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Language in Thought and Action

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In an era when communication has become increasingly diverse and complex, this classic work on semantics—now fully revised and updated—distills the relationship between language and those who use it.

 

Renowned professor and former U.S. Senator S. I. Hayakawa discusses the role of language in human life, the many functions of language, and how language—sometimes without our knowing—shapes our thinking in this engaging and highly respected book. Provocative and erudite, it examines the relationship between language and racial and religious prejudice; the nature and dangers of advertising from a linguistic point of view; and, in an additional chapter called “The Empty Eye,” the content, form, and hidden message of television, from situation comedies to news coverage to political advertising.

224 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1939

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About the author

S.I. Hayakawa

19 books26 followers
Samuel Ichiye Hayakawa was a Canadian born American academic and political figure of Japanese ancestry. He was an English professor, served as president of San Francisco State University and then a United States Senator from California from 1977 to 1983.

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17 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 127 reviews
Profile Image for Dave.
3 reviews
March 17, 2010
Linguistics schlinguistics… this is also a book about politics and public policy (Language in Thought and ACTION), and the best one about either subject that I’ve ever read. It gives me hope that there is possibility for greater cooperation among us all, despite all of our real and, more importantly, perceived differences.

Yeah, there’s a lot of “common sense” in there, but it’s put in a framework that makes it much easier to identify and understand how others are speaking or thinking.

I suppose an important message from the book is that by understanding when someone is speaking emotionally or misabstracting or whatever, you, as a listener, should be able to identify that and not take their words as literal, and maybe try to understand what they REALLY mean and eventually hold hands around the campfire and sing Kumbaya since by that point you’ve gone on together to solve all the world’s problems. For me however, it just meant for the first couple years after reading this book, I wanted to tell anyone who overgeneralized that were on the wrong rung of the abstraction ladder.

It's the only book I'd give the "should be required reading" seal of approval.
Profile Image for Nick.
689 reviews181 followers
July 13, 2016
Wow! This was great! Answers such questions as, why do we have language at all? How do words and the things words represent get mixed up by our brain? How does all of this impact our lives, and our civilizations? Perhaps I'm just new to reading about semantics, but I found the book's subject matter highly engrossing.

Along the way it also systemizes a lot of common sense notions of language. Admitting my ignorance of Wittgenstein, this sounds a lot like him. The book also reminded me of the Black Swan by Nassim Taleb because its very readable, results oriented, empirical, and the author is direct about what level of abstraction he is working at (and cares about such things as levels of abstraction).

Its also kind of dated in terms of the technological and cultural references which could be a positive or a negative (positive for me). One negative was that he occasionally (more towards the second section) interjects his political beliefs into it as though they were the default reasonable position (he is a moderate authoritarian leftist [american democrat]). He also encourages the reader to be extremely skeptical and analytical about political language, but sometimes implies that those who reject his own ideas are basically just playing language games. This was annoying, but not annoying enough to steal 5 stars from this book.
Profile Image for Patrick (Kunle).
69 reviews22 followers
August 27, 2020
A very illuminating read.

Many thanks to the much admired person who inspired my foray into linguistics (I owe you beer!).

This book helped me explore the characteristics of language and how we use it. Key takeways for me include:

Reports, inferences, judgements and directive vs informative language

The power of affective language

An understanding of intensional and extensional orientations.

The powerful statement - "The map is NOT the territory", and its implications.

A deeper understanding into how high level language abstractions affect how we perceive and respond to reality.

Two-valued and Multi-valued orientations.

The final segment on reading, aptly titled - 'Reading Towards Sanity', is a powerful description on how proper reading (as a guide to life instead of as an end in itself) and essentially other forms of knowledge acquisition through language, enrich our senses and abilities to experience. The two quotes below do a far better job than me in explaining this idea:

"Experience itself is an extremely imperfect teacher. Experience does not tell us what it is we are experiencing. Things simply happen. And if we do not know what to look for in our experience, they often have no significance to us whatever."

"The communications we receive from others, insofar as they do not simply retrace our old patterns of feeling and tell us things we already know, increase the efficiency of our nervous systems. Poets, as well as scientists, have aptly been called "the window washers of the mind"; without their communications to widen our interests and increase the sensitivity of our perceptions, we could very well remain as blind as puppies"

I highly recommend this!
23 reviews1 follower
September 2, 2014
Language in Thought and Action shifted my thought process in so many ways.

