Words are complicated things, really. You wouldn’t think it; we simply write them, say them out loud or string them together as a means of communication. However, it’s not the words themselves that make any sense – our understanding of a word lies in the meaning to which it alludes. I fear that I’ve lost you.
Pick a word, any word. Now say it out loud. Say it out loud once again, but this time with complete disregard of its meaning. You are left with just a sound. Now, write that same word down on a piece of paper, or type it onto your computer screen. Look at the word you have written without reading it. All you see is a random compilation of squiggles and shapes. So there you have it; the spoken word becomes just a sound, and the written word merely an image. Say the following words out loud and ignore their meanings: teddy, squid, onomatopoeia, number, box. These sounds are funny, aren’t they? Now look at these words I’ve typed, again without reading them. How foreign and mysterious they become!
I must admit, these ideas aren’t completely my own. They belong to a dude called Ferdinand de Saussure who is responsible for our modern understanding of semiotics. (Now there’s a word I haven’t seen before!) Basically, Saussure explains that each and every word is a ‘sign’, and each of these ‘signs’ has a ‘signifier’ and a ‘signified’, whereby the signifier is the sound-image (the word itself), and the signified is the concept (the word’s one or more meanings). Say what?
Take the word ‘fairy’. The word fairy itself is the sound-image, but the sparkly little picture of a cute flying creature that appears in your mind is the concept. I studied French for a number of years at school. What a beautiful sounding language it is! Let’s consider the French word ‘poubelle’. Oh, how it sounds and tastes like thick, golden honey! Say it out loud; let the two glorious syllables roll from your tongue. Pou – belle. Want to know what poubelle means? Rubbish bin. No, I am not kidding. It makes zero sense to me, that such a beautiful sound-image has come to represent such an ugly concept. Words really are complicated, aren’t they? Having said that, if it wasn’t for words, I would have found it extremely challenging to communicate this idea.