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I'm an English teacher and participate in the English Language forum. The question of word synonyms is very frequent. People ask if words can be substituted in sentences and still retain meaning, etc.

I feel that there is no such thing as "synonyms" because the pictures created in the mind of listeners and speakers are different for different words, and to complicate matters putting the words in sentences will produce different mental pictures / movies.

For example, if I ask 100 native English speakers what they imagine when they hear these two sentences, I feel that very different mental pictures / movies will be produced:

a) Please wash your hands. b) Please clean your hands.

Some would argue that "wash" and "clean" are synonyms, and that the meaning of both sentences are the same; remove dirt from you hands in whatever way you choose. I feel that they are not the same. I'm sure there are better examples to help my point. The words garbage, waste, pollution, trash, and rubbish, were discussed in another post.

I read Benjamin Bergen's book. I am an ESL teacher, and a big problem I have found is that students don't have the same mental pictures as native speakers for words. If I ask them what a word means they can say, but if I ask them what they imagine, the results don't always match or coincide with what native speakers would likely imagine, and I know that they will end up using the word incorrectly.

My questions are:

1) Does it really make sense to talk about "synonyms" in light of what we now know about how people process language?

2) Are there books besides Bergen's that explore the topic of language processing in the way his book did, i.e. language as a mental movie produced in the listener and speaker's mind?

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Technically no two words are identical, especially between speakers, but the term is still useful. Here's my answer borrowing from a few disciplines:

Semantics:

It may be useful to think of words in terms of their sense and reference. You can think of reference as the thing that the word/phrase 'points to' in the world, and sense as additional meaning conveyed by a word/phrase. If for example, you were to refer to your friend's dog as "Lassie", the reference of Lassie in this context is simply your friend's dog. If you referred to your friend's dog as a "mutt", then the reference of "mutt" is still your friend's dog. Both "Lassie" and "mutt" share elements of the same meaning--in that they have the same reference, but they differ in their sense. You could make the same argument for "wash" and "clean", though they may have the same reference they have different senses, therefore, they are not the exact same.

Cognitive Science:

How do we define words and phrases? It cannot be just a dictionary definition, because we know much more about what constitutes a word than what a dictionary attempts to do. One could extend the idea of a dictionary definition and compose a set of necessary and sufficient conditions that encapsulate a word's meaning (for example a dog could be something that is furry, four-legged...etc.) But this is problematic--for one it does not account for gradation across categories. Secondly, it is almost impossible to fully define categories such as "dog" and "chair" using necessary and sufficient conditions. (You could fill a book with conditions that could satisfy "chair" but can never work out a contingent system), finally, it leads to infinite regress. (For example, if we define a "dog" as something that is "furry", what then is are the necessary and sufficient conditions of "furry"?)--thus necessary and sufficient conditions don't have much use in natural language. An alternative is prototype theory (see: Eleanor Rosch), which asserts that a concept's meaning is graded around an idealized core. For example, you may have an idealized concept of "dog" (say, a golden retriever), and all other examples of dogs you see in the world lay on a spectrum in relation to your idealized representation of a dog. The farther away, or more different, the object is from the idealized core, the less "dog-like" it is. The interesting thing about prototype theory is that the idealized core is arbitrary--it varies from person to person. So one person's idea of a "dog" is not the same as another person. That means that the word does not mean the exact same from speaker to speaker, despite having very similar senses and references. From this we could conclude that no two speaker's englishes are the same. So even when comparing the same word, their meanings are not truly the same. The processes that involve how prototypes form in the first place are as much dependent on individual variation, as they are culture and language.

Phonology:

The Bouba-Kiki effect shows that speech sounds themselves may come to have meaning (see: sound symbolism). So the fact that your synonyms "wash" /waʃ/ and "clean" /klin/ have different phonological realizations means that they also have differing semantic implications.

Bringing it together:

As an ESL teacher you may be working with children who may have learned english explicitly--this is in stark contrast to native english speakers who learned english passively. ESL speakers may be comparing their native language (and prototypes) to english, thereby producing different conceptualizations of the semantic space english expressions explore.

So cognitively no two words are identical. From this you could claim that there are no "true" synonyms--but that doesn't mean that the term "synonym" is useless. Even though all words have multiple complex layers of meaning, some words have more semantic similarities than others, and that still bears pointing out as an interesting feature in language.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you so much. I teach adults at banks and tech companies...I'm more of a professional fixer...have to repair all of their mistakes in English. This is a constant problem in the classroom...I say something and I find out later that they understood but in their own way because they don't think of the words and expressions the same way. This also comes up in the Forums here when people ask for a word...I am surprised often at how much stretch there is in word meaning. $\endgroup$ – michael_timofeev Sep 18 '15 at 8:35
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I think you asked a couple of very interesting questions.

Here is my thought to the first question you mentioned.

People have different levels of knowledge/capability on things.

For example, for a toddler who is showing off his/her color recognition skills, it is probably all right to use 'red' for a range of colors from pink to magenta. However, for a professional graphic designer, it is not OK.

This applies to language skills too. 'Synonyms' to ESL students (for example: myself) may not necessarily be 'synonyms' to native English speakers. Similarly, 'synonyms' to native English speakers may not 'synonyms' to Shakespeare.

If you quantify the similarity among words, say, you give a score to a pair of words to indicate their similarity, then you certainly can define that all pairs of words with degree of similarity more than 128.57 (just a mock up number) are 'synonyms' and all pairs of words with degree of similarity less than 13.78 are antonyms. Of course, different people may assign different scores between two words. An ESL student may assign 250.12 between 'wash' and 'clean': that makes them become 'synonyms'. Whereas you, an export in English language,may assign 110.01 or less between the same two words, which make them not 'synonyms' to each other.

So, I guess, my comment to your first question is that: yes, it does make sense to talk about 'synonyms' but at the same time, people also need to keep in mind that the degree of similarity is different for different people.

Best regards,

Chris

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  • $\begingroup$ This raises an interesting question, but could one assign numerical values to a text to evaluate how well it can communicate an idea? For example if a word has a low synonym score this might make it more unique and thus better able to communicate meaning. $\endgroup$ – michael_timofeev Sep 18 '15 at 6:40
  • $\begingroup$ @michael_timofeev Hi Michael, many thanks for your comment on my post. The similarity score is an example I proposed to quantitative measure the distance between two words in semantics domain. Its a value assigned to a pair of words (instead of a single word). For example, one could assign a score of 130.51 to a pair of words: (pink, red) and assign a score of 23.88 to a pair of words: (pink, green). A single word by itself, doesn't have a valid similarity score. $\endgroup$ – Chris Gao Sep 19 '15 at 11:08
  • $\begingroup$ @michael_timofeev There are multiple ways to quantify similarity between words. One method I can think of is use survey questionnaire. For example, you may design a survey that have a list of words pairs, like red-green; wash-clean; touch-hit; love-hate; etc. For each pair of words, you ask subjects to give a score, say between 0 and 100, for similarity. Then, by statistical analysis your survey result, you may get a 'commonly agreed' similarity scores of these words. By varying your population size and target group, you may get different results, which can be an interesting research. $\endgroup$ – Chris Gao Sep 19 '15 at 11:17

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