I'm able to extract much more quality information from conversations than ever before.

An example of what you learn: we get information 2 ways, direct experience (extensional) and everything else (verbal). Extensional info gives us a VERY limited view of the world. I have no way of knowing Obama is a real person, that South America exists, or becoming a billionaire is a possibility.
I learn about those things through verbal info (articles, videos, talking to people, news, books, associative memory, etc.).

Verbal info is like a map that gives us an understanding of the real world. When we're equipped with accurate maps, we're prepared for living a more successful life and reaching our goals. When we have an inaccurate map, that's when we run into trouble.

And we get inaccurate maps all the time. Stories of success coming to those who are 'passionate', that a toothpaste will make our teeth whiter, or that all we need is more "willpower" to succeed.

Balanced biographies, scientific method, and approaching problems with a curious mindset all give us much more accurate maps to navigate our lives.

Every time I crack this book open it expands my understanding of things I never used to pay attention to.

Must read for anyone interested in improving their thought process and their lives.

Rating system:

I'm interested in books that describe underlying patterns and apply to all aspects of daily living. EX: a book about language applies everyday and opens up your eyes to many new things.

1 star - I'm surprised I finished it. Will encourage people not to read at all.
2 star - Got some value out of it but not actively recommending.
3 star - Great book and you should read it if you've got some interest in it. I'm glad I read it but most likely won't read it again.
4 star - Excellent book that you need to read if it touches on your interest. Will recommend to others and maybe read again.
5 star - Everyone should read this book. I recommend it to others regularly and may buy a few copies to hand out. Will read again.
Profile Image for Erik Graff.
4,984 reviews1,083 followers
March 7, 2010
I read a library copy of this book in high school, probably on assignment from my senior English teacher, Mr. Silkowski. It was the first book I'd ever read on communication theory and semantics other than Marshall McLuhan and it left far less of an impression, perhaps because it had been assigned by a teacher I didn't particularly like rather than recommended by an older friend whom I admired. The notion of General Semantics, however, I did find intriguing.
98 reviews4 followers
November 16, 2015
p 19
The first of the principles governing symbols is this: The symbol is not the thing symbolized; the word is not the thing; the map is not the territory it stands for.

p 21
We all inherit a great deal of useless knowledge, and a great deal of misinformation and error, so that there is always a portion of what we have been told that must be discarded. It should be noticed that there are three ways of getting false maps of the world into our heads: first, by having them given to us; second, by making them up for ourselves by misreading true maps; third, by constructing them ourselves by misreading territories. But the cultural heritage that is transmitted to us—our socially pooled knowledge, both scientific and humane, has been valued principally because we believe that it gives us accurate maps of experience.

p 130-131
To attempt to converse in this way is to make all our social contacts occasions for what we have earlier called “the pooling of knowledge.” We can, if we are able to listen as well as to speak, become better informed and wiser as we grow older instead of being stuck, like some people, with the same little bundle of prejudices at sixty-five that we had at twenty-five.

Statements made in everyday conversation, even if based on slipshod inferences and hasty over-generalizations, can usually be found to have some modest degree of truth value. To find the needle of meaning in the haystacks of nonsense that the other fellow is talking is to learn something, even from the apparently prejudiced and uninformed. And if the other fellow is equally patient about looking for the needle of meaning in our haystacks of nonsense, he may learn something from us. Ultimately, all civilized life depends upon the willingness on the part of all of us to learn as well as to teach. To delay one’s reactions and to be able to say “Tell me more,” and then to listen before reacting

p159
If pictures give television its power, excessive reliance on them constitutes its weakness. Television news focuses on things it can easily symbolize visually, at the expense of things that are harder to depict. A few homeless people or a family being evicted can be televised to depict the larger problems of housing shortages and homelessness, but it’s hard to televise houses not being built, rents increasing, or employment declining. It’s easy to televise motorists in a gasoline line but hard to televise a national strategy for lessening dependence on imported oil. The visual aspect of television, adept at specifics, has trouble climbing back up the abstraction ladder to levels of greater generality and applicability.

Profile Image for Daphyne.
424 reviews20 followers
September 9, 2020
Hayakawa has written a masterpiece on how language impacts our thoughts and actions and in a way that is approachable to everyone. I was making connections nonstop to advertising, the Internet, politics, & our recent Covid mess. I only wish I’d known about this sooner as I’d highly recommend using it in homeschool high school.

