Genetic Semantics

By Ferre Alpaerts, founder of genetic semantics

Whether intentional or not, all products and visual communicators convey a statement through their shape, colour, texture, via a part of language structures that deal with meaning, called semantics. Genetic Semantics explains the meaning of symbols from the genetic code. Perceptions are encoded and decoded unconsciously, they are classed according to structures proper to the nervous system and the brain. We experience this when we compare systems of symbols; for example, we can call a colour, sound or form “sharp”.


Semantics assume:

  • An outwardly, concrete significance of meaning out of the sensory (chair)
  • An inwardly, abstract significance of meaning that is genetically determined (to sit)

According to Genetic Semantics the processing of sensory stimulants and every mental function of brain and nervous systems is based on genetic encoding. All known life-forms have evolved from DNA. Not only the physiological life-forms but also the mental life has evolved from the oldest signs: 64 genetic codons or ‘words’ constructed from four chemical ‘letters’: T (thymine), C (cytosine), A (adenine) and G (guanine). The brain experiences sensory as well as emotional or intellectual stimuli via this code.

CITY of 8 introduces the semantic color space, a model based on the mathematics of genetic codon coding, that articulates the relation between meaning, emotion and elements of visual language. As a tool it provides a designer with components that have a seamless mental match. The story of the model however is not one from input to pattern to mental state, but from a hypothesis about mental state, related patterns, and expression into visual language.

A short history of semantics

Around 1920 three tendencies occupied themselves with the relationship between symbols and significance.

  • The axiomatic school tried to determine the significance logically through deductive derivations. The most famous work of this school is Wittgensteins Tractatus and it led to the publications of the Wiener Kreis.
  • The relativistic school found the axiomatic method too restrictive and attempted to ameliorate human communication by a psychological or philosophical approach. In Great Britain this school was represented by Lady Welby and in Holland by the Signific Circle with the poet Frederik van Eeden, the lawyer Jacob Israël de Haan, the mathematician L.E.J. Brouwer and the linguist prof. G. Mannoury.
  • The analytical school saw signification as a linguistic science. The fact that logical deductions are too narrow to determine the signification doesn’t, in this case, lead to relativism but to the search for another, adapted logic, using semantic markers and axes. The word “semantics” became known through The Meaning of Meaning (1923) of Ch.H. Ogden and I.A. Richards (pupil of Welby)

According to semanticists, language is not only a matter of references, conventional name-giving, observations and memory. These make up the surface of signification and explains the relative differences between languages and the changes in time. Signification also supposes a human capability situated in the brain, innate means that which explains the universal characteristics of language. Translation is only possible because all languages are compatible; i.e., there are universal standards hidden behind all cultural differences.

At first the official science of language rejected resolutely the possibility of innate knowledge. The most well-known objections came from the American linguist L. Bloomfield (1933) whose behaviouristic ideas have dominated education in the USA for 25 years. Mathematicians, who had experienced the limitations of the deductive method in logical paradoxes and Gödel’s theorem, sought and found an escape for these problems in semantics; for example, the Polish school with Alfred Tarski and J. Lukasiewicz.

At the start of World War II the relativistic school had ceased to exist. The Significa had even disappeared from Holland. Prof. Evert Beth, a mathematician and historian became the first defender of modern semantics in the Dutch speaking regions. The well known neo-positivist Rudolf Carnap changed his opinion under the influence of Tarski’s arguments and helped to spread semantics in the USA. As a result the neo-positivists started to defend a new version of the axiomatic method.

In 1957 Noam Chomsky’s first work was published. Chomsky states that the ability of language must contain a “generative grammar” i.e., innate and thus universal rules that allow grammatical senses to be produced. The method can be applied in each language in a specific manner. This is the relative aspect. Chomsky says that language is hereditary and that we should look for the genetic code behind language and also that there should exist – on a deeper level – a link between sounds and significations.

Most of Chomsky’s points are presently generally accepted by linguists. Steven Pinker’s, The Language Instinct, contains an impressive number of studies and arguments in favour of “generative grammar”. His cognitive-psychological starting-point tries to reconcile the new vision of hereditary knowledge with the behaviouristic tradition that dominates US universities. Pinker’s cognitive psychology studies languages as products of the brain (software) and the brain as a biological computer. Pinker gives arguments of children-psychologists, biologists, neuro-physiologists, computer specialists, linguists etc… proving that the existence of a thinking-language is not only possible but necessary.