Understanding the Relationship Between the Form, Meaning and Use of Language

In a recent entry, I reviewed a book that drew a distinction between a formal (or structural) analysis of language and an analysis that sought to take into account meaning-in-context. I would like to extend that discussion by presenting an integration of the two analytical perspectives into a single (metaphorical) model. The model seeks to account for the apparent structural unity of language with the vast diversity (and - at times - contradictory) meanings expressed through language. Earlier, I pictured this relationship as a many-headed hydra - the beast with one body and many devious heads. Each head of the beast represented a separate semiotic domain (defined below). However, that metaphorical representation soon fell by the wayside and, presently, I have settled on a flower, a more organic figuration (shown below).

To recap the earlier entry, I mentioned how,

"Formal theories of meaning seek to explain how a proposition expresses a sense through an understanding of the proposition's logical structure. One must have access to the phonetic, syntactic and lexical knowledge to be able to decode the sentence and to decipher the picture expressed within the sentence. This process is quite a static exchange. In a purely formal account of meaning, the individual would only be required to calculate the exact, unambiguous meaning of a proposition as long as the proposition was logically expressed and all terms were accounted for clearly and directly. 

"Meaning-in-context, on the other hand, is less static and more elusive. The meaning of an utterance requires an understanding of its context, a familiarity with the way the utterance is being exchanged, the intention of the utterance, and the position of the utterance within a 'language game' or 'conversation'. Such a theory of meaning must take into account that the subject is a creative, imaginative agent who extends (or projects) new language practices from prior encounters, and that such meaning is framed by the individual's social and discourse practices."

Please click to expand the figure.

This draws me to propose a distinction between structural components of language, which all instances of language may utilise and the interplay of language that occurs within semiotic domains, which can defined as "an area of knowledge, such as basketball, gardening, cooking, physics, hunting, bush tucker, etc. A semiotic domain includes knowledge, concepts, language, contexts, etc." The relationship between the two perspectives is represented in the figure to the right. The figure is designed to resemble a flower. At its centre lies the structural components out of which all the petals/leaves emanate. Surrounding the petals are beds of contexts which nurture the petals, which - in turn - nuture the core. The core consists of three layers: word structure (phonetic and word construction rules), syntax (available sentence structures) and generic textual forms (reporting, speculating, asserting, etc). If one were to adopt a Chomskyian stance, the first two layers of this core would refer to the universal grammar embedded in the language organ in the brain. Any use of language draws upon the core structural components; however, the structural components do not convey meaning. The distinction between the petals of the flower and its core can be summarised in a quote by Ludwig Wittgenstein from Philosophical Grammar,

One tastes like content, the other like form of representation. (PG, pg 216)

Schematics-Discourse-Levels sliver.png

Therefore, each of the petals emanating from the centre represents a different semiotic domains. Like the core, there are three layers represented in each semiotic domain: domain-specific terms, propositional content and the discourse space. For illustration's sake, let's say that a semiotic domain is "frogs". In the inner most layer, we have domain-specific terms that relate to frogs, such as hop, green, tongue, amphibian, tadpole, habitat and so on. Over time this realm becomes a complex network of words associated with and descriptive of "frogs". 

The next layer is the propositional content, which includes the propositions that amass about the topic, which can include factual statements as a well as conceptual and speculative statements. For instance, one such factual proposition would be "frogs are a diverse and largely carnivorous group of short-bodied, tailless amphibians." Yet, it would also include, "if you kiss the frog, he will turn into a prince," which exudes a moral and gendered content. It also includes personal propositions, such as "Uncle Ross and I would often collect tadpoles from Lake Wood."  Together, these propositions shape a picture or a series of pictures that come to influence the individual and/or cultural perspective of the domain. Consider the following observations about propositional content,

A proposition is not a blend of words. -- (Just as a theme of music is not a blend of notes.) A proposition is articulate. (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus #3.141)

We use the perceptible sign of a proposition (spoken or written, etc) as a projection of a possible situation. (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus #3.11)

A proposition must use old expressions to communicate a new sense. A proposition communicates a situation to us, and so it must be essentially connected with the situation. (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus #4.03) 

"A proposition isn’t a mere series of sounds, it is something more.” Don’t I see a sentence as part of a system of consequences? (Philosophical Grammar #104)

What happens when a new proposition is taken into the language: what is the criterion for its being a proposition?” (Philosophical Grammar #70)

When the truth of one proposition follows from the truth of others, we can see this from the structure of the propositions. (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus #5.13)

