Semantic Satiation

Was killing time online yesterday when I came across an interesting article on Reddit about the phenomenon that occurs when you repeat a word over and over until it eventually loses all meaning. Turns out this actually has a special name: Semantic Satiation.

semantic satiation – where rapid seeing/saying repetition of a word, like canoe-canoe-canoe… produces a loss of meaningfulness, but repetition of a nonsense overt response having the same shape, nuka-nuka-nuka…does not.

As an English language teacher I run into this occurrence all the time. One minute you’re slowly helping a group of 1st graders navigate a word like “butterfly” and then, after about 100 corrections, it is suddenly just a sound; a noise arbitrarily assigned to a meaning. While this experience doesn’t really impact me in any way besides being kind of weird, it does help me better understand the plight of my students by putting me in their position, if only for a fleeting second or two. Where the word ends for me, it is really just beginning for them, as little more than a strange sound –  a shapeless tone that might as well mean nothing at all. As my understanding of the word melts away, for my students, it slowly solidifies. In the end, semantic satiation stands as further proof that language is not a rigid thing at all, but rather a fluid entity that can shift forms, like ice into water into vapor.

Related Viewing: “Words” (Live) – Doves


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