The only possible negative is that it predates the Internet, but much of what Hayakawa says about television translates to the Internet only more so. Some of the author’s examples & cultural references may seem dated to anyone under 30/40 but can be easily updated if used in a classroom setting. Im not even willing to lower this to 4 stars for it. The book is too valuable!

Buy it. Read it. Read it again.
Profile Image for Eduards Sizovs.
117 reviews155 followers
Read
October 5, 2020
Not going to give this book a rating, because it's written well, but my expectations didn't match.

I was looking to learn more about the deep interconnection of language and psychology, but this book covers only some generic basics – such as how a certain choice of words can influences people, how people understand the same words differently depending on a context, experience, biases, etc.

So, if you are already deep into psychology and communication, you should probably skip this book. If you're just starting, consider more specialized, practical, and deeper books, such as Cialdini's Influence, Rosenberg's Nonviolent Communication, Hoobyar's NLP: The Essential Guide to Neuro-Linguistic Programming, or Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow. Or all of them.
Profile Image for Yuliya.
75 reviews1 follower
October 26, 2020
A very fascinating book on language and words, how they affect us and others, their function and usage. Dated for sure but has some relevant ideas. A good, short intro into semantics. I wish some of the ideas would be more fleshes out but its more of a condensed version. Still got a lot of valuable things from it, tho I had my disagreements.
Profile Image for Sunny.
716 reviews33 followers
April 18, 2022
Super interesting book about the link between language and how it impacts your thoughts. The book goes into a lot of detail of how words and phrases have impacted us. Some of the topics in the book are as follows: language and survival, symbols, reports, the double task of language, social cohesion, the language of social control, the language of affective communication, language and arts, how we know what we know, dual and multivalued orientations, poetry and various others.

Here are the best bits from the book:


Many Sleepy people put a great deal of stock in experience as such: they tend automatically to respect the person who has done things. I don't wanna sit around reading books they say. I want to get out and “do” things (sunny: its why the millennials of today talk about “doing” a country (yawn). I want to travel I want to have experiences. But often the experiences they go out and get do them no good whatsoever. They go to Australia and all they remember is their hotel, the 100s of guys/girls they’ve slept with, a few bars, nightclubs, the beach and the sun, they go to Mexico and remember only their gastrointestinal difficulties. The result is that some people who have never traveled know more about the world that some who have. We all tend to go around the world with our eyes shut unless someone opens them for us.

We confuse the abstraction which is inside our heads with that which is outside and act as if the abstraction were the event in the outside world. We create in our heads an imaginary chair that maliciously trips us and then punish the existential chair that bears ill will to nobody. We create an imaginary inferential postman who is holding back our mail and then we brawl out the existential postman who would gladly bring us letters if he had any to bring.


The term two valued orientation was originated by Alfred Korzybski. His main concern was with the orientations that determine health or disorder in people's semantic reactions. Although he described the two valued orientation as characteristic of a primitive or emotionally disturbed outlook, he was not attacking 2 valued logic. Ordinary logic such as we use in arithmetic is strictly 2 valued. Within the framework of ordinary arithmetic’s 2 + 2 is four. This is the right answer and all the other answers are wrong.

Alfred Korzybski was rarely concerned with the specific content of people’s beliefs. Whether people were religious or unreligious, liberal or conservative. He was concerned rather with how people held their beliefs and convictions: whether someone had a two valued orientation: “I am right and everybody else is wrong” or a multivalued orientation: “I don't know, there could be more viable answers, let's see”? sunny: are you enslaved by your truths?

Communication systems or transportation systems, the possibility of using superconducting cable for transmission of electricity all these and many other new technologies point strongly to the mismatch between the size of our political or economic units and the size of our technologies. I think all of us who are involved in these new technologies can only hope that before they destroy us our political instruments will accommodate to the logic of massiveness and that the major fruit of the new technologies will be a unified and peaceful world. Alvin M Weinberg.

It will be a basic assumption of this book that language is the fundamental mechanism of human survival. A parallel assumption will be that when the use of language results as it often does in the creation of aggravation of disagreements and conflicts there is something linguistically wrong with the speaker, the listener, or both. Human fitness to survive means the ability to talk and write and listen and read in ways that increase the chances for you and fellow members of your species to survive together. SUNNY: wow

If a child grows to adulthood with a verbal world in his head which corresponds fairly closely to the existential world that he finds around him in his widening experience he is in relatively small danger of being shocked or hurt by what he finds because his verbal world has told him what more or less to expect. He is prepared for life. If, however he grows up with a false map in his head that is with a head crammed with error and superstition he will constantly be running into trouble wasting his efforts and acting like a fool. He will not be adjusted to the world as it is he may if the lack of judgment is serious end up in a mental hospital. Sunny: wow … the importance of reading and the importance of reading literature in particular and stories.