Outside of the propositional space is the discourse space, which includes the textual encounters that come to fosters attitudes and knowledge about this topic, which happens to be "frogs" in this case. This domain space can include fairy tales ("the frog prince"), science textbooks, life cycle charts, conversations down by the river and more. The discourse space continues to grow as one encounters more opportunities to speak about the topic and to encounter new perspectives on the topic. Both the discourse and the propositional spaces require the subject to exercise the creative imagination to make sense of our language and to extract and evaluate meaning. New discourse encounters provide new propositional content and terms. Likewise, old propositional content can become the basis for interpreting (or judging) new discourse experiences. As Kober indicates, 

“Children are born into a community and acquire the community’s language and the community’s world-picture. Children do not learn single sentences but ... a whole world-picture.” (Kober, 1996, pg. 422)

“Within a (discursive) practice P of a community, a knowledge claim K(i) should be or might indeed be justified by another knowledge claim K(i-1), which again might be justifiable by another knowledge claim K(i-2), etc.” (Kober, 1996, pg. 416)

“For discursive language-games may criss-cross, overlap, and support each other within a world-picture.” (Kober, 1996, pg. 417)

Framing the three levels of a semiotic domain is a layer I refer to as the contextual layer or the extra-linguistic layer, which is the form of life occupied by the individual. Stated directly, this includes the personal experiences, practices, attachment and social interactions that support, enhance or impede the growth of a semiotic domain. For instance, one's deep engagement in basketball or gardening or theatre or religion frames the viability and sustainability of the individual's engagement in the domain. In the words of James Paul Gee (2003), 

"People have not had the same opportunity to learn unless they have had equivalent experiences within the relevant semiotic domain in terms of active and critical learning (as defined above). Further, they must have had equivalent experiences with the range of non-verbal meaning resources in a domain and how they relate to words (since these other resources are often relevant to what words mean in the domain)." (Gee, 2003, pg 33)

Therefore, “learning these domains – and talking about Opportunity To Learn in these domains – is not a matter of mere exposure to information, but also exposure to and practice with the requisite representational means of these domains.” (Gee, 2008, pg. 78) 


Taken as a whole, the model acknowledges the universal core of language that gives rise to the possibility of information being shaped into knowledge (in the form of semiotic domains), which is determined by the culture and experience (or form of life) in which the individual resides. In reality, the multitude of semiotic domains are not as neat, tidy and symmetrical as the schematic diagram would make it appear to be. Perhaps it would be better to imagine the Australian waratah (picture to the right) with its tight bundle of petals loosening out to future petals which lies in the foliage of the plant. 

There is a reason why I represented the system in the organic figure of the flower. I wanted to show (a) how the three level of the semiotic domain can feed one another, (b) how the semiotic domain can feed the core, (c) how multiple domains emanate and grow in parallel, (d) how a small flower (the child) grows into more intricate patterns and layers, and (e) how the growth of the system is influenced by environmental conditions. 

“Figurations draw our attention to the connotative as well as denotative elements in language; they indicate aspects of the thing being characterised; but this is necessarily an indirect and inferential process.” (Burbles, Peters and Smeyers, 2010, pg 9) 

I would like to end with a nod to one of Ludwig Wittgenstein's famous figures: the ladder. At the end of the Tractatus, he asks his reader to "throw away the ladder" once one understood his book. His book sought to provide a view of language. Once achieved, one should go ahead and use the perspective and not look back. Whilst I do not want to equate this entry with the Tractatus, I also invite readers to discard the flower and more forward once it has informed a view on language the elements of language. If the figure sheds some light on knowledge, semiotic domains and language, then great. It is better to be proficient  in a semiotic domain than to continually seek to understand how domains come to be in the first place. It is better to become a better gardener, an astute doctor, an aware citizen or whatever combination of personas that arise within our practices and our practices in language. That said, it does not necessarily hurt to have a philosophical perspective at the same time.



Burbles, N., Peters, M., and Smeyers, P. (2010). Showing and doing: an introduction. In M. Peters, N. Burbles, and P. Smeyers (Eds), Showing and doing: Wittgenstein as a pedagogical philosopher. (pp. 1 - 14). London: Paradigm Publishers.

Gee, J. P. (2003). Opportunity to learn: a language-based perspective on assessment. In Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy and Practice, Vol 10, No. 1, pp 27 - 46

Gee, J. P. (2008) A sociocultural perspective on opportunity to learn. In P. Moss, D. Pullin, J.P. Gee, E. Haertel, and L. Young (Eds). Assessment, equity, and opportunity to learn (pp. 76-108). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kober, M. (1996). Certainties of a world-picture: the epistemological investigations of On Certainty In H. Sluga, H. and D. Stern (Eds.), The Cambridge companion to Wittgenstein. (pp. 411 - 441) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wittgenstein, L. (2001). Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Translated by D.F. Pears and B.F. McGuinness. London: Routledge.

_____________  (1974). Philosophical Grammar. Edited by Rush Rhees. Translated by Anthony Kenny. Berkeley: University of California Press.