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Chapter 7 what is "meaning"?


Language is the amber in which

a thousand precious and subtle

thoughts have been safely

embedded and preserved

(From Word and Phrase by J. Fitzgerald)


The question posed by the title of this chapter is one of those questions which are easier to ask than answer 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 is communicated, in this way endowing the word with the ability of denoting real objects, qualities actions and abstract notions. The complex and somewhat mysterious relationships between referent (object, etc. denoted by the word), concept and word are traditionally represented by the following triangle [35]:



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. Probably that is the reason why the process of communication through words, if one gives it some thought, seems nothing short of a miracle. Isn't it fantastic that the mere vibrations of a speaker's vocal chords should be taken up by a listener's brain and converted into vivid pictures? If magic does exist in the world, then it is truly the magic of human speech; only we are so used to this miracle that we do not realize its almost supernatural qualities.

The branch of linguistics which specializes 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).

As Marip Pei puts it in The Study of Language, "Semantics is 'language' in its broadest, most inclusive aspect. Sounds, words, grammatical forms, syntactical constructions are the tools of language. Semantics is language's avowed purpose." [39]

The meanings of all the utterances of a speech community are said by another leading linguist to include the total experience of that community; arts, science, practical occupations, amusements, personal and family life.

The modern approach to semantics is based on the assumption that the inner form of the word (i. e. its meaning) presents a structure which is called the semantic structure of the word.

Yet, before going deeper into this problem, it is necessary to make a brief survey of another semantic phenomenon which is closely connected with it.


Polysemy. Semantic Structure of the Word


The semantic structure of the word does not present an indissoluble unity (that is, actually, why it is referred to as "structure"), nor does it necessarily stand for one concept. 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.

Two somewhat naive but frequently asked questions may arise in connection with polysemy:

1. Is polysemy an anomaly or a general rule in English vocabulary?

2. Is polysemy an advantage or a disadvantage so far as the process of communication is concerned? Let us deal with both these questions together. 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, let us say, at least two concepts instead of one, the expressive potential of the whole vocabulary increases twofold. Hence, a well-developed polysemy is not a drawback but 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 becomes limited, and polysemy becomes increasingly important in providing the means 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 either added to old ones, or oust some of them (see Ch. 8). 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 ϗV 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 IIV (they are called secondary meanings) can be associated with one another, some of them exclusively through meaning I, as, for instance, meanings IV and V.

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







Any kind of barrier to prevent people from passing.



Meanings 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.


I. Uninteresting, monotonous, boring; e. g. a dull book, a dull film.

II. Slow in understanding, stupid; e. g. a dull student.

III. Not clear or bright; e. g. dull weather, a dull day, a dull colour.

IV. Not loud or distinct; e. g. a dull sound.

V. Not sharp; e. g. a dull knife.

VI. Not active; e. g. Trade is dull.

VII. Seeing badly; e. g. dull eyes (arch.). VIII. Hearing badly; e. g. dull ears (arch.).

Yet, one distinctly feels that there is something that all these seemingly miscellaneous meanings have in common, and that is the implication of deficiency, be it of colour (m. Ill), 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.

In fact, each meaning definition in the given scheme can be subjected to a transformational operation to prove the point.


Dull, adj.


I. Uninteresting > deficient in interest or excitement.

II. ... Stupid > deficient in intellect.

III. Not bright > deficient in light or colour.

IV. Not loud > deficient in sound.

V. Not sharp > deficient in sharpness.

VI. Not active > deficient in activity.

VII. Seeing badly > deficient in eyesight.

VIII. 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.

This brings us to the second level of analysis of the semantic structure of a word. The transformational operation with the meaning definitions of dull reveals something very significant: the semantic structure of the word is "divisible", as it were, not only at the level of different meanings but, also, at a deeper level.

Each separate meaning seems to be subject to structural analysis in which it may be represented as sets of semantic components. In terms of componential analysis, one of the modern methods of semantic research, the meaning of a word is defined as a set of elements of meaning which are not part of the vocabulary of the language itself, but rather theoretical elements, postulated in order to describe the semantic relations between the lexical elements of a given language.

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: a) of different meanings, b) 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. To give a more or less full picture of the meaning of a word, it is necessary to include in the scheme of analysis additional semantic components which are termed connotations or connotative components.

Let us complete the semantic structures of the words given above introducing connotative components into the schemes of their semantic structures.

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. (For a more detailed classification of connotative components of a meaning, see Ch. 10.)