As we progress in our reading our consciousness widens. Gradually the maps which we have inside our heads become fuller more accurate pictures of the actual territories of human character and behavior under many different conditions and in many different times. Gradually our increased insight gives us sympathy with our fellow human beings everywhere.

Wendell Johnson of the University of Iowa refers to television viewing, reading the Sunday papers and similar diversions as semantic thumb sucking: you go through the motions of getting nourishment without getting any.


From books and magazines we learn how much people whom we shall never be able to see have felt and thought. All this formation is helpful to us at one time or another in throwing light on our own problems.

It would be difficult to exaggerate the degree to which we are influenced by those we influence. (Eric hoffer: the passionate state of mind).

One investigator trained chimpanzees to put poker chips into an especially constructed vending machine which supplied grapes bananas and other food. The chimpanzees proved to be able to distinguish chips of different values and also proved to be willing to work for them if the reward was fairly immediate. They tended however to stop work as they accumulated more chips. Their money system was definitely limited to rudimentary and immediate transactions.

In Veblens time a deeply tanned skin was indicative of a life spent in farming and other outdoor labor and women in those days went to a great deal of trouble shielding themselves from the sun with parasols white hats and long sleeves. Today however a pale skin is indicative of confinement in offices and factories, while a deeply tanned skin suggests a life of leisure of trips to Florida Sun Valley and Hawaii.

I despise any flag not just the American flag it's a symbol of piece of land that's considered more important than the humans that live on it. Joan baez

Another effective element in languages rhythm. Rhythm is the name we give to the effect produced by the repetition of auditory stimuli at fairly regular intervals. From the boom boom of a childish drum to the subtle nuances of cultivated poetry in music there is a continuous development and refinement of man's responsiveness to rhythm. To produce rhythm is to arouse attention and interest: so effective is rhythm.

In a very real sense then people who have read good literature have lived more than people who cannot or will not read.

Philosophy though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and freedom from the tyranny of custom. Thus while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they MAY BE. It removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never traveled into the region of liberating doubt. It keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar way. (Bertrand Russell : essays).

After the night that covers me
Black as the pit from pole to pole
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeoning's of chance
My head is bloody but unbowed.

Beyond the place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade
And yet the menace of the years
Finds me bold and unafraid.

It matters not how straight the gate
How charged the punishments the scroll
I'm the master of my fate
I'm the captain of my soul.

(William Ernest Henley – Invictus)

The word grammarian once referred to a person who had magical powers one who was versed in “gramayre” and therefore could manipulate to advantage the mystical power of words. Sunny: it's why we spell words :) – think a magician in the olden days was also called a “Grimmoire”

What about the fanatical “neturai karta” sect of Jerusalem, who in addition to three regular daily services also hold a midnight prayer and vigil for the coming of the Messiah and refused to recognize the Jewish state or to bring arms for it?

We learn two kinds of things from those who teach us: 1: a body of ideas and belief and two: a way of holding them. If our ideas and beliefs are held with consciousness of abstracting they can be changed if found to be inadequate. But if they are held without consciousness of abstracting, if our mental maps are believed to be the territory, they are prejudices. As teachers and parents we cannot help passing on to the young a certain amount of misinformation and error, however hard we may try not to. But if we teach them to be habitually conscious or the process of abstraction we give them the reins with which to free themselves from whatever erroneous notions we may have taught them. (sunny: wow)

Not content with stripping us of our enemies states Malcolm the white man in his evilness stripped us of our humanity. So the white man made up a special name for his slave animal: negro. It's a synthetic name that means low filthy beast. We want no part of it. Malcolm X.

They are progressively more alarmed at the dangers arising from old fashion to nationalism in a world that has become technologically one world. They are increasingly anxious over the possibility of attaining a sense of World Economic Order with the instruments of 19th century capitalism. Wherever technologies are producing changes not adequately matched by changes in social institutions there are people under strain and tension. Sunny: now layer onto all of this our palaeolithic emotions :)

Great books are those which open great new questions. In other words the wiser people become whether in science religion politics the less dogmatic they become. Apparently the better we know the territory of human experience the more aware we are of the limitations of the verbal maps we can make of it.














