Glossary Item

system of meaning

A system of meaning is a set of relationships between one group of variables (like words, behaviors, physical symbols, etc.) and the meanings which are attached to them. Relationships in meaning systems are arbitrary: there is no particular reason why the word "cat" should refer to a furry four-legged animal, for example. However, when a society agrees upon certain relationships between a certain class of variable (like words or behaviors) and their meanings, a system of meaning is established. Language is perhaps the most formal of human meaning systems. At the same time, we all know what it means to wink at someone or to give someone "the finger"; this suggests that human behavior, like language, can be a part of a complex and established system of meaning.


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