As our species designation – sapiens - suggests, the defining attribute of human beings is an unparalleled cognitive ability. We think differently from all other creatures on earth, and we can share those thoughts with one another in ways that no other species even approaches. Hundreds of millions of years of evolution have produced hundreds of thousands of species with brains, and tens of thousands with complex behavioural, perceptual, and learning abilities. Only one of these has ever wondered about its place in the world, because only one evolved the ability to do so…We tell stories about our real experiences and invent stories about imagined ones, and we even make use of these stories to organise our lives. In a real sense, we live our lives in this shared virtual world.
The doorway into this virtual world was opened to us alone by the evolution of language, because language is not merely a mode of communication, it is also the outward expression of an unusual mode of thought - symbolic representation.
Without symbolisation the entire virtual world... is out of reach…The way that language represents objects, events, and relationships provides a uniquely powerful economy of reference.
Reference is not the difference between alarm calls and words. Both can refer to things in the world and both can refer to internal states, but there is a difference. This difference is the source of the most common misunderstanding about the nature of linguistic versus nonlinguistic communication. It is a difference in the kind of reference. We tend to confuse different forms of reference with one another or else dichotomize referential versus non-referential communication, instead of recognising that modes of reference may differ may depend on one another in complicated ways.
The Reference Problem
What is the difference between the way a word refers to things and the way a vervet monkey alarm call, a laugh, or a portrait can refer to something else? Word meaning has always fascinated people because it is at once so simple and yet so elusive in the way it works. On the surface it seems to be no more than mapping or pairing between one thing and another - a sound or conventional set of markings (the signifier) on the one hand, and an object, process, or state of things (the signified) on the other. How the thing signified is brought into correspondence with the signifier is thought to distinguish different forms of reference. The difference between words and other means of referring to things appears to be the arbitrarity and conventionality of the linguistic link. But the little further probing into these relationships demonstrates that there must be more to it.
... two sets (or “planes”) of elements: signifiers (signs, words, pictures) and signified objects are associated by a conceptual relationship (semantics) that maps individual elements in one sets to those in the other. Most theories recognise the least two sorts of semantic or meaning relationships, transparent and opaque:
,,,those that link signifiers and signifieds by virtue of their similarity are “transparent” to the extent that they require no additional knowledge to “see” the one through experience of the other; and
those that link them by virtue of some arbitrary coding or mapping are “opaque” ...because they require knowledge of the code.
Gottlob Frege... provided a concise distinction between these two often confused aspects of word meaning. He distinguished between the sense of the term and its reference.
Its "sense" is the idea one has in mind that corresponds with considering a particular word or phrase.
This is distinguished from the "reference" of the same word or phrase, which is something in the world which corresponds with this term and its sense.
The logic of this distinction has influenced most subsequent theory is and is only slightly redefined by such complimentary terms as intension and extension.
A more complicated terminology is necessary, then, to differenciate betweeen the way thar words, as opposed to laughter and other non-language signs , refer to things. We need terms that cut beneath the word reference and from which word reference can be derived as a special case, since that is the way it evolved and the way it develops in each of us. Words are not just sounds, configurations of ink on paper, or light on a computer screen. What endows these otherwise inanimate things with the capacity to refer to other things is an interpretive process.
Ultimately, reference is not intrinsic to a word, sound, gesture, or hieroglyph; it is created by the nature of some response to it.
Reference derives from the process of generating some cognitive action, an interpretive response; and differences in interpretive responses not only can determine different references for the same sign, but can determine reference in different ways.
We can refer to such interpretive responses as interpretants (Peirce). In cognitive terms, an interpretant is what ever enables one to infer the reference from some sign or signs and their context. Peirce recognised that the interpretants can not only be of different degrees of complexity but they can also be of categorically different kinds as well; moreover, he did not confine his definition only to what goes on in the head.
Whatever process determines reference qualifies as an interpretant.
The problem is to explain how differences in interpretants produce different kinds of reference, and especially what distinguishes the interpretants required for language.
So, what are some of the interpretants of words? Probably the most common view of word meaning is that a word is interpreted when one generates a mental image of something that it refers to.
But the mental image (or neural processes that constitutes it) is only one sort of interpretive response that the word might elicit, and it may not be the most important one. A word also might bring to mind something like a dictionary definition, or another word that has related meaning, or it might induce us to act out some behaviour, or it might even produce a vague visceral feeling correlated with past experiences of what is referred to. All of these are interpretants, but the way they bring a particular word reference relationship into being can be quite diverse, and of course many can be present simultaneously.
The kind of interpretive response determines the nature of the reference relationship. The interpretant is the mediator that brings the sign and its reference together.
Differences in the form of reference are due to differences in the form of this mediation process. Though producing a mental image may be an inevitable product of comprehending certain words, it is not the mediator that distinguishes symbolic reference. A mental image may also be the primary interpretive action in numerous non-symbolic processes of reference.
The symbolic basis of word meaning is mediated, additionally, by the elicitation of other words (at various levels of awareness). Even if we do not consciously experience the elicitation of other words, evidence that they are activated comes from priming and interference effects that show up in word association tests. Words referring to abstract qualities, such as "justice", "false", and "peculiarity", that don't easily lend themselves to imagery, may produce word association effects that are just as robust as more concrete words.
… learning differences will produce different patterns of mental action, so to speak, and although what is referred to or maybe the same, this difference in the interpretive process will dictate the nature of the referential link that results. So, to distinguish forms of reference, we need to understand the learning processes that produce the competence to interpret things differently.
Learning more and more appropriate contexts does not in itself constitute understanding the meaning or significance. Yet, when we know what that phrase means, the problem of remembering all the applicable context becomes irrelevant, and innumerable novel contexts can be immediately recognised as appropriate. In between these alternatives there is not just the quantitative increase, but a radical change in cognitive strategy. Many have suggested that the key to this flexibility of word reference is arbitrarity. Inate calls and gestures have some features built in from birth, but learned vocalisations and movements can be freely associated with different external stimuli.