Richards' Meaning of Meaning Theory
University of Colorado at Boulder
This past summer I worked in Walt Disney World and I met people from all around the world. I took away many experiences that helped me to understand how differently people think. One thing that I learned is that people interpret words and phrases differently. Knowing this has helped me to be more clear with what I am saying when I am talking to people. I.A. Richards would probably feel the same way. Richards coined "The Meaning of Meaning" theory. This theory's main idea is that meanings don't reside in words; they reside in people. Understanding that meaning comes from individual people can help to clear up confusion and prevent arguments when communicating with others.
Richards's theory was a new rhetoric that was the study of misunderstanding and its remedies (Griffen 57). This new rhetoric focused on understanding rather than persuasion, which is what most of the old rhetoric focused on. Instead of focusing on the information that is passed on in a conversation, Richards wanted to study the meaning of the words. He felt that understanding is the main goal of communication and communication problems result from misunderstanding. Richards felt that information that was lost during a conversation was due to people's language. He wanted to closely study people's use of language.
One of the ideas behind the Meaning of Meaning Theory is "The Proper Meaning Superstition." This is the false belief that every word has an exact, "correct" meaning. Richards says that the Proper Meaning Superstition is false because words mean different things to different people in different situations.
This misunderstanding can cause problems when two people think that they are talking about the same thing, but really they are not.
Another concept that Richards uses is the idea of signs and symbols in communication. A sign is something that we directly encounter, but at the same time it refers to something else (Griffen 58). Smoke is a sign of a fire.
Words are a different kind of sign called a symbol. Symbols have no natural connection with the things that they describe(Griffen 58). There is nothing special about the word that says it must be connected to what it stands for. The only reason that words are symbols of something is because they have been given meaning. This can cause problems when people are communicating using arbitrary words that do not have an exact meaning. Often times, words will mean one thing in a certain context and mean another thing in a different context. This is why it is so important to study the context to get a better understanding of the meaning.
Richards invented the Semantic Triangle to demonstrate the relationship between symbols and their referent (Griffen 60). One part of the triangle is the symbol, or the word. An example would be a blanket. Another peak on the triangle is the thought. This is the words that one would use to describe the referent such as warm, cozy, cotton. The referent, the last part, is the thing that one would picture in his mind. Richards feels that the Semantic Triangle applies to all words.
Understanding that people mean different things when they say the same thing is an important concept for people to understand. This is an important idea to remember whenever discussing anything important in a relationship. Let's use the example of two of my friends, Krista and Dave to demonstrate how very important it is to understand exactly what each person is saying. Krista met Dave when she got set up with him as a blind date for her sorority date party. They got along great and had a wonderful time. That night Dave asked Krista to go to his date party the next weekend. Of course Krista agreed. Again, they had a great time and got along well. A couple of days later Dave called Krista to see if she wanted to go along with him and some of his friends to a movie. Krista though Dave was a great guy and she had fun with him so she went. After the movie Krista and Dave went by themselves to have coffee. They had never really discussed their 'relationship" so neither of them really knew what the other was thinking. During coffee, Dave decided to bring up the topic. He asked Krista if she would want to start dating him, and she said yes. Both of them went home happy, feeling like they had a better understanding of their relationship. However, due to word confusion they were both thinking different things, and heading for trouble. Krista and Dave talked on the phone a couple times during the week. On Friday night Krista went out to the bars and met a really interesting guy named Tim. Tim asked Krista if she would want to go with him to a party the next night and she agreed. The next night Krista had a great time at the party with Tim. She ended up kissing him outside the party. Krista thought nothing of it and went home excited that she had a fun night with a great guy. She had no idea what would come the next day. The next evening Krista got a call from Dave. He was furious. Dave had found out that Krista had kissed Tim. Dave was so hurt, he could not understand why she had done it. After all, they were "dating" each other. Krista could not understand why Dave was upset at all. They were just "dating" weren't they?
The problem was that each of them had a different idea of what "dating" was. To Dave it was an exclusive relationship in which neither of them would be going on dates with other people, and certainly not kissing other people. To Krista, dating was going out about once a week with Dave, but also having the option of going out with other people as well. If they would have discussed their expectations and different meanings of the word "dating" they would never have had to worry about the problem that they were now in. Krista and Dave really liked each other so they decided that they wanted to work the situation out. This time they would need more than the word "dating" to explain their situation.
Richards gives ways to solve this problem of ambiguity. One of them is to give a definition. Definitions are words used in place of another word to explain the thought in a person's mind (Griffen 63). If Krista had described her version of dating as going out together often, but also going out with other people then Dave would have known right away that it was different than his definition of dating, which was being exclusive.
