There are two opposite theories of semantics. By one theory, if you find yourself at an international event or an airport lounge sharing a coffee, you come from opposite sides of the world, have no language in common, there are no interpreters around, and the other person’s language is not included in Google Translate, and you want to say that you are committed to diversity and sustainability, you don’t need to make sure that your conversation partner’s language has the basis for such ideas because semantics are essentially universal. They are based in a universal system of human reasoning and respect for life. They can always be translated somehow, even if this is difficult, because they are universal ideas. By the other theory, with a very deep history in human culture, semantics is relative, influenced or even determined by ways of life and accidents of what a language happens to include in its lexicon. A strong version of the second theory is known as ‘the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis’. The framework here is strongly committed to the first theory.
By the universal theory, semantics falls outside the ‘Leanability space’ and thus does not need to be learnt. So children do not normally have to be told that some things can be painful, that it is possible to fall down stairs, that there is such a thing as possibility, and that this is different from the permanence of things like footballs and people which can appear and disappear. There are difficult ideas, like the fact that quantity and quality can vary by infinite degrees. One subtle set of ideas involves the understanding of relative location. But none of these things need to be taught in school or explained at home. It may need to be pointed out that a kettle full of boiling water or a sharp knife are both potentially dangerous. But the idea of danger and pain does not need to be raised. It is obvious from the first painful experience, though it may need to be pointed out is that some things are more dangerous than others.
Noam Chomsky (1995b) exampled the apparent universality of semantics by the notion of ‘nearness’. Obviously ‘near London’ and ‘near the cat’s nose’, involve different distances. But the notion of nearness excludes other frames of reference. If some bird or insect is flying a certain distance from the surface of a mountain, it might be said to be flying ‘near the mountain’. But if it flies into a cave on the mountain, it could no longer be said to be ‘near the mountain’, but only ‘in the cave’. Nearness denotes the immediacy of a frame of reference rather any degree of proximity. On is widely supposed to involve a notion of verticality, where one entity is above another, closer to the sky, further from the ground. But a barnacle makes its home ‘on the bottom of a ship’, a fly stops ‘on the ceiling’, reversing the polarity. Rather than denoting verticality, on denotes perceptbility in relation to some surface. Similarly, under is widely thought to involve the polar opposite of on. But a submarine travels ‘under water’, meaning that it travels under the surface of the water, rather than in the sediment on the sea floor. In relation to the surface, it is out of sight. Dishes ‘in the sink’ or someone ‘in the bath’ are not said to be ‘under water’, but ‘in the water’ because they are mostly visible. A duck swimming on the surface of a pond is said to be ‘in the water’ as long as it is on the surface, but ‘under water’ as soon as it dives. In thus denotes some degree of enclosure, more or less completely in a bottle, but only partially in England with reference to Eel Pie Island, surrounded by water as the name suggests. What appears to be universal here is the frame of reference and the degree of visibility rather than a spatial relation.
By the Sapir Whorf hypothesis, meanings understood by people in Stone Age cultures are likely to be different from those of people born in modern capital cities. Not having traveled any further than to parts of Europe where the wood for cooking and heating still has to be collected day by day, I still see no reason for any questioning about the accessibility of any ideas. Some things, like string theory and biolinguistics, are hard to explain. It may take effort and skill. I once struggled to explain what sociology was to some traveling Romany hosts who had almost saved my life. They had big cars and bigger caravans. But their lives were outside much of the modern world. They wanted to know what I did. I said I was studying. What? they asked. I tried to answer, but failed miserably. I couldn’t put the idea of sociology into terms which would have been meaningful to them.
There are significant cross-linguistic variations in colour terminology. Russian has one term for dark blue and another for light blue. Scottish Gaelic has different terms for bright green and something more like military khaki. Some languages have colour vocabularies much more limited than this. Numerous experiments have been carried out attempting to see how far these differences affect colour perception and memory. But the significance of this experimentation seems to me an open question.
In my clinical experience, girls of seven, eight and nine, tend to have larger vocabularies of colour terms than boys of the same age. They may discuss fashion with one another for longer and more attentively. But there may be no significance here other than in relation to the culture of gender.
Perversely, the notion of a universal semantics was taken for granted by those who assumed that slaves could be ‘taught a lesson’ without a single word of explanation in a commonly shared language, as it is still thought that ‘human animals’ deserve to be punished. If they are not fully human, how can they understand or learn?