One of the books I am studying at the moment in my module about systemic functional grammar briefly discussed a metaphor about language and semantics that I thought was mind-blowing. Consider a chess board. Each piece, whether it a rook, bishop, king, or queen has an arbitrary shape we agree to recognize having certain properties. These properties define the role of the piece on the board, such that if we were missing a particular rook, we could replace it with a lighter, paperclip, or anything else.

As long as the people playing the game defined this substitute ¬†as having the exact same properties as the original, the game could continue without a problem. It would only be a problem if when playing the game of chess with this new piece, and one player lit another player’s king on fire (so to speak) with this ersatz rook that the game would cease, because the function of the piece wasn’t defined the same as the original.

This metaphor extends to language, with words meanings being arbitrary, and only defined in relation to one another. The word “s-h-o-e” only has “shoe-ness” because it has been assigned that, and has to be placed in a matrix with words such as “slipper” or “boot”, or “sock” and “foot” or “horn” to give it the proper context. There is nothing that makes “shoe” a “shoe” other than the context.

It’s only by teaching them in relation to their opposites, explaining where they can not substitute for one another and whatnot, where we can actually be able to explain what a word “means”. Explaining a list of vocabulary words to students only works within a context syntagmatic and paradigmatic relationships. You need to know what follows words, or what relationships the words can or can’t be used as a substitute to be able to clearly place a word within your mental lexicon of words you “know”.


This metaphor explained in a paragraph what it took several hundred pages of semantics reading over the course of many months to explain. I’m probably butchering it in my paraphrasing, but it stood out as something that blew my mind while I was reading about the details about grammar today for 6 hours. It’s rare that a grammar book can trigger a thought that changes your entire perception of how you relate words to one another, but this metaphor worked that way for me.