How does a word mean?

What do you envision when you see/hear the word “bread”? Stop and think about that for a moment. Don’t rush – spend a moment.

OK, now think: How would you define “bread” to a person who did not know what the word means?

Now, think: Where do you get bread? Where do you store it? With what/how do you eat it? That’s the cultural setting of the word. Did you include any of the cultural setting in your definition? Because if you are speaking with a person who needs to know what the word “bread” means, when you finish your dictionary definition, you still haven’t provided the mental picture of what bread does in your experience — in your cultural experience. And if the person you are providing the definition grasps the idea of what the word bread means, they by no means may have a picture of the same kind of object (loaf? flat cake? soft? hard? white? brown?) that you have pictured in your mind.

Last week I took a look at how our language is so natural to us that we can think of others’ language in two ways: basically as either “linguistic funny-money” or as so much the parallel of ours that we (unconsciously) expect that words, once translated, mean the same thing… give the same images… “feel” the same way with regard to experiences. The words are actually part of our identity, part of the complete cultural experience in which we learned them. So when we “learn vocabulary” — in a new language, or in our own — we need to take the time necessary to understand not only the given translation but the image it provokes and the environment in which it is found. Then the word becomes part of our identity, too. And if the word is from another language, we begin to understand the identity of others, too. We get to have two sets of lenses on the world!

So this week, I invite you to explore the cultural environments of the words in different languages — the connections, experiences, meanings, emotions, and beliefs tied to words as simple as “bread.” This week’s video, “Words’ Cultural Meaning,” gets this conversation started. I look forward to hearing from you, and hearing what you and others have experienced with regard to words’ cultural meanings!

Video: Words’ Cultural Meaning

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