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DENOTATIVE AND CONNOTATIVE MEANING




In the previous paragraphs we emphasised the complexity of word meaning and mentioned its possible segmentation into denotative and connotative meaning. In this paragraph we shall analyse these in greater detail. In most cases the denotative meaning is essentially cognitive: it conceptualises and classifies our experience and names for the listener some objects spoken about. Fulfilling the significative and the communicative functions of the word it is present in every word and may be regarded as the central factor in the functioning of language.

The expressive function of the language with its orientation towards the speaker’s feelings, and the pragmatic function dealing with the effect of words upon listeners are rendered in connotations. Unlike the denotative meaning, connotations are optional.

The description of the denotative meaning or meanings is the duty of lexicographers in unilingual explanatory dictionaries. The task is a difficult one because there is no clear-cut demarcation line between the semantic features, strictly necessary for each definition, and those that are optional. A glance at the definitions given in several dictionaries will suffice to show how much they differ in solving the problem. A cat, for example, is defined by Hornby as “a small fur-covered animal often kept as a pet in the house”. Longman in his dictionary goes into greater detail: a cat is “a small animal with soft fur and sharp teeth and claws, often kept as a pet, or in buildings to catch mice”. The Chambers Dictionary gives a scientific definition — “a cat is a carnivore of the genus Felix, esp. the domesticated kind”.

The examples given above bring us to one more difficult problem. Namely, whether in analysing a meaning we should be guided by all that science knows about the referent, or whether a linguist has to formulate the simplest possible concept as used by every speaker. If so, what are the features necessary and sufficient to characterise the referent? The question was raised by many prominent scientists, the great Russian philologist A. A. Potebnya among them. A. A. Potebnya distinguished the “proximate” word meaning with the bare minimum of characteristic features as used by every speaker in everyday life, and the “distant” word meaning corresponding to what specialists know about the referent. The latter type we could have called ‘special’ or ‘terminological’ meaning. A. A. Potebnya maintained that linguistics is concerned only with the first type. The problem is by no means simple, especially for lexicographers, as is readily seen from the above lexicographic treatment of the word cat.

The demarcation line between the two types is becoming more fluid; with the development of culture the gap between the elementary notions of a layman and the more and more exact concepts of a specialist narrows in some spheres and widens in others. The concepts themselves are

 

 

constantly changing. The speakers’ ideolects vary due to different life experience, education and other extra-linguistic factors.

The bias of studies depends upon their ultimate goals.

If lexicology is needed as the basis for language teaching in engineering colleges, we have to concentrate on terminological semantics, if on the other hand it is the theory necessary for teaching English at school, the meaning with the minimum semantic components is of primary importance. So we shall have to concentrate on this in spite of all its fuzziness.

Now, if the denotative meaning exists by virtue of what the word refers to, connotation is the pragmatic communicative value the word receives by virtue of where, when, how, by whom, for what purpose and in what contexts it is or may be used. Four main types of connotations are described below. They are stylistic, emotional, evaluative and expressive or intensifying.

The orientation toward the subject-matter, characteristic, as we have seen, of the denotative meaning, is substituted here by pragmatic orientation toward speaker and listener; it is not so much what is spoken about as the attitude to it that matters.

When associations at work concern the situation in which the word is uttered, the social circumstances (formal, familiar, etc.), the social relationships between the interlocutors (polite, rough), the type and purpose of communication (learned, poetic, official, etc.), the connotation is stylistic.

An effective method of revealing connotations is the analysis of synonymic groups, where the identity of denotation meanings makes it possible to separate the connotational overtones. A classical example for showing stylistic connotations is the noun horse and its synonyms. The word horse is stylistically neutral, its synonym steed is poetic, nag is a word of slang and gee-gee is baby language.

An emotional or affective connotation is acquired by the word as a result of its frequent use in contexts corresponding to emotional situations or because the referent conceptualised and named in the denotative meaning is associated with emotions. For example, the verb beseech means 'to ask eagerly and also anxiously'. E. g.: He besought a favour of the judge (Longman).

Evaluative connotation expresses approval of disapproval.

Making use of the same procedure of comparing elements of a synonymic group, one compares the words magic, witchcraft and sorcery, all originally denoting art and power of controlling events by occult supernatural means, we see that all three words are now used mostly figuratively, and also that magic as compared to its synonyms will have glamorous attractive connotations, while the other two, on the contrary, have rather sinister associations.

