Verbal communication is all about speaking or writing. It does not only have to be speech, writing stuff down also falls under this category. For this we need a language. And to have a language we need symbols. What is a symbol?

Verbal Communication by Symbols and Syntax

A symbol is an image or word that represents something else. For example: “=” is a symbol. It means that whatever is put on the left hand side is the same as what is on the right. For example, 2 = 2 and also 4 = 2 + 2.

The letter T is also a symbol. When we see this symbol it prompts us to make the “th” sound in our mind or out loud. Now, a letter on its own does not represent much, but if we put some of these symbols together, for example t r e e, we get the word ‘tree’. And this symbolizes that big leafy thing outside. So for us to communicate at all we need symbols.

We also need syntax. These are the rules by which we structure our sentences. For example, take the following two sentences:

Nico likes Marlie.

Marlie likes Nico.

They mean two completely different things. The order we use for the names matters a lot. If you know these two individuals and you are hearing this as gossip at work, it matters which one it is. This is why we need syntax to convey more exact meanings. In this example, the name before the part ‘has a crush on’ is according to our syntactical rules the initiator of the crush, and the name behind it is the recipient.

The Complexity of Meaning

Things are made more complicated by the fact that words can have more than one meaning. This phenomenon is called polysemy. Note that this is something different than homonymy, which is when two words accidentally sound alike. For example, the words two and too.

So, words are symbols that convey a certain meaning. They can even have multiple meanings, and it is also instructive to distinguish different kinds of meaning. There are two types:

  1. Denotative meaning. This is the definition of a word you would find in a dictionary. For example, chair means: a separate seat for one person, typically with a back and four legs.
  2. Connotative meaning. This is about the connotations or associations you make when you hear a word. For example, if you hear the word greedy, you would probably feel that it is something bad and should be avoided. But there is also the word economical, which means pretty much the same thing, namely saving money, but this one sounds a lot more positive. This is because of connotative meaning

We also have the following concepts:

God terms are those that immediately give us a positive feeling. These are words such as equality, progress, justice, science, truth etc.

Devil terms are those that carry negative connotations. Such as communist, closemindedness, disease, poverty, nuclear weapon.

Some words are ambiguous and depend on the person you ask whether it is a God term or Devil term. For example, Donald Trump may be a God term for some, and a devil term for other. Same for Obama.

Also check out our video on this topic.

More on communication in this article.

Further reading:

Weaver, R. M. (1995). The ethics of rhetoric. Routledge.


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