What Is a Word?

Today I want to investigate a deceptively simple question: What is a word?

In a previous entry, I explored why we tell stories, and I will continue that investigation in future entries. For now, I wanted to change tracks from story investigation to language investigation, because in order to tell a story, one must understand how language works. I will attempt these investigations without the aid of dictionary definitions, preferring to go into the problem myself to gain a better, more immediate understanding.

Why the word and not the sound or letter? The sound and the letter do not hold meaning on their own; that is, the ‘s’ sound does not mean anything, and the letter ‘S’ is only a symbol for that sound and for itself, and does not having meaning besides that (with the obvious exception of one-letter words, acronyms, initials, etc.).

I can observe this with a simple exercise. If I say or write, “t y r q q p l w m,” I can see there is no meaning. Neither the sounds (you can try to pronounce that sequence of letters if you want) nor the letters have meaning on their own (again, excepting the meaning they hold in reference to themselves). But there is meaning in words, there is something being conveyed, and so it is with words I will begin.

I want to make a quick note before moving forward: When I talk about words, I am talking about the spoken and written word. I refer to them in their spoken and written forms interchangeably.

So what is a word? Dance. Cat. Happy. The. Near. Escalator. Beat. These are independent combinations of sounds that I have learned to associate with certain ideas through experience, instruction, or study. I can observe this when I hear the word ‘cat.’ My mind recognizes the word and points to a list of attributes associate with that word. My mind does not instantly recall everything I know about cats, but it prepares itself, focusing its attention on this word, hooking into it, you might say. Then if someone says “This cat eats only metal,” I would be surprised, and hesitant to believe them, because the word ‘cat’ points to my ideas about cats and their related ideas, which do not include cats (or any living thing) eating metal.

The same goes for words like “a” and “the.” I have learned to associate these words with ideas regarding specificity. If someone says, “I need to feed a cat,” it is different than saying, “I need to feed the cat.” In the first sentence, the word “a” tells me that this person has a need to feed any cat, because I have learned to associate the word “a” before a word with a general identification. In the second sentence, the word “the” tells me that this person needs to feed a particular cat, because I have learned to associate the word “the” before a word with a specific identification.

Words seem to be akin to folder names on my computer. They are identifiers, which can contain any number of associated folders and files (identifiers and ideas). To take this metaphor further, consider that I can have linked folders, or shortcut folders and files on my computer, meaning some folders and files within other folders are references to folders and files in different parts of my computer.

For example, when that person said, “This cat eats only metal,” I might have a folder under “cat” called “eats,” and within that folder, several files about what cats eat. But there might also be a folder called “doesn’t eat” which holds a shortcut folder to a folder under “all living things” elsewhere on my computer, which contains the file “metal.” I hope I am being clear, but I fear I am making a mess of things. The important thing to take away is that words are identifiers which point to hierarchical lists of ideas stored in my memory which are often linked with other identifiers pointing to other hierarchies of ideas.

The group of ideas that a word points to can be anything of any type — a person, place, or thing — and serve many purposes. We know the categorizations of these purposes as the parts of speech: nouns, which identify things; verbs, which identity actions; objects, which receive or are affected by the action of verbs; and so on. I think it is worth taking the time to go into the different categories of words for myself, but I don’t have time today, and it is not necessary at the moment, because the categories are included within the ideas associated with a word. The word “run,” for example, is an identifier for the action of using ones legs to propel oneself forward at a pace faster than usual. I don’t necessarily need to know it is called a verb, because I know what it does. The same goes for the word “cat,” which in an identifier for a thing, a living thing with four legs, fur, whiskers, which purrs and pounces, and can often be found acting a fool on YouTube. I don’t need to know it is called a noun.

What’s important is that I now understand what a word is: an identifier for a group of ideas which can have any number of connected ideas. Later I will investigate the categories of words as it becomes necessary.

That’s all I have time for today. I will take some time to think on these things. My next task is to take what I’ve learned about words and move on to the investigation of another deceptively simple question: What is a sentence?






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