(Meaning of words)
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(Meaning of words)   (Meaning of words)





                                 The meaning

                              of english words





What Is "Meaning"?                                                  3

Polysemy. Semantic Structure of the Word                                  3

Types of Semantic Components                                        6

Meaning and Context                                                 7

What Is "Meaning"?

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

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

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

                 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

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

Its 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.

Its 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.

   .., ...   . - . .
   . 1999

   F.R.Palmer. Semantics. A new outline. - M. V.Sh. 1982


[1] Only a  fragment  of  the  semantic  structure  of  bar  is  given  to
illustrate the point.





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