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S I Hayakawa

Page history last edited by Michael Lowe 15 years, 2 months ago




Samuel Ichiye Hayakawa (1906-1992) was a Canadian-American English professor, scholarly author, United States senator, and communication theorist.  He is most commonly classified as a semanticist--a theorist that focuses on the different meanings of words at various levels of language.  He spent a great deal of his life teaching others at various institutions, and he later wrote books in which he conveyed his theories on language.  Hayakawa is generally classified as a thinker in the field of General Semantics.  Later in his teaching career, he began to lecture more on semantic topics instead of English and literature.  Since the two fields are so closely related, this change in Hayakawa's career could be seen more as a change in scope than a change in interest.   


Hayakawa also had a political career in the years after his authorship.  He was elected to the California state senate, serving from 1977-1983 [4], and was active in a movement proposing that English be the official language of the United States. [1]  He created U.S. English, a group that further supported this political objective.  His theories on communication were related to traditional linguistics and psychology, and his ideas are outlined in his book Language in Thought and Action.  Hayakawa's thought has relevance to Media Ecology because his theories deal with the spoken and the printed word as media and with the symbolic nature of human understanding.  Hayakawa passed away on February 27, 1992. [3]


Early Life 


Hayakawa came from average beginnings to his position as a major theorist of language.   He was born to Japanese immigrant parents on July 18, 1906 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada; he attended public schools in Calgary, Alberta and Winnipeg, Manitoba. [2]  His youth and early adulthood were shaped mostly by educational institutions. He focused on English in his postsecondary education, and he later developed an interest in the later field of linguistics.  He received a bachelor of arts degree in 1927 from the University of Manitoba, then attended the University of McGill in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, earning a master of arts degree in 1928. [3]  Hayakawa then decided to further his education.  He remained interested in learning about the English language and attended the University of Wisconsin from 1930 to 1935, obtaining a Ph.D. in English and American Literature from the University of Wisconsin. [2]  He would begin to form theories about language during his teaching career, and these theories would form the basis of his career as an author.  




Committed to the English language, Hayakawa again immersed himself in the academic world in which he had just excelled.  He had a successful career as a professor and university president while continuing to write. After earning his Ph.D., Hayakawa stayed at the University of Wisconsin as a professor of English.  He held this position until 1939.[3]  His teaching career continued as he developed his theories and sought to spread his ideas to larger groups of people.  Hayakawa then began teaching English at the Armour Institute of Technology, which is known today as the Illinois Institute of Technology, holding this position until 1947. [2]  He then went on to lecture at the University of Chicago from 1950 to 1955 and become a professor of English at San Francisco State College (now University) from 1955 to 1968. [3]  He was officially naturalized as a United States citizen in 1955 and became president of San Francisco State immediately after his career as a professor. [2]  Hayakawa continued to write and theorize about language and its effects and implications on human thought and action during his adult life while formally teaching and acting as an administrator at these institutions.




Hayakawa wrote many books on the subject of language's meaning and symbolic importance.  Some of his most influential books are Language in Thought and Action (expanded from his earlier book Language in Action:  A Guide to Accurate Thinking), Use and Misuse of Language, and Symbol, Status, and Personality.  He also contributed to the Funk & Wagnalls Modern Guide to Synonyms and Related Words.  Numerous editions of his works have appeared, especially Language and Thought in Action.  Hayakawa maintained the same purpose in his writings:  to educate readers about language from a semantic perspective--that langugage can signify or symbolize different concepts on different levels of abstraction.


Political Career


After his teaching career, Hayakawa worked as a university administrator; he dealt with student protests while he was president of San Francisco State College.  He desired a career in traditional politics, and entered into a governmental role after his administrative duties at San Francisco State ended.  Hayakawa represented the state of California as a Republican senator from the years 1977 to 1983. [3]  He advocated the responsible, respectful use of language in his political career just as he did as an author and educator.  As a California senator, the primary issue he dealt with was the variety of languages spoken there.  He pushed for legislation that made English the official language of the United States, and he founded the organization U.S. English after leaving the senate. [3]  He remained committed to language-related issues as an educator and politician, and he translated his theories about language into political concepts.  Even though he stepped out of the spotlight, he remained in a governmental position after leaving the senate in 1983.  He served as Special Advisor to the Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs from 1983-1990. [2]  Although best known as a semanticist, Hayakawa's political career was also a major accomplishment in his life; considering the issues he dealt with most often, his political agenda was inextricably tied to his career and passions as a semanticist. 


Hayakawa in the U.S. Senate. (courtesy of http://www.us-english.org/inc/about/hayakawa.asp)





Hayakawa wrote and theorized extensively on language, symbols, and human understanding.  He argued that human beings understand the world symbolically as part of their nature; he thought this ability is a uniquely human trait.  Hayakawa also argued that since humans understand symbols--and words, gestures, and sounds only represent symbols--words can mean anything and everything based on context.  Language in Action, Hayakawa's first book, was partly inspired by the theories of Alfred Korzybski and built upon the ideas Korzybski formulated. [4]  Hayakawa is known as many things:  English professor, California politician, language activist, and university administrator.  However, he is best known as a semanticist, or a theorist in a particular branch of linguistics.  In order to accurately understand Hayakawa's thought, it is necessary to understand what the field of general semantics was before he came along and also to understand how he changed it. 



