Question: series of events. So, the theory which

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Last updated: April 27, 2019

Question:What are the three approaches explaining how representation of meaning throughlanguage works.Answer:The three approaches to explaining how representation of meaning throughlanguage works are the reflective, the intentional and the constructionist orconstructivist approaches. In the reflective approach, meaning is thought tolie in the object, person, idea or event in the real world, and languagefunctions like a mirror, to reflect the true meaning as it already exists inthe world.

As the poet Gertrude Stein once said, ‘A rose is a rose is a rose’.In the fourth century BC, the Greeks used the notion of mimesis to explain howlanguage, even drawing and painting, mirrored or imitated nature; they thoughtof Homer’s great poem, The Iliad, as ‘imitating’ a heroic series of events. So,the theory which says that language works by simply reflecting or imitating thetruth that is already there and fixed in the world is sometimes called’mimetic’. As we’ve pointed out, visual signs do bear some relationship to theshape and texture of the objects which they represent.

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But, as was also pointedout earlier, a two-dimensional visual image of a rose is a sign – it should notbe confused with the real plant with thorns and blooms growing in the garden.Remember also that there are many words, sounds and images which we fully wellunderstand but which are entirely fictional or fantasy and refer to worldswhich are wholly imaginary – including, many people now think, most of TheIliad! Of course, I can use the word ‘rose’ to refer to real, actual plantsgrowing in a garden, as we have said before. But this is because I know thecode which links the concept with a particular word or image. I cannot think orspeak or draw with an actual rose. And if someone says to me that there is nosuch word as ‘rose’ for a plant in her culture, the actual plant in the gardencannot resolve the failure of communication between us.

Within the conventionsof the different language codes we are using, we are both right – and for us tounderstand each other, one of us must learn the code linking the flower withthe word for it in the other’s culture. The second approach to meaning inrepresentation argues the opposite case. It holds that it is the speaker, theauthor, who imposes his or her unique meaning on the world through language.Words mean what the author intends they should mean. This is the intentionalapproach. Again, there is some point to this argument since we all, asindividuals, do use language to convey or communicate things which are specialor unique to us, to our way of seeing the world. We cannot be the sole orunique source of meanings in language, since that would mean that we couldexpress ourselves in entirely private languages. But the essence of language iscommunication and that, in turn, depends on shared linguistic conventions andshared codes.

  The third approach recognizesthis public, social character of language. It acknowledges that neither thingsin themselves nor the individual users of language can fix meaning in language.Things don’t mean: we construct meaning, using representational systems –concepts and signs. Hence it is called the constructivist or constructionistapproach to meaning in language.

According to this approach, we must notconfuse the material world, where things and people exist, and the symbolicpractices and processes through which representation, meaning and languageoperate. Constructivists do not deny the existence of the material world.However, it is not the material world which conveys meaning: it is the languagesystem or whatever system we are using to represent our concepts. It is socialactors who use the conceptual systems of their culture and the linguistic andother representational systems to construct meaning, to make the worldmeaningful and to communicate about that world meaningfully to others. 

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