Profile Image for Matthew Brown.
13 reviews
August 8, 2018
Language in Thought and Action is one of the most insightful books I’ve read to date. Hayakawa masterfully distills how we use one of the most basic human mechanisms - words - and the avalanche of implications that follows. I can only wonder whether Hayakawa knew how ahead of his time he was when he authored this book as the lessons and themes within apply to an even greater degree now than they did when the first edition was released. If you are in search of a deeper understanding of the use and symbolism of language, look no further. Hayakawa provides a map leading the way to critical thought and effective communication. This book should be required reading for all, but especially for those with the responsibility of sharing information via mass media. If nothing else, the perspective put forward in this book should serve to sharpen the lens from which you view the world around you.
Profile Image for Leslie.
376 reviews7 followers
November 27, 2011
This book is an interesting, concise, and well-written book about linguistics, particularly semantics. It particularly deals with how we know what we know, and how we frequently systematically misunderstand or miscommunicate because of limitations of language - or our use of language - for conveying what we mean.

In many ways, it is about the evolution of prejudice in individual minds as a consequence of confusing levels of abstraction, so that "Pigs are dirty" implies that Hampton is dirty because Hampton is a pig, even though Hampton has always demonstrated excellent hygiene. The problem is that "Hampton" is a specific pig, being observed at a specific time, and is at a different level of abstraction than "pig" in general (or even "farm animal" or "animal" or all kinds of other categories you could put him into). Even if my whole experience of pigs leads me to believe they are dirty, my experience remains limited, and I may err in applying the trait to Hampton. Unwillingness to let Hampton be clean is a prejudice related to cognitive inflexibility - often related to the inability to see different levels of abstraction for what they are. The characteristic metaphor here is that "maps" - levels of abstraction - fail to correspond to "territories." He details the differences between reports, inferences, and judgments, which are easily confused, at times with significant consequences.

The book does not entirely dwell on the negative. It has interesting discussions of the ways we use talk ritually. In such instances, the words have little to do with what is communicated, or why the words are said. These analyses are well-done and instructive.

Towards the end of the book, Hayakawa turns from describing the more basic aspects of representing information to the ways certain systems of representation - such as television - change our perspective and understanding in ways that might not be desirable. He describes the effects of television on advertising, human motivation, and politics. He ends with a discussion of "cultural lag," which is a sociological term for "the continued existence of obsolete institutional habits and forms." The characteristic metaphor is having "horse and buggy" ways - living as though one's social conventions were appropriate even though technological and social advancement have changed the entire landscape for social interaction.
Profile Image for Nathan Hatch.
117 reviews4 followers
July 26, 2016
Why I liked it

I highly recommend the chapters "Reports" and "Affective Communication". The former gives good advice for objective writing, i.e. writing in such a way that pretty much everyone will agree with you. The latter is a highly insightful survey of literary devices: what they do, why they work. You might like reading those chapters even if you don't read the rest of the book.

The idea of the "abstraction ladder" rings true. It's one of those concepts that you might not notice until someone points it out to you, but after learning about it you can find applications for it everywhere. Being aware of the levels of abstraction of words being used will help with effective and efficient communication.

The book is eye-opening in so many little ways:

- the absurdity of speech itself: "extremely complicated systems of sputtering, hissing, gurgling, clucking, and cooing noises"

- how much of our non-verbal behavior is symbolic (as opposed to strictly practical) -- e.g. the clothes we wear, the food we eat

- how much linguistic communication is actually devoid of informational value (e.g. small talk, advertising)

- how ceremonial, legal, religious, etc. communication ("directive language") often uses unusual words and structure to impress upon its consumers the importance of the occasion in order to get them to behave in certain ways

Why I didn't like it

Much of the book is structured around a fundamental division of meaning into "extensional" (real-world) and "intensional" (inside the mind). Something about this classification feels wrong to me, perhaps because, in a sense, even real-world objects exist only inside the mind. This philosophizing may seem like splitting hairs, but there's a lot of epistemology in this book and such questions become important.

On a related note, the book feels somewhat dated. It was written during World War II, and I suspect that more recent linguistic publications may have a more nuanced and better structured understanding of the concepts in this book. That is the main reason for the three-star rating. Also, the book has some questionable language about women and "savages".

