward to more on this topic.

  125. jrilett -  January 17, 2013 - 4:59 am

    Just semantics

  126. Dan Wilt -  January 17, 2013 - 4:06 am

    Really? This grammar got by an editor? – “…the ground-breaking tome that this is coming from….”

  127. copytalker andrew -  January 16, 2013 - 2:13 pm

    words come out of my mouth, but no, i’d say they don’t really mean anything.


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