Before we examine the most common terms used in the discussion of word meaning, we shall first define ‘linguistic sign’ and then discuss the word as a linguistic sign.
Following de Saussure, the linguistic sign is a mental unit consisting of two faces, which cannot be separated: a concept and an acoustic image. The term ‘sign’ is quite a general expression which can refer to sentences, clauses, phrases, words, or morphemes. De Saussure later referred to ‘concept’ as ‘signifie’ or ‘thing meant’ and to ‘acoustic image’ as ‘signifiant’ or ‘signifier’. These have since become accepted technical terms in modern linguistics. De Saussure pointed out that an alteration in the acoustic image must make a difference in the concept and vice versa. But this view does not appear to take homonyms into account. However, since the linguistic sign has both form and meaning, it follows that, when dealing with words, we can focus either on the form or on the meaning.
Since the word is a linguistic sign, a discussion of ‘word meaning’ focuses on the relationship between the two faces of the sign, the acoustic image or ‘signifiant’, the signifier, on the one hand, and the concept or ‘signifie’, the thing meant, on the other. A major diffi culty in this task is how to accommodate both the fuzzy nature of meaning and the ambiguity inherent in the notion of word. We cannot go into the intricacies of the various aspects of meaning in an introductory book of this nature. Instead, we shall limit our discussion to an examination of some of the most common terms associated with word meaning; those that will be useful not only in our discussion of the different types of relationship that exist between words, but also in our study of sense relations. We shall consider in turn denotation, connotation, reference and sense. However, to ease comparison and cross-references, we shall discuss these terms in pairs as follows: denotation and reference, denotation and sense, and finally denotation and connotation.
We need the concept of ‘lexeme’ to clarify the distinction between denotation and reference. This concept, which was coined by Lyons in analogy to ‘phoneme’ and ‘morpheme’, is considered an abstract linguistic unit (spelt in capitals) with different variants (e.g. SING as against sang, sung). Thus, the relation of denotation holds between a lexeme and a whole class of extra-linguistic objects. For example, Lyons defines the denotation of a lexeme as ‘the relationship that holds between that lexeme and persons, things, places, properties, processes and activities external to the language system’. It is therefore difficult to give concrete examples of denotation since this relation holds between an abstract linguistic unit and a whole class of extra-linguistic objects. As opposed to denotation, the relationship of reference holds between an expression and what that expression stands for on particular occasions of its utterance. Lyons further points out that reference depends on concrete utterances, not on abstract sentences. It is a property only of expressions. It cannot relate single lexemes to extra-linguistic objects, since it is an utterance dependent notion. Furthermore, reference is not generally applicable to single word forms and it is never applicable to single lexemes. For example, expressions such as the computer, John’s computer, or the two portable computers on the table may be used to establish a relationship of reference with specific items as referents. In this case, the reference of these expressions containing computer is partly determined by the denotation of the lexeme COMPUTER in the overall system of the English language.
We have already defined denotation following. His definition of sense also evolved with time. Initially, he defined the sense of a word as its ‘place in a system of relationships which it contracts with other words in the vocabulary’. Later, he defines sense as a relationship ‘between the words or expressions of a single language, independently of the relationship, if any, which holds between those words or expressions and their referents or denotata’. It follows that sense is a relationship which is internal to the language system, a language-immanent relationship. Both individual lexemes and larger expressions have sense. However, the sense of an expression is a function of the sense of thelexemes it contains and their occurrences in a particular grammatical construction. The sense of the word table will vary in the following sentences: ‘Don’t put your feet on the table and ‘It was finalized under the table.’ A comparison between denotation and sense shows that the two relations are dependent on each other. According to Lyons, some words may have no specific denotation and still have sense. To use an often quoted example, consider the following pair of sentences:
There is no such animal as a unicorn.
There is no such book as a unicorn.
While the first is perfectly acceptable, the second is semantically odd. Furthermore, this double observation proves that, whereas the lexemes book and unicorn are incompatible, animal and unicorn are somehow related in sense. Such examples can be multiplied easily. The important point here is that a word may have sense but have no denotation.
We shall first define polysemy, before discussing some of the problems inherent in the concept of polysemy.Polysemy refers to the situation where the same word has two or more different meanings (from Greek poly, ‘many’ + semeion, ‘sign’). For instance, the noun board is said to be polysemous because it may mean: (1) a long thin flat piece of cut wood, (2) a flat surface with patterns, used for playing a game on, (3) a flat piece of hard material used for putting food on, (4) a flat piece of hard material fastened to the wall in a public place to pin notices on, (5) the cost of meals, (6) a committee or association, as of company directors or government officials, set up for a special responsibility. Similarly, the word flight is defined in at least the following ways: (1) the act of flying, (2) the distance covered or course followed by a flying object, (3) a trip by plane, (4) the aircraft making the journey, (5) a group of birds or aircraft flying together, (6) an effort that goes beyond the usual limits, (7) a set of stairs as between floors, (8) swift movement or passage.
In most cases, only one of the meanings of a polysemous word will fit into a given context, but occasionally ambiguity may also arise. For instance, consider the words bat and bank in the following contexts:
Look at that bat under the tree.
Susan may go to the bank today.
Ambiguity results from the fact that bat may mean either ‘flying mammal’ or ‘implement used to hit the ball in cricket’, while bank may mean either ‘river bank’ or ‘the place that deals with money’.
