Although the basic concern of the book is with «informal» semantics (not the formal brand of semantics concerned with, e.g. the computation of truth-value), i.e. the «symbolic» way in which utterances are used to convey meaning, it also raises the more cognitive issue of how language affects human thought and conditions behaviour, and addresses the resulting «ethical» question of how language should be used to achieve cooperation and understanding rather than confrontation and conflict. These questions (though viewed in a somewhat «optimistic» perspective) give the book additional value as one of the pioneering works in «critical linguistics», a discipline which was to develop only much later.
HAYAKAWA : A summary in 36 keywords (click on the keyword to read an example):
Semantics is primarily concerned with meaning and reference, i.e. what Hayakawa calls the relationship between the «map» and the «territory». At the word level, it will assess denotation and connotation of the terms used, e.g. individual (1) or collective (2) affective connotations (of linguistic items !), words with built-in judgments (3) snarl- and purr-words (4, 5) and euphemism (6). The issue of synonymy (7) belongs here as well, as do the phenomena of polysemy (8) and homonymy (9), which may trigger ambiguity and/or misunderstanding, or be used as attention-catching devices in headlines and advertising (10).
At the utterance level, where language operates in real-life situations, semantics will seek to distinguish between, for instance, report (11), inference (12), judgment (13) and other functions of language: directive (14), aesthetic (15) phatic (16) or presymbolic (i.e. not primarily referential) in some other way (17). The perception of the reality represented may be warped through verbal devices like slanting (18), language-induced stereotyping («the little man who wasn’t there», 19) or two-valued orientation (20; not just two different or opposite opinions: rather a manifestation of a thought-system that leaves no alternative to a binary view of reality), while multi-valued orientation(21) is one of the steps towards open-mindedness.
In a communicative situation, an utterance may be more or less context-dependent: the meaning may be «public» (22), group-related (23) or personal (24; do not confuse personal meaning with individual connotation !), while reference may be constative and univocal or «oblique»: irony (25) , allusion (26), insinuation (27: hints, innuendo),metaphor (informative, to convey a tentative truth (28) or evocative to convey emotional content (29)) and other «indirect» speech acts in which sentence meaning and utterance meaning come apart (30). But here as elsewhere, meanings intended one way by the speaker may be understood differently by the addressee or recipient (31).
In what Hayakawa calls intensional orientation, the thought and action of people is conditioned by the (accurate or misleading) image projected by words. Give examples of the various problems that may develop when people ignore contexts (32), confuse levels of abstraction (low-level abstraction 33, high-level abstraction 34, confusion of levels 35; not just any type of confusion !), or mistake maps for territories (36).