Some of the book has a bit of a doom-and-gloom attitude about the future of human society. There's a whole section called "WHY WE ARE STALLED". This seems over-dramatized.
17 reviews
July 14, 2009
This is one of the most enlightening books I have ever read. Hayakawa is the kind of incredibly bright mind whose writing can make you think more methodically, conclude things more confidently, and feel smarter yourself. Somehow he seems like a friend at tea - but his observations are so clear that you wonder how he can outside enough to notice all this, and inside enough to feel familiar and patient and maybe kind. Thus, this non-fiction book was far, far more of a page turner for me than most books of fiction that I've read (and liked) lately. If he has a moral message it is unobtrusive, unassuming, and the kind of lesson that any reader who's heard any of what he's said simply must draw for herself. Come to think of it, he argues rather like lawyers should - so that the conclusion the author desires, never once spoken, is inevitable, obvious in the silence after the speech.

Hayakawa compares any use of language to the practice of drawing a map of a physical territory. Depending on how good the mapmaker is and his motivations, that map can resemble the territory very reliably, or not at all. And from this simple metaphor he draws an impeccably conscientious account of the kind of things we do when we use language, and the implications for us as actors in the world. Someday I hope to have read it enough times that I can hold all the concepts in my head at once and provide something like a summary - but until then all I can say is that more than one of Hayakawa's descriptions rang true for me in a way that clarified things about myself and my world that I'd always suspected emotionally, but never been able to articulate.

I think this book should be required reading in schools - I think we should all take courses on how we use language, why we use it those ways, what it says about us that we do, and--especially--how our ways of using language affect our ways of thinking and, ultimately experiencing and behaving in the world.

Profile Image for Dane Rodriguez.
Author 1 book
December 29, 2016
Personal Notes

-Language is the relationship between "maps" and "territory". The words used to describe certain things are supposed to accurately describe the process it refers to in a way that is relevant and important to the present situation. What you say and why you say it
-Words can have built in judgments and inferences, snarl and purr words are examples
-There is a level of abstraction for everything, a cow is a process referring to the organism (low) which is a bundle of cells (lower) that is livestock (high abstraction) that is considered a farm asset (very high). Each level of abstraction bundles it with other things, farm asset includes tractors and buildings with the cow, and its name would isolate only the particular cow (process we call cow).
-Open and close minded refers to how willing to accept or consider new ideas a person is
When hearing a speech you have 4 choices
1. Accept the speaker and the message
2. Accept the speaker and reject the message
3. Reject the Speaker and accept the message
4. Reject the speaker and the message
-Close minded people can either do 1. or 4. Open minded people are able to do any of the 4.
-Multi-Valued Orientation is the ability to not consider things as either one or the other. Two valued orientation is either something is "good" or "bad". Multi valued lets you analyze from multiple angles to gain complexity and understanding
-Intensional and Extensional Interpretation-
Intensional is being guided by the words and what we think they mean solely- Assigning words like "churchgoer" to other traits like good, kind, christian, etc. without knowing anything else about the particular "churchgoer"
-Extensional Orientation is applying it to the situation and reality

Overall don't let words and semantics twist up the "terrain" don't sell yourself or anyone else a false "map" and stick to the facts. Also, "A truth told with bad intent, beats all the lies you can invent."
195 reviews11 followers
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July 3, 2010
Read this book -- It helps to open one's mind!: S. I. Hayakawa's "Language in Thought and Action" is an excellent read. There isn't much that I can add to what has already been said by other reviewers. In terms of writing and speaking, this book will help me to remain cognizant about the words I use, their meanings, and their contexts. As a reader of books, articles, ads, etc., as well as one who "listens" to what others are saying, this book will help me to recognize that I must discern the "messages" I am receiving, in terms of their intended meaning by the writer and/or the speaker. While the book is very profound and thought-provoking, Hayakawa's style is not erudite -- that is, he does not talk "down" to the reader. I intend to re-read this book many times, in order to glean more of Hayakawa's important message. What remains is to try and get more people to read this excellent work, including relatives, friends, those in government, scientists and engineers, academics, media types, and those in the entertainment industry. If I could give this book more than five stars, I would do so without hesitation.

Profile Image for Kim Marshall.
45 reviews4 followers
September 25, 2010
In my mind this book should be required reading for all freshman in college ... and then they need to reread it again just before they graduate ... just in case they were not yet emotionally prepared for the depth of this work as freshman and to strengthen its message as they step out into the world as "adults".

