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3.1. The object of semasiology. Two approaches to the study of meaning.

3.2. Types of meaning.

3.3. Meaning and motivation.


3.1. The branch of lexicology which studies meaning is called " semasiology ". Sometimes the term " semantics " is used as a synonym to semasiology, but it is ambiguous as it can stand as well for (1) the expressive aspect of language in general and (2) the meaning of one particular word.

Meaning is certainly the most important property of the word but what is " meaning''?

Meaning is one of the most controversial terms in lexicology. At present there is no generally accepted definition of meaning. Prof. Smirnitsky defines meaning as " a certain reflection in the mind of objects, phenomena or relations that makes part of the linguistic sign, its so-called inner facet, whereas the sound form functions as its outer facet". Generally speaking, meaning can be described as a component of the word through which a concept is communicated, enabling the word to denote objects in the real world.

There are two approaches to the study of meaning: the referential approach and the functional approach. The former tries to define meaning in terms of relations between the word (sound form), concept (notion, thought) and referent (object which the word denotes). They are closely connected and the relationship between them is represented by " the semiotic triangle" (= the basic triangle) of Ogden and Richards (in the book " The Meaning of Meaning" (1923) by O.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards).




symbol referent

(sound form)

This view denies a direct link between words and things, arguing that the relationship can be made only through the use of our minds. Meaning is related to a sound form, concept and referent but not identical with them: meaning is a linguistic phenomenon while neither concept nor referent is.

The main criticism of this approach is the difficulty of identifying " concepts": they are mental phenomena and purely subjective, existing in the minds of individuals. The strongest point of this approach is that it connects meaning and the process of nomination.

The functional approach to meaning is less concerned with what meaning is than with how it works. It is argued, to say that " words have meanings" means only that they are used in a certain way in a sentence. There is no meaning beyond that. Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), in particular, stressed the importance of this approach in his dictum: " The meaning of the word is its use in the language". So meaning is studied by making detailed analyses of the way words are used in contexts, through their relations to other words in speech, and not through their relations to concepts or referents.

Actually, the functional approach is basically confined to the analysis of sameness or difference of meaning. For example, we can say that in " take the bottle " and " take to the bottle " take has different meaning as it is used differently, but it does not explain what the meaning of the verb is. So the functional approach should be used not as the theoretical basis for the study of meaning, but only as complementary to the referential approach.

3.2. Word meaning is made up of different components, commonly known as types of meaning. The two main types of meaning are grammatical meaning and lexical meaning.

Grammatical meaning belongs to sets of word-forms and is common to all words of the given part of speech,

e.g. girls, boys, classes, children, mice express the meaning of " plurality".

Lexical meaning belongs to an individual word in all its forms. It comprises several components. The two main ones are the denotational component and the connotational component.

The denotational (= denotative) component, also called " referential meaning" or " cognitive meaning", expresses the conceptual (notional) content of a word; broadly, it is some information, or knowledge, of the real-world object that the word denotes. Basically, this is the component that makes communication possible.

e.g. notorious " widely-known", celebrated " known widely".

The connotational (connotative) component expresses the attitude of the speaker to what he is saying, to the object denoted by the word. This component consists of emotive connotation and evaluative connotation.

1) Emotive connotation (= " affective meaning", or an emotive charge),

e.g. In " a single tree " single states that there is only one tree, but " a lonely tree " besides giving the same information, also renders (conveys) the feeling of sadness.

We shouldn't confuse emotive connotations and emotive denotative meanings in which some emotion is named, e.g. horror, love, fear, etc.

2) Evaluative connotation labels the referent as " good" or " bad",

e.g. notorious has a negative evaluative connotation, while celebrated a positive one. Cf.: a notorious criminal/liar/ coward, etc. and a celebrated singer/ scholar/ artist, etc.

It should be noted that emotive and evaluative connotations are not individual, they are common to all speakers of the language. But emotive implications are individual (or common to a group of speakers), subjective, depend on personal experience.

e.g. The word " hospital " may evoke all kinds of emotions in different people (an architect, a doctor, an invalid, etc.)

Stylistic connotation, or stylistic reference, another component of word meaning, stands somewhat apart from emotive and evaluative connotations. Indeed, it does not characterize a referent, but rather states how a word should be used by referring it to a certain functional style of the language peculiar to a specific sphere of communication. It shows in what social context, in what communicative situations the word can be used.

Stylistically, words can be roughly classified into literary, or formal (e.g. commence, discharge, parent), neutral (e.g. father, begin, dismiss) and non-literary, or informal (e.g. dad, sack, set off).

3.3. The term " motivation " is used to denote the relationship between the form of the word, i.e. its sound form, morphemic composition and structural pattern, and its meaning.

There are three main types of motivation: phonetic, morphological and semantic.

1) Phonetic motivation is a direct connection between the sound form of a word and its meaning. There are two types of phonetic motivation: sound imitation and sound symbolism.

a) Sound imitation, or onomatopoeia: phonetically motivated words are a direct imitation of the sounds they denote (or the sounds produced by actions or objects they denote),

e.g. buzz, swish, bang, thud, cuckoo.

b) Sound symbolism. It's argued by some linguists that the sounds that make up a word may reflect or symbolise the properties of the object which the word refers to, i.e. they may suggest size, shape, speed, colour, etc.

e.g. back vowels suggest big size, heavy weight, dark colour, front vowels suggest lightness, smallness, etc.

Many words beginning with sl- are slippery in some way: slide, slip, slither, sludge, etc. or pejorative: slut, slattern, sly, sloppy, slovenly; words that end in -ump almost all refer to some kind of roundish mass: plump, chump, rump, hump, stump.

Certainly, not every word with these phonetic characteristics will have the meaning suggested. This is, perhaps, one of the reasons why sound symbolism is not universally recognized in linguistics.

2) Morphological motivation is a direct connection between the lexical meaning of the component morphemes, the pattern of their arrangement and the meaning of the word.

Morphologically motivated words are those whose meaning is determined by the meaning of their components,

e.g. re-write " write again", ex-wife " former wife".

The degree of morphological motivation may be different. Words may be fully motivated (then they are transparent), partially motivated and non-motivated (idiomatic, or opaque).

a) If the meaning of the word is determined by the meaning of the components and the structural pattern, it is fully motivated: e.g. hatless.

b) If the connection between the morphemic composition of a word and its meaning is arbitrary, the word is non-motivated, e.g. buttercup " yellow-flowered plant".

c) In hammer -er shows that it is an instrument, but what is " hamming "? " Ham " has no lexical meaning in this word, thus the word is partially motivated. Cf. also cranberry.

Motivation may be lost in the course of time,

e.g. in OE wī fman was motivated morphologically: wī f + man " wife of a man"; now it is opaque; its motivation is said to be faded (woman).

3) Semantic motivation is based on co-existence of direct and figurative meanings of the same word,

e.g. butterfly – 1) insect; 2) showy and frivolous person.(= metaphorical extension of the direct meaning).


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