Meaning and Context


In the beginning of the paragraph entitled "Polysemy" we discussed the advantages and disadvantages of this linguistic phenomenon. One of the most important "drawbacks" of polysemantic words is that there is sometimes a chance of misunderstanding when a word is used in a certain meaning but accepted by a listener or reader in another. It is only natural that such cases provide stuff of which jokes are made, such as the ones that follow:


Customer. I would like a book, please.

Bookseller. Something light?

Customer. That doesn't matter. I have my car with me.


In this conversation the customer is honestly misled by the polysemy of the adjective light taking it in the literal sense whereas the bookseller uses the word in its figurative meaning "not serious; entertaining".

In the following joke one of the speakers pretends to misunderstand his interlocutor basing his angry retort on the polysemy of the noun kick:


The critic started to leave in the middle of the second act of the play.

"Don't go," said the manager. "I promise there's a terrific kick in the next act."

"Fine," was the retort, "give it to the author."1


Generally speaking, it is common knowledge that context is a powerful preventative against 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, a dull razor-blade, 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 what Professor N. Amosova termed a second-degree context [1], 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 characterized by common occurrences (i. e. 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.

Thus, if one intends to investigate the semantic structure of an adjective, one would best consider the adjective in its most typical syntactical patterns A + N (adjective + noun) and N + l + A (noun + link verb + adjective) and make a thorough study of the meanings of nouns with which the adjective is frequently used.

For instance, a study of typical contexts of the adjective bright in the first pattern will give us the following sets: a) bright colour (flower, dress, silk, etc.), b) bright metal (gold, jewels, armour, etc.), c) bright student (pupil, boy, fellow, etc.), d) bright face (smile, eyes, etc.) and some others. These sets will lead us to singling out the meanings of the adjective related to each set of combinations: a) intensive in colour, b) shining, c) capable, d) gay, etc.

For a transitive verb, on the other hand, the recommended pattern would be V + N (verb + direct object expressed by a noun). If, for instance, our object of investigation are the verbs to produce, to create, to compose, the correct procedure would be to consider the semantics of the nouns that are used in the pattern with each of these verbs: what is it that is produced? created? composed?

There is an interesting hypothesis that the semantics of words regularly used in common contexts (e. g. bright colours, to build a house, to create a work of art, etc.) 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, isn't it natural to expect that certain musical associations linger in the meaning of the verb to compose?

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. Yet, even the jokes given above show how misleading this key can prove in some cases. And here we are faced with two dangers. The first is that of sheer misunderstanding, when the speaker means one thing and the listener takes the word in its other meaning.

The second danger has nothing to do with the process of communication but with research work in the field of semantics. A common error with the inexperienced research worker is to see a different meaning in every new set of combinations. Here is a puzzling question to illustrate what we mean. Cf.: 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 whether they are directly experienced by the children (in the first phrase) or indirectly expressed through the merry faces, the laughter and the songs of the other word groups.

The task of distinguishing between the different meanings of a word and the different variations of combinability (or, in a traditional terminology, different usages of the word) is actually a question of singling out the different denotations within the semantic structure of the word.


Cf.: 1) a sad woman,

2) a sad voice,

3) a sac? story,

4) a sad scoundrel (= an incorrigible scoundrel)

5) a sad night (= a dark, black night, arch. poet.)


How many meanings of sad can you identify in these contexts? 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 contexts we can identify three meanings of sad.

All this leads us to the conclusion that context is not the ultimate criterion for meaning and it should be used in combination with other criteria. Nowadays, different methods of componential analysis are widely used in semantic research: definitional analysis, transformational analysis, distributional analysis. Yet, contextual analysis remains one of the main investigative methods for determining the semantic structure of a word.




I. Consider your answers to the following.


1. What is understood by "semantics"? Explain the term "polysemy".

2. Define polysemy as a linguistic phenomenon. Illustrate your answer with your own examples.

3. What are the two levels of analysis in investigating the semantic structure of a word?

4. What types of semantic components can be distinguished within the meaning of a word?

5. What is one of the most promising methods for investigating the semantic structure of a word? What is understood by collocability (combinability)?

6. How can one distinguish between the different meanings of a word and the different variations of combinability?


II. Define the meanings of the words in the following sentences. Say how the meanings of the same word are associated one with another.


