Making Sense

If we're learning language, we need to understand how it works. When we know how language works, we'll know how to teach it effectively. How to learn it better and faster.

That's why we ask in this post: How does language make sense?

Making Sense

Why do we say "making sense"? Think about that wording for a second. Make. Sense. To make sense. There is a relationship between our senses and making sense. When we hear a word, it is directly connected to sense. How?

For example, what is your sense of the word "apple"? If someone says the word, "apple," what comes to mind? Generally, the mental image of an apple. Maybe even how it tastes or feels. You will have a different mental experience to the words, "crisp, juicy apples," as opposed to, "mushy, wormy apple."


You may even have an emotional or visceral reaction to these words. Why? Because these words are deeply rooted in your sense experience. To the point where you can re-experience that sense of them...

That is why, when something means something, we say it makes sense.

Abstract Concepts

You may think, that's all well and good. Concrete words may "mean" something that way. But I'm not interested in the everyday language found in the street. I'm a sophisticated person, with sophisticated tastes. I'm interested in higher studies.

Well, we hate to burst your bubble. But our mind-maps of higher concepts are based in this everyday sense of language. How?

Abstract conceptuality is grounded in metaphor. That means that to grasp abstract language, we need to build our everyday, common-sense language first. Just take a look at the italicized words above—they are all fundamentally metaphorical. Let me give you an example specifically for Tibetan...

Improvement = "UP"

In English, we get the feeling that, when something "improves," it goes "up." Our fundamental metaphor for improvement is "rising" or "going up." Our sense of the word "improve"—to get better—is fundamentally tied to a feeling of "up." Just take a look at some of the synonyms for "improve:"

  • boost
  • increase
  • lift
  • raise
  • upgrade

What's the Tibetan word we usually translate as "improve?" ཡར་རྒྱས་(འགྲོ་), yar rgyas ('gro). We may be tempted to say, "Yes, it's exactly the same! To go 'up'!" But it's not... Yar is "up," sure enough. But rgyas is "out!" The Tibetan sense of "improvement" is up and out! (And really, mostly "out"!!!).

To take the point further, we may ask: "What are some words related to yar rgyas?" It turns out that 'phel is, in the mind-map of Tibetan conceptuality, closely related. As such, the connotation of something that goes "out" (rgyas, 'phel) is often positive. The "feeling" it gives, the sense of these words, is conceptually related to "getting better."

Why is it important?

This "everyday," "common," "base" idea is directly relevant to the aspiring textual translator. We've often seen, for instance, 'phel translated as "spread." But let's take a look at some of the words related to "spread."

Some negative stuff that "spreads:"

  • cancer
  • viruses
  • rumors

Some neutral stuff that "spreads:"

  • the word
  • arms
  • wings
  • butter, blankets, etc.

Other concepts, like "growth," might bridge these ideas better (by being a word with a generally positive connotation, that can also relate to expanding or widening). But the point is that we're missing something if we don't realize that words, or vocabulary, don't exist alone in a bubble. They have connections, relationships with other words, and these give them connotations, meaning, and sense. And that these senses are contextual, and grounded in basic, experiential metaphor... (the way seemingly neutral words can hold various connotations is sometimes called semantic prosody).

(Click here to search "spread" in a corpus of English, and note the neutral and negative collocates).

External Voice → Internal Voice → Sense & Meaning

In other words, if our Tibetan "mind-map" exists purely "in translation"—if we are thinking in English, we are comprehending in English—we miss the deep, internal sense of the Tibetan. The sense of how abstract concepts are inter-related. And that will affect how we understand the language, and contextual usage of its terminology, even at non-concrete levels.

We need to get an experiential sense of everyday Tibetan words to understand more sophisticated language! Speech, be it external or internal, is what mediates the process of connecting sense and language!