Despite its apparent simplicity, the concept of polysemy is complex and involves a certain number of problems. We shall consider in turn the number of meanings, transference of meanings, and difficulty in recognizing polysemy. Since one meaning cannot always be delimited and distinguished from another, it is not easy to say without hesitation whether two meanings are the same or different. Consequently, we cannot determine exactly how many meanings a polysemous word has. Consider the verb eat. Most dictionaries distinguish the ‘literal’ sense of ‘taking in through the mouth and swallowing’ and the derived meaning of ‘use up, damage, or destroy something, especially by chemical action’, which tends to suggest that the verb may have at least two different meanings. However, in the literal sense, we can also distinguish between eating nuts and eating soup, the former with fingers and the latter with a spoon. Moreover, we can talk of drinking soup as well as eating it. It may therefore be said that in this sense at least, eat corresponds to drink, since the latter involves the ‘swallowing of liquids’. We can push the analysis further by asking whether eating an orange (which can involve sucking) is the same thing as eating an apple (which involves only chewing). It goes without saying that if we push this analysis too far, we may end up deciding that the verb eat has a different meaning for every type of food that we ‘eat’. The above discussion shows that there is no clear criterion for either difference or sameness of meaning. Consequently, it would seem futile to attempt an exhaustive count of the number of possible meanings which a given word may have. The point of view adopted in this book is that the meaning of a given word is bound to vary according to the specific context in a wide semantic field, part of which overlaps with that of other words. For instance, the semantic field of eat overlaps with that of drink when referring to a soup, since you can either eat or drink a soup, but there is no overlapping when dealing with nuts, since nuts can only be eaten, not drunk. As suggested in the case of the verb eat, a word may have both a ‘literal’ meaning and one or more ‘transferred’ meanings, although we cannot determine with precision how many different meanings a given word may have altogether. We shall first discuss metaphor, which is the most familiar kind of transference, before turning to other kinds of transference. The basic difference between metaphor on the one hand and the other types of transference on the other is that metaphor is ‘irregular’, because it applies to individual lexical items, whereas the other kinds may be considered more ‘regular’, in the sense that they do not apply just to individual lexical items but to several members of a specific class, e.g. a group of nouns or adjectives. These characteristics will be made more explicit below. The term ‘metaphor’ refers to cases where a word appears to have both a ‘literal’ and a ‘transferred’ meaning. The words for parts of the body provide the best illustration of metaphor. For example, we speak of the hands and face of a clock, the foot of a bed or of a mountain, the leg of a chair or table, the tongue of a shoe, the eye of a needle, etc. Intuitively, we assume that words such as eye, face, foot, hand, leg and tongue apply first to the body, from which they derive their literal sense. This intuition is supported by the fact that the whole set of words applies only to the body, while only some of them can be transferred to certain objects. For instance, the clock has no tongue, the bed no eyes, the chair no feet and the mountain no legs. It should, however, be said that metaphor is rather haphazard not only within specific languages, but also when we compare the use of the same metaphor across languages. It is from these two points of view that metaphor is considered ‘irregular’. For example, it may seem obvious that foot is appropriate to a mountain, or eye to a needle, but a look at French will show that, although a mountain also has a ‘foot’ (French pied), the needle does not have an ‘eye’, but a ‘hole’ (trou); furthermore, a clock does not have ‘hands’, but ‘needles’ (aiguilles), chairs and tables do not have ‘legs’ but ‘feet’ (les pieds de la table/chaise). The label ‘metaphor’ can also be applied to other cases of transference, but only in a rather loose sense, because it is not always clear which meaning should be considered literal and which transferred. However, this second kind of transference is fairly productive because it involves the transfer of meaning in a predictable manner. Thus, many adjectives may be used either literally for the quality they refer to or with the transferred meaning of being the source of the quality. For instance, in the literal sense, we may say that ‘John is sad’ (he feels Mildness), ‘a blanket is warm’ (it is of a certain degree of temperature). But in the transferred sense, when we say that a book or film or story is sad, we do not imply that ‘it feels sadness’, rather, we mean that it causes someone else to feel sad. Note that this possibility of transfer of moaning may result in ambiguity. For instance, a blanket or a coat may be warm in two senses: either that it is of a certain temperature as mentioned above, or that it keeps one warm.
Similarly, many nouns may have a concrete and an abstract meaning. Thus, we may compare ‘The thesis is on the desk’ and ‘The thesis is not supported by objective evidence’. The word thesis has, of course, a concrete meaning in the first sentence and an abstract one in I ho second. Similar contrasts may be established for bible, book, score mid table, for instance.
As a final observation, it must be said that far from being a defect of language, polysemy is an essential condition for its efficiency. If it were not possible to attach several senses to the same word, this would moan a crushing burden on our memory; we would have to possess separate terms for every conceivable ‘object’ we might wish to talk about, and be absolutely precise in our choice of words. Consequently, polysemy must be considered an invaluable factor of economy and flexibility in language.
To sum up we `ve shown the central importance of the world in lexicology. In so doing, it has first provided an answer to the fundamental question: “What exactly is meant by “word” in lexicology?”. Secondly, we have examined the notion of “word meaning”.
- Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (LDOCE) (1978, 1987, 1995, 2003) Longman.
- Lyons, J. (1977) Semantics, Vols1 and 2, Cambridge University Press.
- De Saussure, (1959) A Course in General Linguistics, ed. C. Bally and A. Sechehaye, Peter Owen.