The 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 important.
Generally speaking, meaning can be more or less described as a component of the word through which a concept (mental phenomena) is communicated.
Meaning endows 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 triangle:
Thought or Reference
(Concept = mental phenomena)
Symbol Referent
(word) (object denoted by the word)
By 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.
The branch of linguistics which specialises in the study of meaning is called semantics. 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 Word
It 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.
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.
The 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 resources.
When analysing the semantic structure of a polysemantic word, it is necessary to distinguish between two levels of analysis.
On the first level, 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):
The 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.
Meaning (I) (generally referred to as the main meaning) presents the centre of the semantic structure of the word holding it together. It is mainly through meaning (I) that meanings (II)—(V) (they are called secondary meanings) can be associated with one another, some of them exclusively through meaning (I) — the main meaning, as, for instance, meanings (IV) and
It would hardly be possible to establish any logical associations between some of the meanings of the noun “bar” except through the main meaning[1]:
Bar, n
Meaning’s (II) and (III) have no logical links with one another whereas each separately is easily associated with meaning (I): meaning (II) 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.
Yet, it is not in every polysemantic word that such a centre can be found.
Some semantic structures are arranged 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.
Dull, adj.
1. A dull book, a dull film — uninteresting, monotonous, boring.
2. A dull student — slow in understanding, stupid.
3. Dull weather, a dull day, a dull colour — not clear or bright.
4. A dull sound — not loud or distinct.
5. A dull knife — not sharp.
6. Trade is dull — not active.
7. Dull eyes (arch.) — seeing badly.
8. Dull ears (arch.) — hearing badly.
There 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), interest (m. I), sharpness (m. V), etc. The implication of insufficient quality, of something lacking, can be clearly distinguished in each separate meaning.
Dull, adj.
1. Uninteresting — deficient in interest or excitement.
2. … Stupid — deficient in intellect.
3. Not bright- deficient in light or colour.
4. Not loud — deficient in sound.
5. Not sharp — deficient in sharpness.
6. Not active — deficient in activity.
7. Seeing badly — deficient in eyesight.
8. Hearing badly — deficient in hearing.
The 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 that can be easily singled out within each separate meaning.
On the second level of analysis of the semantic structure of a word: each separate meaning 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.
Therefore, the semantic structure of a word should be investigated at both these levels: 1) of different meanings, 2) of semantic components 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
The leading semantic component in the semantic structure of a word is usually termed denotative component (also, the term referential component may be used). The denotative component expresses the conceptual content of a word.
The following list presents denotative components of some English adjectives and verbs:
Denotative components
lonely, adj. — alone, without company … notorious, adj. — widely known celebrated, adj. — widely known to glare, v. — to look to glance, v. — to look to shiver, v. — to tremble to shudder, v. — to tremble
It 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 termed connotations or connotative components.
Denotative Connotative components components
The 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.
The 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.
It 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 context 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.
Current 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 or collocability.
Scholars 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 the other.
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 “to composed”.
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 the word.
It’s 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” —name 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.
The 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.
1) a sad woman,
2) a sad voice,
3) a sad story,
4) a sad scoundrel (= an incorrigible scoundrel)
5) 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”.
Г.Б.Антрушина, О.В.Афанасьева. Лексикология английского языка. — М. Изд.
Дрофа. 1999
F.R.Palmer. Semantics. A new outline. — M. V.Sh. 1982

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