January 24, 2021

On the semantic burden.

Who is responsible for understanding? A descriptive analysis.

On the semantic burden.

I wish to introduce a concept that has been brewing between my ears for some time now. I call it “the semantic burden”. So, what is it? Let us do as Jacques Derrida and deconstruct the term.

“Semantic” has to do with understanding. The Cambridge online dictionary says: “Semantic; adjective; (of words and language) connected with meaning.” In other words, if something carries meaning, it is semantic. And if it is semantic, it can be understood.

A burden is hopefully more within common vocabulary. Here, the same dictionary says: “burden; noun; a heavy load that you carry.” A burden is thus something weighing one down, like a sack over the shoulder, straining against the muscles. Or a task in the mind, causing the eyebrows to frown and the head to ache. Though, this pain is luckily not a necessity: we can overcome burdens by either making them less burdensome, ignoring them altogether, or become stronger ourselves.

A semantic burden is thus a load of meaning that one carries. And how do we carry such a thing as meaning? The most common example, and indeed the one which sparked the term, is by language. “By language? What is this mick-mockery and mincing of words?” says the contrarian. Let us indeed talk of it more concretely.

When I talk to someone, even myself, I wish to convey meaning. I wish to transmit some concept, feeling, or notion that I carry within me. Some load of meaning. An inner burden. I wish to make myself understood. Luckily, when I converse with my partner, I am not carrying the load by myself. My partner is such an astonishing creature that the moment she detects that I am wishing to convey a load of meaning to her, she instantly starts to pull this burden with me, relieving me of some of the strain. How? By interpretation, listening, understanding; call it what you will: she makes an effort.

As she starts interpreting, I might immediately feel that this inner notion which I try to convey via language is indeed starting to resonate within her. She starts to understand. And perhaps am I so relieved that she takes such an active approach to what I convey. She asks questions which clear the air. She listens intently and with the goal to interpret my notion in the strongest and healthiest sense possible. As a result, perhaps I would grow lazy. I would not finish my sentences, interrupt the flow of the train of thought, start in medias res and never go back to the beginning. Suddenly, the load which is this meaningful notion is no longer on my shoulders. Its on hers: she now has the semantic burden.

This culminates in the question: on who does the semantic burden fall: the speaker, or the listener?

In a practical sense, and according to casual observations I have made, I believe this question can be roughly and imprecisely answered on a per-language basis. Thus, I wish to bring two peoples into question: the peoples of Greece (or as it is actually called: Hellas), and of France.

Let us begin with Hellas. Anyone who has visited its people, the Greeks, or the Hellenes, would be wise to recognise their diversity. In truth, there is no such thing as “the Hellenes”, nor is there a thing such as “the French”. However, if we are to discuss an entire people, let us at least do it tastefully. And my tasteful claim is this: the Hellenes are wonderfully loud.

I mean this with regards to speaking “normally”. Not that parties could get loud, which perhaps they should, but that when talking across the counter or at a café the volume quickly escalates in Hellas. From this, I guessed that for Hellenes the semantic burden falls on the speaker. I have presented this idea for some Hellenes, and they feel not only that this is correct, but that it is the logical way to solve the semantic burden.

Moving swiftly over to the French. There are most definitely francophones who will not identify with what I have to say here. So, in order to narrow it down, I speak here of French from northern France. Whereas in the south, such as in Toulouse for example, the conversation can get loud and the mouth very open, in the north the mouth remains more closed and the result is a more intense effort on the side of the listener. In addition to this, French is full of silent letters and exceptions, which makes for beautifully flowing speech, but also demands that the semantic burden falls on the listener.

Personally, this results in a very emotional relationship with French: I grow tired and cranky from constantly having to interpret so accurately where easy mistakes are plentiful, at the same time as the flow of words is just too beautiful to hate. The hypothesis is then that the semantic burden falls on the listener. Having presented this idea to French people, I did not get the immediate and certain resonance as I got with the Hellenes, but perhaps a softer and more reflected: “That might be right.”

I do not believe I have a sufficiently deep encounter with a language which has a balanced approach to the semantic burden. And perhaps it is not as clear-cut as I would like it to be: perhaps the Hellenes are only slightly tending towards the burden falling on the speaker, and the French only tending slightly towards it falling on the listener. Regardless, I hope that I have managed to demonstrate “the semantic burden”. To show that it is real, and out there. We crave understanding, after all.


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