Another option to understand what each other means is by using a metaphor. A metaphor can help to clarify what each person is saying. Krista and Dave could explain their version of what they wanted the relationship to be by comparing it to other people's relationship. If Krista and Dave have mutual friends that are dating, this would be a great way to understand how each of them wants the relationship to be structured.
Feedforward is also a important factor when trying to avoid misunderstanding. Feedforward is when the speaker thinks of how his audience will react to what he is about to say and adjusts his words accordingly (Ogden 248). Feedforward forces the speaker to consider the experiences that the person that they are talking to has had in order to better explain what they are saying. Krista must use ideas that Dave understands in order to get her point across. She should think these ideas out first to make sure that Dave will understand what she is talking about or he may end up even more confused.
All of these techniques may help them to both understand what each other is talking about a little bit better, but it might not solve the problem for them. There is more to a conversation than just what the word means to the person. There are other factors that affect what a person means. Nonverbal communication is not even brought up in Richard's theory. Nonverbal actions have a lot to do with what a person really means. If Krista and Dave sit down and have a discussion defining what a relationship is to them and decide to become a couple, both sides may not really know what the other one feels about the situation. Krista and Dave may decide to have a relationship that is from Dave's perspective of dating. Krista may know perfectly well what Dave now means by the word relationship and she may agree to it, but she may not be happy with the situation. If Krista has her arms crossed, is leaning away from Dave, and is not looking at him she may be demonstrating that she is not very happy with their situation. This is fine in Richards's theory as long as they understand what each other means. However, they may not understand how each other feels.
Another problem with this theory is that simply understanding meaning does not give the whole understanding of the word unless it is in context. I might say that I am not feeling well. According to Richards's theory I would need to define what was wrong with me that did not make me feel well. If I said that my head was throbbing and my throat was dry and scratchy the person I am talking to will understand what I mean when I say that I am not feeling well. However, this is not where meaning ends. The person that I am talking to still doesn't know why I told them that I am sick. I could have had several reasons for telling someone. I might tell someone that I am sick so that they do not come over to my house. I might be trying to warn them that they might get sick too if they are near me. However, I may mean just the opposite. I might be telling a friend that I do not feel well so that they will come over and take care of me. I might want them to offer to bring me medicine or soup. Then again, I might just be saying it for conversation's sake. I might not actually want anything out of my statement.
Despite these criticisms, this theory makes a lot of sense. Everyone can apply it to their everyday life. There is probably nobody in the world who has not had a problem with word confusion in some conversation that they have had. This theory is also important because it shows us how important it is to define ambiguous words.
One of the most interesting ideas behind the Meaning of Meaning theory is the idea of Basic English. This idea interests me more than anything else in this theory. Basic English describes the idea that there are only 850 words taken from the English language that are needed to communicate (Ogden 182). I didn't think much about this concept when I was reading from the text until the end when Griffen stated that all the words he had used came from the list of 850 words (Griffen 65). I was shocked and amazed to find that his list was that effective. Although other scholars scoffed at Richards for reducing language to only 850 words, I was impressed that he took the time and energy to compile a list of words that were essential to basic understanding of the English language. I think that if used properly this could be an excellent technique for learning other languages.
The Meaning of Meaning Theory has both scientific and humanistic perspectives. As far as being a scientific theory this theory is relatively simple. Richards puts the theory into words and concepts that are easy to understand. It also has a testable hypothesis. We can test this theory and see it working everyday in our lives. Many conversations that one has had could be applied to this theory. The theory also has practical application because it shows us ways to clear up misunderstandings that communication confusion may have created. This theory does not just present us with a problem and leave it there for the reader to figure out, it gives solutions for ways to fix the problem.
The theory has some humanistic characteristics also. Richards attempts to understand people because he greatly acknowledges that individual people have differences in their past experiences and personal backgrounds. These factors affect how people think and Richards brings that fact into account when developing this theory. The theory also clarifies values. It shows us how important people's meaning is and not just the words that they say. The theory also warns us to think about how the other person is going to react before we speak.
Richards theory has a lot of good ideas to take away from it. He reminds us that meanings don't reside in words, they reside in people (Ogden 247). Although we must bring other aspects such as non-verbal and the reason that people say what they say into consideration, this theory is an excellent foundation.
Griffen, E.M.(1997). A first look at communication theory. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies Inc.
Ogden, C.K.(1923). The meaning of meaning. New York: Harcourt,Brace & World, Inc.