So again this week I thought I’d talk about some fun linguistics terms, in this case semantics and pragmatics.
“Stop arguing semantics!” is probably something that everyone has heard at some point – but when it’s used, it’s not generally semantics that’s actually being discussed – it’s pragmatics.
Basically, semantics, in linguistics, is the study of words and meaning in the dictionary sense of things – the literal definitions. Pragmatics, on the other hand, is the related field of study of words and meaning in a given context.
So when someone says they’re arguing semantics – they’re usually talking about what a word means in a specific context, and are therefore actually arguing pragmatics – using a pragmatic definition of the word ‘semantics’.
…I really hope that sentence makes as much sense to all of you as it does to me.
But it does bring us around to some questions that are just as much fun as the above linguistics terms – namely, perhaps, the semantic versus pragmatic meanings of the Bible.
After all, it’s very easy to take Bible verses out of context and say, ‘this means ____’. But often, if you look at that same verse in the context of the book and chapter it’s in, you get a different meaning – a pragmatic meaning instead of a semantic one, so to speak. Add in the historical context, who wrote the book and verse in question, and what their context was, and things get…messy.
I’m not sure I have any kind of universal answer as to how to untangle all that mess – but the question is an important one, and it matters, very much, that we always think to ask it, that we always seek to find the meanings that were meant, rather than the figurative dictionary definition that serves our purposes.