1.I walked into Hyde Park, fell flat upon the grass and almost immediately fell asleep. 2. a) 'Hello', I said, and thrust my hand through the bars, whereon the dog became silent and licked me prodigiously, b) At the end of the long bar, leaning against the counter was a slim pale individual wearing a red bow-tie. 3. a) I began to search the flat, looking in drawers and boxes to see if I could find a key. b) I tumbled with a sort of splash upon the keys of a ghostly piano, c) Now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music and the opera of voices pitches a key higher, d) Someone with a positive manner, perhaps a detective, used the expression 'madman' as he bent over Welson's body that afternoon, and the authority of his voice set the key for the newspaper report next morning. 4. a) Her mouth opened crookedly half an inch, and she shot a few words at one like pebbles. b) Would you like me to come to the mouth of the river with you? 5. a) I sat down for a few minutes with my head in ray hands, until I heard the phone taken up inside and the butler's voice calling a taxi. b) The minute hand of the electric clock jumped on to figure twelve, and, simultaneously, the steeple of St. Mary's whose vicar always kept his clock by the wireless began its feeble imitation of Big Ben. 6. a) My head felt as if it were on a string and someone were trying to pull it off. b) G. Quartermain, board chairman and chief executive of Supernational Corporation was a bull of a man who possessed more power than many heads of the state and exercised it like a king.


III. Copy out the following pairs of words grouping together the ones which represent the same meaning of each word. Explain the different meanings and the different usages, giving reasons for your answer. Use dictionaries if necessary.


smart, adj.

smart clothes, a smart answer, a smart house, a smart garden, a smart repartee, a smart officer, a smart blow, a smart punishment


stubborn, adj.

a stubborn child, a stubborn look, a stubborn horse, stubborn resistance, a stubborn fighting, a stubborn cough, stubborn depression


sound, adj.

sound lungs, a sound scholar, a sound tennis-player, sound views, sound advice, sound criticism, a sound ship, a sound whipping


roof, n.

edible roots, the root of the tooth, the root of the matter, the root of all evil, square root, cube root


perform, v.

to perform one's duty, to perform an operation, to perform a dance, to perform a play


kick, v.

to kick the ball, to kick the dog, to kick off one's slippers, to kick smb. downstairs


IV. The verb "to take" is highly polysemantic in Modern English. On which meanings of the verb are the following jokes based? Give your own examples to illustrate the other meanings of the word.


1. "Where have you been for the last four years?" "At college taking medicine." "And did you finally get well?"


2. "Doctor, what should a woman take when she is run down?"

"The license number, madame, the license number."


3.Proctor (exceedingly angry): So you confess that this unfortunate Freshman was carried to this frog pond and drenched. Now what part did you take in this disgraceful affair?

Sophomore (meekly): The right leg, sir.


V. Explain the basis for the following jokes. Use the dictionary when in doubt.


1. Caller: I wonder if I can see your mother, little boy. Is she engaged9

Willie: Engaged! She's married.


2. Booking Clerk (at a small village station):

You'll have to change twice before you get to York.

Villager (unused to travelling): Goodness me! And I've only brought the clothes I'm wearing.


3. The weather forecaster hadn't been right in three months, and his resignation caused little surprise. His alibi, however, pleased the city council.

"I can't stand this town any longer," read his note. "The climate doesn't agree with me."

4.Professor: You missed my class yesterday, didn't you?

Unsubdued student: Not in the least, sir, not in the least.


5. "Papa, what kind of a robber is a page?" "A what?"

"It says here that two pages held up the bride's train."


VI. Choose any polysemantic word that is well-known to you and illustrate its meanings with examples of your own. Prove that the meanings are related one to another.


VII. Read the following jokes. Analyse the collocability of the italicized words and state its relationship with the meaning.


1. Lad (at party): Where is that pretty maid who was passing our cocktails a while ago?

Hostess: Oh, you are looking for a drink?

Lady: No, I'm looking for my husband.


2. Peggy: I want to help you, Dad. I shall get the dress-maker to teach me to cut out gowns.

Dad: I don't want you to go that far. Peg, but you might cut out cigarettes, and taxi bills.


3. There are cynics who claim that movies would be better if they shot less films and more actors.


4. Killy: Is your wound sore, Mr. Pup?

Mr. Pup: Wound? What wound?

Kitty: Why, sister said she cut you at the dinner last night.


VIII. Try your hand at being a lexicographer. Write simple definitions to illustrate as many meanings as possible for the following polysemantic words. After you have done it, check your results using a dictionary.


Face, heart, nose, smart, to lose.


IX. Try your hand at the following research work.


a. Illustrate the semantic structure of one of the following words with a diagram; use the dictionary if necessary.


Foot, .; hand, .; ring, .; stream, n.; warm, adj.; green, adj.; sail, n.; key, n.; glass, .; eye, n.

b. Identify the denotative and connotative elements of the meanings in the following pairs of words.


To conceal to disguise, to choose to select, to draw to paint, money cash, photograph picture, odd queer.


c. Read the entries for the English word "court" and the Russian "" in an English-Russian and Russian-English dictionary. Explain the differences in the semantic structure of both words.


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