This is one of perhaps a dozen books that has had and immense impact on how I view the world and my relationship to it. It taught me to question the words both I and others use and to understand that communication is not only difficult but fraught with pitfalls and blind alleys. It reinforced in me the concept that we need to try to look at the world through the eyes of others, and that how we and they "see" the world is to a large extent shaped by the language each of us uses to describe it.

This is a monumental work obviously produced with crystal clear thinking ... and the world needs this more than ever today ...
Profile Image for Reinhardt.
156 reviews2 followers
May 28, 2016
Bought it thinking I was getting a book from the 40s, anticipating a meaty discussion of language from the perspective of another era. Turns out it is a 1990s revision with all the associated inanities.

Full of truism and littered with falsities. Offers some very basic concept about language suitable for high school level. But some of it is clearly wrong to the point of delusional. For example, it proposes that to create more patriotic feeling, we should educate student with all the details of democratic institutions. That would be much more effective than pledging to the flag. If that were true, universities would be bastions of patriotic ferver and roadside bars full of internationalists.

The book is full on straw men and ends with a stirring sermon on how government would be so much better if elites made all the decisions without 'ideological' input.

In short, very disappointing.

Profile Image for H.L. Balcomb.
Author 7 books7 followers
January 3, 2014
In my mind, this should become a mandatory read for all instructors, especially those of us who teach humanities. S. I. Hayakawa's book offers key insights into better understanding the complexities of language, symbols, abstraction, and assumptions, to mention a few of the key themes covered in the book. This book is one of those few books that I would recommend to any person who would like to understand the far-reaching possibilities of the human language. The best aspect of this book, although it relates to the English language, from my experience, it can be applied to other languages as well with the same level of success. A brilliant book by a brilliant mind with a brilliant history, as a conduit of social change and transformation. One word: brilliant.
Profile Image for Ahmet Uçar.
62 reviews7 followers
July 18, 2014
A most charming popular semantics book! I had quite a lot of fun reading it. I suggest it to anyone.
What is red?
Why, red is a colour.
What is a colour?
A colour is a quality things have.
what is quality?
say, what are you trying to do anyway?!
Profile Image for Liisa Rikanson.
22 reviews5 followers
November 13, 2018
The book opened my mind about language and how it's use affects us. It explained ways how we make conclusions too fast by abstracting based on some unique previous experiences in our lives, or based on distorted media representations, etc. I learned to be more conscious and cautious about my own abstraction processes, going on in my mind.

Sometimes it is better to have concrete examples or ask concrete examples from other people when they're trying to explain something abstract. Else you can get stuck in an infinite circle of abstraction, everybody thinking about slightly different things when saying the same words.

There were very interesting examples in the book of how in extremist political or societal systems everything is deduced to being either entirely good or entirely bad, for or against us. Eg how in Nazi times everything good was called aryan and bad not aryan, even chickens who didn't lay enough eggs were called non-arian chickens...

Instead of a two-valued orientation (good and bad, true and false) it is much more beneficial or more close to reality to have a multi-valued orientation. Any argument that someone says is not 100% true or false - it might have some truth in it, like 1% (somebody says workers unions are bad - maybe 1 workers union out of 100 is really bad) and we win by expanding our knowledge. So it's always useful to ask from the person who doesn't agree with you, why doesnt that person agree. Maybe they have some interesting examples from their life that can expand your knowledge as well. Maybe you can have a discussion, not an opposition.. maybe the truth is somewhere in the middle. :)
Profile Image for Gediminas.
146 reviews8 followers
June 28, 2021
I stumbled upon a reference to this book while reading Data and Reality: A Timeless Perspective on Perceiving and Managing Information in Our Imprecise World. It was talking about the inevitable gap between any data model and the reality it was built to represent. That seemed interesting.

So I purchased a copy of Language in Thought and Action and was not in any way disappointed.

The premise of the book is that cooperation through the use of language is the fundamental mechanism of human survival. The ultimate goal of using the language is to increase the chances for you and fellow members of the species to survive together.

And if the use of language causes disagreements or conflicts to deepen, then either the speaker, the listener, or both are doing something wrong. And there are many ways to slip - to mistake symbols for the things symbolized, to mistake judgements for facts, to confuse the levels of abstraction, to see debates as a two-valued black-or-white thing, to fail to recognize cultural changes in the society around you, etc.