It is not claimed that these four types of connotations: stylistic, emotional, evaluative and intensifying form an ideal and complete classification. Many other variants have been proposed, but the one suggested here is convenient for practical analysis and well supported by facts. It certainly


is not ideal. There is some difficulty for instance in separating the binary good/bad evaluation from connotations of the so-called bias words involving ideological viewpoints. Bias words are especially characteristic of the newspaper vocabulary reflecting different ideologies and political trends in describing political life. Some authors think these connotations should be taken separately.

The term bias words is based on the meaning of the noun bias ‘an inclination for or against someone or something, a prejudice’, e. g. a newspaper with a strong conservative bias.

The following rather lengthy example is justified, because it gives a more or less complete picture of the phenomenon. E. Waugh in his novel “Scoop” satirises the unfairness of the Press. A special correspondent is sent by a London newspaper to report on a war in a fictitious African country Ishmalia. He asks his editor for briefing:

Can you tell me who is fighting whom in Ishmalia?”

“I think it is the Patriots and the Traitors.”

“Yes, but which is which?”

“Oh, I don’t know that. That’s Policy, you see [...] You should have asked Lord Copper.”

“I gather it’s between the Reds and the Blacks.”

“Yes, but it’s not quite so easy as that. You see they are all Negroes. And the Fascists won’t be called black because of their racial pride. So they are called White after the White Russians. And the Bolshevists want to be called black because of their racial pride.” (Waugh)

The example shows that connotations are not stable and vary considerably according to the ideology, culture and experience of the individual. Even apart of this satirical presentation we learn from Barn-hart’s dictionary that the word black meaning ‘a negro’, which used to be impolite and derogatory, is now upgraded by civil rights movement through the use of such slogans as “Black is Beautiful” or “Black Power”.

A linguistic proof of an existing unpleasant connotation is the appearance of euphemisms. Thus backward students are now called under-achievers. Countries with a low standard of living were first called undeveloped, but euphemisms quickly lose their polite character and the unpleasant connotations are revived, and then they are replaced by new euphemisms such as less developed and then as developing countries.

A fourth type of connotation that should be mentioned is the intensifying connotation (also expressive, emphatic). Thus magnificent, gorgeous, splendid, superb are all used colloquially as terms of exaggeration.

We often come across words that have two or three types of connotations at once, for example the word beastly as in beastly weather or beastly cold is emotional, colloquial, expresses censure and intensity.

Sometimes emotion or evaluation is expressed in the style of the utterance. The speaker may adopt an impolite tone conveying displeasure (e. g. Shut up!). A casual tone may express friendliness о r affection: Sit down, kid [...] There, there just you sit tight (Christie).

4 И В Арнольд 49

This phenomenon of co-occurrence has often led scholars not to diffe­rentiate connotations but taking them together call all of them stylistic or emotional, or some pther term. If we take into consideration that all semantic analysis presupposes segmenting meanings that come to­gether (grammatical and lexical meaning, for instance), and also that each of the types may occur separately and in various combinations with two or three others producing different effects, it becomes clear that they should be differentiated.

The interdependence of connotations with denotative meaning is also different for different types of connotations. Thus, for instance, emotional connotation comes into being on the basis of denotative mean­ing but in the course of time may tend to supersede it and even substi­tute it by other types of connotation with general emphasis, evaluation and colloquial stylistic overtone. E. g. terrific which originally meant 'frightening' is now a colloquialism meaning *very, very good' or 'very great': terrific beauty, terrific pleasure.

The evaluative connotation, when based on the denotative meaning, does not always supersede it but functions together with it, though changing it as we have seen in the above example.-This type of connota­tion is strongly dependent upon the functional style. It is almost absent in learned literature and very frequent in colloquial speech and news­papers. Intensification may become the denotative meaning of a word and occur without other types of meaning (ever, quite, absolutely).

A connotation may form the usual feature of a word as it exists in the vocabulary or appears occasionally in some context and be absent in the same word in other contexts. In every case it is actualized and takes part in the sense of the utterance. It differs in this from the impli-cational meaning of the word. Implicational meaning (see p. 41) is the implied information associated with the word by virtue of what it refers to and what the speakers know about the referent. It remains a potential, a possibility until it is realized in secondary nomi­nation — in some figurative meaning or in a derivative. A wolf is known to be greedy and cruel but the denotative meaning of this word does not necessarily include these features. We shall understand the inten-sional if we are told that it is a wild animal resembling a dog that kills sheep and sometimes even attacks men. Its figurative meaning is derived from what we know about wolves — 'a cruel greedy person', also the adjective wolfish means 'greedy'.1





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