Is "Meaning"? 3
Semantic Structure of the Word 3
of Semantic Components 6
and Context 7
What Is "Meaning"?
linguistic science at present is not able to put forward a
definition of meaning which is conclusive. However, there are certain
facts of which we can be reasonably sure, and one of them is that the
very function of the word as a unit of communication is made
possible by its possessing a meaning. Therefore, among the word's
various characteristics, meaning is certainly the most
speaking, meaning can be more or less described as a component
word through which a concept (mental phenomena) is communicated.
the word with the ability of denoting real objects, qualities,
actions and abstract notions. The relationships between “referent”
(object, etc. denoted by the word), “concept” and
“word” are traditionally represented by the following
(Concept = mental
(word) (object denoted
by the word)
the "symbol" here is meant the word; “thought”
or “reference” is concept. The
dotted line suggests that there is no immediate relation between
“word” and “referent”:
it is established only through the concept.
On the other hand, there is a hypothesis that concepts
can only find their realization through words. It seems that thought
is dormant till the word wakens it up. It is only when we hear a
spoken word or read a printed word that the corresponding concept
springs into mind. The mechanism by which concepts (i. e. mental
phenomena) are converted into words (i. e. linguistic
phenomena) and the reverse process by which a heard or a printed
word is converted into a kind of mental picture are not yet
understood or described.
branch of linguistics which specialises in the study of meaning is
As with many terms, the term "semantics" is ambiguous for
it can stand, as well, for the expressive aspect of language in
general and for the meaning of one particular word in all its varied
aspects and nuances (i. e. the semantics of a word
the meaning(s) of a word).
Semantic Structure of the
is generally known that most words convey several concepts and thus
possess the corresponding number of meanings. A word having
several meanings is called polysemantic,
and the ability of words to have more than one meaning is described
by the term polysemy.
is certainly not an anomaly. Most
English words are polysemantic.
It should be noted that the wealth of expressive resources of a
language largely depends on the degree to which polysemy has
developed in the language. Sometimes people who are not very
well informed in linguistic matters claim that a language
is lacking in words if the need arises for the same word to be
applied to several different phenomena. In actual fact, it is
exactly the opposite: if each word is found to be capable of
conveying at least two concepts instead of one, the expressive
potential of the whole vocabulary increases twofold. Hence, a
well-developed polysemy is a great advantage in a language.
On the other hand, it should be pointed out that the
number of sound combinations that human speech organs can
produce is limited. Therefore at a certain stage of language
development the production of new words by morphological means is
limited as well, and polysemy becomes increasingly important for
enriching the vocabulary. From this, it should be clear that the
process of enriching the vocabulary does not consist merely in adding
new words to it, but, also, in the constant development of polysemy.
system of meanings of any polysemantic word develops gradually,
mostly over the centuries, as more and more new meanings are added to
old ones, or oust some of them.
So the complicated processes of polysemy development involve
both the appearance of new meanings and the loss of old ones.
Yet, the general tendency with English
vocabulary at the modern stage of its history is to increase the
total number of its meanings and in this way to provide for a
quantitative and qualitative growth of the language's expressive
the semantic structure
of a polysemantic word, it is necessary to distinguish between
levels of analysis.
the semantic structure of a word is treated as a system of meanings.
For example, the semantic structure of the noun “fire”
could be roughly presented by this scheme (only the most frequent
meanings are given):
above scheme suggests that meaning (I)
holds a kind of dominance over the other meanings conveying the
concept in the most general way whereas meanings (II)—(V)
are associated with special circumstances, aspects and instances
of the same phenomenon.
(I) (generally referred to as the
centre of the semantic structure of
the word holding it together. It is mainly through meaning (I) that
(they are called secondary
can be associated
with one another,
some of them exclusively through
meaning (I) - the
as, for instance, meanings
would hardly be possible to establish any logical associations
between some of the meanings of the noun “bar” except
through the main meaning:
and (III) have no logical links with one another whereas each
separately is easily associated with meaning
through the traditional barrier dividing a court-room into two parts;
meaning (III) through the counter serving as a kind of barrier
between the customers of a pub and the barman.
it is not in every polysemantic word that such a centre can be found.
on a different principle.
In the following list of meanings of the adjective “dull”
one can hardly hope to find a generalized meaning covering and
holding together the rest of the semantic structure.
A dull book, a dull film - uninteresting, monotonous,
A dull student - slow
in understanding, stupid.
Dull weather, a dull day,
a dull colour - not clear or bright.
A dull sound - not loud
A dull knife - not sharp.
