Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Semantics: Venn in Doubt



Hello everyone, Elizabeth here. Here's something I hate: I buy a delicious half-dozen doughnuts so that I'll have enough breakfast for a few days. After the doughnuts have sat for a while, the fabulous sweet coating on the glazed ones starts to get warm and soften, polluting the jelly doughnuts with its humidity so that when I finally go to eat them, the glazed ones drip everywhere, and the jelly ones taste soggy. This makes for a horrible breakfast, but it reminds me of a fun way to teach about semantics.

According to Wikipedia, a British lawsuit against the McVities corporation argued that the company's product, Jaffa Cakes, should be subject to the value-added tax on biscuits (cookies). The company successfully defended their claim that their product was a cake and not a biscuit (and therefore not subject to the tax) because cakes harden when they go stale, while biscuits/cookies get softer. I like to buy Jaffa Cakes for my students when it comes time for our semantics unit and see if, without this prior knowledge, they can come up with a consensus on whether what they are eating is a cookie or a cake. (You can obtain them online if they are not available in an import grocery near you). I first ask the students to give me a definition of "cake" and "cookie," then pass out the Jaffa Cakes and have them decide which term is the best fit. Most students do not think of the qualifier that was proposed in the lawsuit, and many feel that in spite of the staleness test, "cake" does not adequately identify the thing they are eating. (Many of the British public seem to agree).

I remembered this fun classroom activity while eating my soggy jelly doughnut recently, and wondered how my doughnut might hold up in court; could it be argued that my doughnut is a cookie? If not, what feature distinguishes a doughnut from a cookie (and from a cake)? I thought that perhaps this would be a good problem to introduce to broaden your lesson to include the concept that, according to many linguists, there are no "true" synonyms; every word has at least some distinct shade of meaning in at least one context that justifies its existence as a separate word in the language. To illustrate this for students, you might use a Venn diagram with interlocking circles for each item you want to compare (cakes, cookies, doughnuts, etc.). First have students propose features that they think define those items; then draw a Venn with the same number of circles as the number of items you are comparing, and as a class, decide where in the circles each identifying feature should go (does it describe just one item, or could it apply to two, or all three or more?). You can end the lesson by explaining to students that in the opinion of most linguists, every word has at least one feature in an "outside part of the circle;" your language could be conceived of as a series of overlapping circles (draw more and more on top of each other on the board), but no matter how many features any two words have in common, each one should theoretically have one part that is not shared with any other word. If it weren't so, why would it be necessary for the language to have that word? For whatever reason I notice a lot of students showing resistance to the idea of "no true synonyms" (I even had one test me by going to McDonald's and asking for a "Large Mac" and a "Big Coke," and he insisted that the cashier didn't bat an eye and gave him exactly what he intended to order), so the Venn illustration may help them see that words could be considered synonymous based on a significant number of features, while still retaining a tiny bit of uniqueness. It will also appeal to your visual learners.

Just be warned: though I have no idea how it is possible without getting quite a bit of chocolate under your fingernails, one of my students once managed to separate his Jaffa cake into layers and to extract the "squidgy orange bit" from the middle. He then threw it up high on the wall where, to his delight, it at least momentarily stuck. Don't mention to your students that this is possible, but be prepared in the event that you should have to deal with such a distraction.

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