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Word meaning: different approaches




 

In descriptive linguisticsword meaning is understood mainly as an object of study externalized by dictionary definition and associated with the physical phonetic or/and spelled form of a word. This abstraction is useful for many important goals such as describing a given language, teaching, or contrastive studies. But it is rather useless for understanding what meaning is, or reconstruction of language ability and other endeavors.

 

At present the most important approaches to defining a word meaning are ideational (or conceptual), referential and functional.

 

The ideational theory can be considered the earliest theory of meaning. It states that meaning originates in the mind in the form of ideas and words are just symbols of them. This tradition goes back to Aristotle and even further.

 

The British empiricist philosopher John Locke in his “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” (1690) echoes Aristotle. He writes: “Words in their primary or immediate Signification stand for nothing, but the Ideas in the Mind… .” He points out that ideas are private and individual, though the largest component of meaning derives from common perceptions of the world in which we live and our abilities to reason. God acts as a guarantor of sameness of meaning /Locke 1977:2/. Locke assumes that individual ideas preexist their linguistic expression.

 

A difficulty with the ideational theory that John Locke proposed is that it is not clear why communication and understanding are possible if linguistic expressions stand for individual personal ideas. The reference to God as mediator is not helpful enough. Neither it is satisfactory (from a linguist’s point of view) to define meaning in terms of unstructured ‘ideas’.

 

Yet, ideational theory is deeply rooted in modern semantics: the question whether language or thought exists prior to the other, and the relationship between them is still debated by scholars. Currently, the view that meaning as a mental experience conveyed by linguistic expression is influential.

 

Many linguists, especially those interested in the study of language as a human cognitive ability view meaning mainly as a psychological entity that exists in our minds, as a concept with specific structure (see, for example, works on conceptual semantics by R. Jackendoff, semantic primitives by A. Wierzbicka, et al.). The difference between word meaning and concept, however, is that not all concepts are lexicalized, so word meaning may be regarded as a lexicalized concept.

 

Understanding meaning as concept seems quite promising because only the direct association of the word with the ever changing and active concept gives the word its generative character, provides its variation and use in different contexts.

 

Yet, some important questions remain unanswered within this framework. If the meaning of a word is a concept, then do people speaking different languages have different conceptual systems? Or, vice versa, if people speaking different languages have the same conceptual systems how does it happen that identical concepts are expressed by correlative words having different lexical meanings? (Cf.: finger ‘one of 10 movable parts of joints at the end of each human hand, or one of 8 such parts as opposed to the thumbs’ and палец ‘подвижная конечная часть кисти руки, стопы ноги или лапы животного’.) If a word’s meaning is something different from the concept, then what is it and how is it related to the concept and the referent in the real world?

 

In some contemporary linguistic theories a distinction is made between lexical knowledge and encyclopedic knowledge, between semantic and conceptual levels of information, between word meaning and concept.

 

There are, however, lots of arguments both for and against this distinction, and it is a matter of hot linguistic debate. One should also take into account the fact that different words are different in the character of their meaning. Meanings of some words, especially of verbs denoting such actions as want, give, take or go do not include encyclopedic knowledge while meanings of other words, especially nouns denoting scientific terms like calorie or confirmation are predominantly based on encyclopedic knowledge.

 

Another influential theory of a word meaning is known as referential. Early referential theorydevelopedby Plato equated meaning with physical objects. This theory is rejected nowadays (cf.: the ostensive theory). Referential word meaning theory is more sophisticated now, and it defines as relationships between things, their concepts and names.

 

This theory started with a famous ‘triangle of reference’ presented by the German mathematician and philosopher Gottlob Frege(1848-1925).

               
   
 
   
Thought
 
   
Referent
 
Symbol
 

 

 


The term ‘referent’ in this theory is a philosophically neutral word understood as something to which the word refers. ‘Referent’ is used for any physical object, quality, state, or action in the material world.

 

However, referent is not meaning, and semantics, according to modern referential theory, should not be concentrated on the description of referents. Rather, it is the subject matter of sciences.

 

Within this theory, meaning is not identical to thought, or concept, either, though is very closely associated with it. Many different words having different meanings may be used to express the same concept as it is, for example, in the case with the concept of dying (die, pass away, kick the bucket or join the majority).

Neither is meaning identical to a physical form of a word, or a symbol used to convey meaning, as many theories of sound symbolism suggest. The American linguist, Morris Swadesh /1934/, for example, drew attention to the use of [i]-type sound in many languages to express nearness: this, it, here, near (cf.: близко, низко) and [a], [u]-type sounds to express distance: that, there, far (cf.: далеко, глубоко, высоко). A specific relationship also can be observed between close sounds, like [i], and the concept of smallness: teeny, little, slim, bit or мелкий (but big) and open sounds, like [a], [o], and the concept of largeness: large, broad, vast, grand or большой, огромный (but small). Yet it is just a tendency with numerous exceptions.

 

Then, in all languages there are onomatopoeic words, restricted to naturally produced sounds such as whisper ‘шептать’, whistle ‘свистеть’or roar ‘реветь’, etc., that seem to portray the underlying concept. But even these words obey language rules, and ‘the phonetic portrait’ of the concept turns out to be different in different language systems (cf.: cock-a-doodle-do and кукареку)

 

So, the evidence for direct relationships between symbol and referent is limited and not well justified. Existence of different languages using different forms to denote the same concept (table, стол) shows that there is a conventional, arbitrary relationship between a symbol and a referent, and this arbitrariness is expressed by the broken base line in the ‘triangle of reference’.



 

In order to answer the question what meaning is, linguistics, according to F. de Saussure, should understand a linguistic sign as the relation between a concept and a symbol.

 

Within the referential frame, word meaning is understood as the interrelation of all three components of the semantic triangle: symbol, concept and referent, though meaning is not equivalent to any of them.

 

Referential theory makes important observations about the nature of word meaning and it is valid in many respects. Yet, it is not adequate to account for many specific features involved in word meaning. To improve referential theory, some linguists include one more component — the relation of the word to other conceptually related words. To understand the meaning of the word cup, for example, one should know its relation to the words glass and mug. Thus, the semantic triangle changes into a semantic square.

 

The third, most well known theory of meaning is functional. Functionalists (V. Mathesius, R. Jacobson, J.R. Firth et al.) believe that “the phonological, grammatical and semantic structures of a language are determined by the functions they have to perform in the societies in which they operate” /Lyons 1981:224/. Instead of trying to answer the question of what these structures, including meaning, are, functionalists study how they are used in specific contexts in order to determine their properties.

 

Functionalism is a fruitful theory that did a lot to systematic description of a language. Functionalists study word meaning by making a detailed analysis of the way the word is used in certain contexts. But defining meaning as the function of a unit in certain contexts lacks formality and exactness. In modern linguistics many scholars do not agree with Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), a philosopher and a linguist, who stressed that the meaning of a word is its use in language /Wittgenstein 1953: 43/ because word’s meaning may be formulated in a definition before the word is used. It is rather a word’s meaning that determines its use and the use will determine whether the definition that previously has been formulated stands or falls.

 

 





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