Trade is dull - not
Dull eyes (arch.) - seeing
Dull ears (arch.) -
is something that all these seemingly miscellaneous meanings have in
common, and that is the implication of deficiency, be it of colour
(m. III), wits (m. II),
etc. The implication of insufficient quality, of something lacking,
can be clearly distinguished in each separate meaning.
in interest or excitement.
deficient in intellect.
bright- deficient in light or colour.
deficient in sound.
transformed scheme of the semantic structure of “dull”
clearly shows that the centre holding together the complex semantic
structure of this word is not one
of the meanings but
a certain component
can be easily singled out within each separate meaning.
the second level of analysis of the semantic structure of a word:
is a subject to structural analysis in which it may be
represented as sets of semantic components.
The scheme of the semantic structure of “dull”
shows that the semantic structure of a word is not a mere system
of meanings, for each separate meaning is subject to further
subdivision and possesses an inner structure of its own.
of a word should be investigated at both these levels:
1) of different
2) of semantic
within each separate meaning. For a monosemantic word (i. e. a
word with one meaning) the first level is naturally excluded.
Types of Semantic Components
leading semantic component in the semantic structure of a word is
usually termed denotative
(also, the term referential
may be used). The denotative component expresses the conceptual
content of a word.
following list presents denotative components of some English
adjectives and verbs:
adj. - alone, without company …
notorious, adj. - widely known
celebrated, adj. - widely known
glare, v. - to look
glance, v. - to look
shiver, v. - to tremble
shudder, v. - to tremble
is quite obvious that the definitions given in the right column only
partially and incompletely describe the meanings of their
corresponding words. They do not give a more or less full picture of
the meaning of a word. To do it, it is necessary to include in the
scheme of analysis additional semantic components which are
above examples show how by singling out denotative and connotative
components one can get a sufficiently clear picture of what the
word really means. The schemes presenting the semantic structures of
“glare”, “shiver”, “shudder” also
show that a meaning can have two or more connotative components.
given examples do not exhaust all the types of connotations but
present only a few:
emotive, evaluative connotations, and also connotations of duration
and of cause.
Meaning and Context
It’s important that there is sometimes a chance of
misunderstanding when a polysemantic word is used in a certain
meaning but accepted by a listener or reader in another.
is common knowledge that context prevents from any misunderstanding
of meanings. For instance, the adjective “dull”, if used
out of context, would mean different things to different people or
nothing at all. It is only in combination with other words that it
reveals its actual meaning: “a dull pupil”, “a dull
play”, “dull weather”, etc. Sometimes, however,
such a minimum
fails to reveal the meaning of the word, and it may be correctly
interpreted only through a second-degree context as in the following
example: “The man was large, but his wife was even fatter”.
The word “fatter” here serves as a kind of indicator
pointing that “large” describes a stout man and not
a big one.
research in semantics is largely based on the assumption that one of
the more promising methods of investigating the semantic
structure of a word is by studying the word's linear relationships
with other words in typical contexts, i. e. its combinability
have established that the semantics of words which
regularly appear in common contexts are correlated and,
therefore, one of the words within such a pair can be studied through
They are so intimately correlated that each of them
casts, as it were, a kind of permanent reflection on the meaning of
its neighbour. If the verb “to compose” is frequently
used with the object “music”, so it is natural to expect
that certain musical associations linger in the meaning of the verb
Note, also, how closely the negative evaluative
connotation of the adjective “notorious” is linked
with the negative connotation of the nouns with which it is
regularly associated: “a notorious criminal”,
“thief”, “gangster", “gambler”,
“gossip”, “liar”, “miser”, etc.
All this leads us to the
conclusion that context is a good and reliable key to the meaning of
a common error to see a different meaning in every new set of
combinations. For instance: “an angry man”, “an
angry letter”. Is the adjective “angry” used in the
same meaning in both these contexts or in two different meanings?
Some people will say "two" and argue that, on the one hand,
the combinability is different (“man”
of person; “letter”
name of object) and, on the other hand, a letter cannot experience
anger. True, it cannot; but it can very well convey the anger of the
person who wrote it. As to the combinability, the main point is that
a word can realize
the same meaning
in different sets of combinability. For instance, in the pairs “merry
children”, “merry laughter”, “merry faces”,
“merry songs” the adjective “merry” conveys
the same concept of high spirits.
task of distinguishing between the different meanings of a word and
the different variations of combinability is actually a
question of singling out the different denotations
within the semantic structure of the word.
a sad woman,
a sad voice,
a sad story,
a sad scoundrel
an incorrigible scoundrel)
a sad night
a dark, black night, arch. poet.)
Obviously the first three contexts have the common
denotation of sorrow whereas in the fourth and fifth contexts the
denotations are different. So, in these five coniexts we can identify
three meanings of “sad”.
языка. - М. Изд.
F.R.Palmer. Semantics. A new outline. - M. V.Sh.