General semantics was a intellectual theory and a study of language founded by Korzybski.  Korzybski originally argued that language itself actually limits humanity's understanding of reality by equating reality with words.  He asserted that language shapes the way that human beings think by assigning a sound to an object, process, or entity in reality while human beings, who are naturally symbolic, could potentially use any other symbol to refer to that object, process, or entity. [5]  This was the basis of general semantics that Korzybski postulated, and it sparked interest from a few major theorists, including Hayakawa.  General semantics was based on modern and postmodern concepts of the world and reality; it was related to the fields of "relativity theory, quantum mechanics, and mathematical logic" [5].  Essentially, general semantics originated as a field of study based on language and its meaning for humans, both in behavior and thought.  Hayakawa maintained this trajectory while adding his own theories that related to it.

(For a fuller understanding of general semantics and its major theorists, see General Semantics.)


Hayakawa argued that language limits the human ability to understand because speakers of every language, at some point, think of particular aspects of existence only as words themselves.  This sort of thinking results in inaccurate understanding of situations or events, to Hayakawa.  His theory revolves around the argument that people can understand their world more clearly when they understand that symbols only represent things--sometimes, not even accurately.  Being a true semanticist, Hayakawa understood that language can not always faithfully describe any process or event because of technological development, cultural change, governmental presence--and most importantly, because words, whether spoken or written, are only symbols.  In his book Language in Thought and Action, he calls readers to imagine the understanding that language gives humans as a map; he actually builds on the ideas of Korzybski, who first proposed the language-as-map model.  If a map had the same relationship to a hypothetical territory that various phrases in many languages have to experience itself, that map would have almost no relation to this territory, Hayakawa argues.  This idea has extreme importance for media ecology; language, in any printed or spoken medium, is dependent on this map-to-territory model and may not be an accurate representation of experience or memory.  




Hayakawa valued the human ability to understand symbols and saw it as something uniquely human.  For better or for worse, humans understand their existences in terms of symbols, whether they understand it or not.  Hayakawa's task, then, was to make people understand this, specifically through his theories about language.  Through all the complex, abstract ideas Hayakawa formulates and writes about, basic central themes are identifiable.  He writes in Language in Thought and Action that "There is...no necessary connection between the symbol and that which is symbolized"; he expands this idea by writing that maps are not territories and that words are not things. [6]  This seemingly simple idea changes one's entire perception of existence, and it is actually extremely cognitive and abstract.  Hayakawa points out the flaws in language by finding inconsistencies, differences over regions and languages themselves, and changes over time.  Different words can have almost exactly the same meaning; one word could have various meanings.  Furthermore, Hayakawa argued that sound is sometimes only used for self-expression instead of the actual communication of any meaning.  In his theories of language, the meaning of the spoken or printed word is completely dependent on context.  


Significance to Media Ecology


Hayakawa's ideas about symbol relate to the study of Media Ecology.  Following the media-as-species idea discussed in the discipline, each medium can be seen as competing with each other for legitimacy, or for accuracy, or for media consumers.  Understanding media as symbol is essential in understanding each medium as a competing species in a media environment; whichever medium conveys information or sensations most clearly or easily becomes the dominant medium--and it does so symbolically.  Hayakawa maintained that each human being is symbolic by nature, and his theories suggest the human need for media and symbol in every aspect of life.  However, Hayakawa would still argue that any medium, any system of symbols, is not a perfect representation of reality and needs to be treated as such.  When seen through the lens of Hayakawa's theory, media can be compared or criticized both individually and cooperatively, and students can realize the picture of media competition over symbolic understanding as it fits into the field of Media Ecology.        










1.  "Biography of Senator S.I. Hayakawa."  U.S. English.  2008.  U.S. English, Inc.  14 Nov. 2008 http://www.us-english.org/inc/about/hayakawa.asp 

2.  "S. I. Hayakawa."  Wikipedia.  25 Oct. 2008.  Wikmedia Foundation, Inc.  14 Nov. 2008 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S._I._Hayakawa

3.  "Hayakawa, Samuel Ichiye, (1906-1992)."  Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.  United States Government.  14 Nov. 2008 http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=h000384.  

4.  "Hayakawa, S. I."  Encyclopedia Britannica.  2008.  Encyclopedia Britannica Online.  11 Dec. 2008 http://search.eb.com/eb/article-9039644.

5.  "general semantics."  Encyclopedia Britannica.  2008.  Encyclopedia Britannica Online.  11 Dec. 2008 http://search.eb.com/eb/article-9036375.

6.  Hayakawa, S. I.  Language in Thought and Action.  New York:  Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972.  p. 26-27.


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