The book is more than 80 years old now, but in the world of fake news, social media, ever faster cultural change, I believe it is as relevant - if not more - as when it was written.
Profile Image for Jorge Fuentes.
88 reviews11 followers
September 17, 2020
Old books are a great reminder that our society and ideas are really not that unique and unprecedented. This book has many points I wish everyone knew, but unfortunately, misunderstanding language still causes much unnecessary confusion today. The ideas should be required reading for a more educated population and show how many common, circular arguments especially political are really just confused misunderstandings of language. Perhaps this is the origin of the ideas, but I personally didn't learn much as the ideas are similar to those found in the book/blog series Rationality: From AI to Zombies by Eliezer Yudkowsky. I found Yudkowsky's version more articulate and fleshed out.

Key idea: Words are a map, not the territory. Arguments are often affective and intensional(guided by words alone), meant to stir emotion rather than reflect reality. Rarely is the argument "will the (extensional) results outweigh the (extensional) hardships involved?"
Profile Image for Becky.
12 reviews
March 28, 2022
I read this book in my 20’s and I am so glad to have reread it in 2022. It is still incredibly relevant. The references are not current but that made it even more impactful. I kept thinking I wish the author was still alive so he could analyze the impact of social media. Why read a book about semantics? As the author explains in the preface semantics is “the study of human interactions through communication”. That means this book is really about how society organizes itself through communication. So it’s about politics, religion, prejudice, social norms, cultural resistance to change, and the commercialization of emotion among other topics. If you have ever asked yourself “how can people act against their own best interests”, “how can the same facts be interpreted so differently by different people”, etc etc. this is the book for you. Just read it.
26 reviews
January 24, 2021
I stumbled upon this book thanks to reading Ancient Science Through the Golden Age of Greece which cites this book in a footnote.

It is one of the books that met my taste the most. No intellectual showoffs. The contents deal mainly with, as the author puts it, the confusion "between map and territory" which derives from the use of language, that is, forgetting that what we say, read, write and believe to talk about the real world is not the real world; it is an approximation, a useful tool for our aims - as a map is for the territory it depicts.
Profile Image for Jermaine Tucker.
26 reviews9 followers
May 2, 2019
As an english major and as a lover of all things language-related, this book is amazing. It taught me the difference between meaning and definition, connotation and denotation, definition and denotation. It gave interesting and unique perspectives on language and its interaction with different fields of study. One of my favorites quotes from this book is the following: it is NOT the act, but the meaning that one ascribes to it and what it symbolizes to them. As a result of this quote, I have been able to become more considerate and understanding of people emotions and feelings towards certain things because I realize what certain acts mean to certain people.
Profile Image for Bibek.
29 reviews1 follower
September 14, 2020
Undoubtedly makes it onto my top 10. Hayakawa expertly explores and dissects language in its practical uses and misuses. This book is one of those rare gems which teach you not just a new set of facts and ideas but entire frameworks of thought you can apply in day-to-day life.

With the slight bias of a software engineer with a love for abstraction, my favorite idea from this book was the Abstraction Ladder, the concretization of the idea that we use varying levels of abstraction in our speech but none of them capture the actual (“extensional”) thing (e.g. cow -> Bessie -> farm animal -> asset -> ...).
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Mohammed Almalki.
29 reviews2 followers
December 23, 2022
•كتاب 📚 يناقش اللغة وتأثيرها على الأفكار والأفعال! إذا كانت الطيور تعيش في الأعشاش والأسماك في الماء فإن الإنسان يعيش داخل نسيج مترابط مكون من الكلمات والمعاني يسمى (اللغة) يتصور الماضي ويعيش الحاضر ويني المستقبل! لا نستطيع في اليوم والليلة إلا أن نتحدث و نستمع و نقرأ و نشاهد وكل ذلك الكم الهائل من المحتوى والقصص والأحداث تعبر مسامعنا من خلال "الكلمات" بدون وعي أو أدراك لتلك الأشياء التي تسمى كلمات أو عبارات!

•يعرض الكاتب اللغة بأسلوب فيه شيء من الإعجاز عنها، لا يحاول أن يفسرها بطريقة مبتذلة ولذلك يحتاج القارئ التدبر والتأني في قرأة مثل هذه الكتب النادرة في طرحها وفكرتها وتأثيرها.

﴿خَلَقَ الْإِنْسَانَ عَلَّمَهُ ٱلۡبَيَانَ ﴾


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