Deeper into Jeopardy! XXVIII: Linguistics – $2000

Jeopardy! category: LINGUISTICS (9-10-2014)

$2000 clue: “Problems with pinning down word meaning” is a section in a textbook titled this subject

Correct response

The gist: It’s rarely productive to argue about it, unless you’re a linguist. If you are, you might well make your living arguing semantics, the study of the meaning of words, phrases, and language in general. As you might suspect, that’s a pretty big job – what else is language for, after all, if not for expressing meaning from a speaker (be that a person, a book, a computer, a parrot, or anything else capable of conveying meaningful language) to another? Any phrase or sentence that a user of a language expresses packages a remarkable amount of information within itself, and that information needs to be unpackaged by the audience in order for it to serve its purpose. Semanticists are interested in each step in this process: how the speaker packages the information, how the package is delivered and received from the speaker to the audience, how the audience unpackages (that is, interprets) the package, whether as the speaker intended or otherwise, how the audience reacts, and how the whole process plays out again.

Intuitively, this is all simple: you talk, I hear, we understand or don’t. It happens all the time, and most people don’t feel the need to study how. But the fundamental problem of semantics is why language is capable of expressing meaning. Words are just sounds, or little shapes representing sounds, like these letters you’re reading right now. Just symbols. And there are thousands of different systems for using these and many other symbols to express things. Frankly, all of this is extremely complicated and requires a thorough understanding of logic, mathematics, computational theory, and many other fields, and I won’t really be able to express it all here (you can try here for a semanticist’s best attempt to explain what he does, but even he admits it’s not very good and that he’s never really met any semanticist capable of explaining it to laypeople any better). Suffice it to say that anyone who’s found themselves in a conversational dead end because they used a word or a phrase that they intended to mean one thing, but their audience interpreted as another, understands how complicated meanings can be, and can probably get an idea of how hard studying it can be as well.

An illustration of semantic misunderstanding – both the dog walker’s reaction, and our own understanding of the joke (from

The clue: The chapter title given in this clue seems to be a nod to the everyday usage of the word “semantics” – when someone in an argument feels the disagreement is about the meaning of words, rather than the actual issue at hand. Although that might be a shallow understanding of everything that semantics covers, it’s nonetheless a very important part, and the clue gets to it rather cleverly, instead of just offering a flat definition. As a pretty difficult and perhaps inaccessible part of linguistics, it’s good material for a $2000 clue, too.

In Jeopardy!: Semantics are in every single clue every read on Jeopardy!, but “semantics” is in just five. This one and one other give some sort of description of the subfield and look for its name. One names and defines semantics and then goes on to define and look for “etymology,” the study of a word’s origins rather than meaning, and another lists it along with phonetics as two subfields of linguistics. The last one, and maybe the most interesting, is about medieval philosopher Abelard (best known for his relationship with Heloise), who did important early work on semantic theory.


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