Theories of meaning in present day linguistics | Статья в журнале «Молодой ученый»

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Рубрика: Филология

Опубликовано в Молодой учёный №15 (149) апрель 2017 г.

Дата публикации: 18.04.2017

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Библиографическое описание:

Мамадалиева С. А., Хамидова М. Х. Theories of meaning in present day linguistics // Молодой ученый. — 2017. — №15. — С. 705-707. — URL (дата обращения: 25.05.2018).

There are three theories of meaning- the referential, the ideational and behavioral. These theories are inadequate or perhaps even downright false, but people have been tempted by them for centuries and it is important to understand why they will not do. If we cannot establish what meaning is, we can at least establish some things that it is not.

We have no space here for a detailed historical account of the forms in which these theories have been held at different times, but a broad characterization will suffice for our purposes. However, in connection with the different questions about meaning that we distinguished in the last section, we should consider a stronger and a weaker form of each theory. Let us begin with the stronger form, in which these theories are IDENTITY theories. The meaning of an expression is said to be what the expression refers to or the idea associated with it in a person’s mind or the stimuli which elicit utterances of it and or the behavioral responses it evokes. In this form these theories are intended as answers to the second question, the question about what meaning really is. They answer it by identifying meaning with something else. The desire to make this move is understandable, especially when what meaning is identified with is something relatively familiar and unproblematic. The meaning of an expression, for example of the word apple, has often seemed to be something abstract, obscure, and mysterious. But if the meaning of a word can be identified with what the word refers to the meaning of apple will be no more obscure or mysterious than apples themselves. [1] A similar demystification of meaning should follow from its identification with observable, measurable sensory stimuli and behavioral responses. Even if meaning are identified with ideas, something seems to be gained, for though ideas are themselves obscure entities they are at least something which scientists, psychologists, are concerned to describe; the problem of meaning is thus reduced to another familiar problem. But whatever the temptation, these identifications are untenable. Meanings are not apples. Apples can be eaten but meanings cannot; meanings can be learned but apples cannot; the meaning of apple core contains, in some intuitive sense, the meaning of apple, but apples cores do not contain apples. And meanings are also not stimuli or responses. An utterance of the expression Help! is typically provoked by danger of some kind and the typical or at least charitable, response is to rush to the aid of the speaker. But the meaning of Help! is not danger or being in danger or a rescue mission. [2] Danger can be mild or acute, the rescue of someone in danger can be willing or reluctant, but meanings can be none of these. Similarly, the meaning of a word can be charming or vile, clever or silly, stable or fleeting, but the meaning of a word does not have these properties. These theories thus do not give correct answers to the question of what meaning is. But they might nevertheless at least specify the identity conditions on meaning, i.e., tell us when the meaning of two expressions will be identical and when they will be different. This would be a partial answer to the first kind of question about meaning that that we distinguished; that is, it would be a contribution to a descriptive accounts of the semantic properties and relations that expressions exhibit. [3] It would undeniably be a retreat, for if ideas, for example, determine the identity conditions on meanings without actually BEING meanings, we can still wonder what meanings are and why they correlate with ideas in this fashion. Though identity is too strong a relation to posit between ideas and meanings, mere accidental correlation would be quite unrevealing. However, a principled connection could perhaps be established indirectly; we might say, for example, that to know the meaning of a word is to have a certain idea associated with it or on the behavioral theory, that to know the meaning of a word is to be conditioned to respond to utterances of it in a certain fashion. So developed, these theories of meaning would have some bearing on our third question about how meanings relate to speakers and the world. But even in this weaker form, these three theories are inadequate. Frege’s refutation of the referential theory is well known (Frege 1892). [4] The phrases the morning star and the evening star both refer to the same thing. The planet Venus, But they do not mean the same. If they did, the sentence the morning star is the eveningstar would mean the same as The morning star is the morning star, yet the latter is analytic and uninformative while the former expresses an unobvious empirical truth about the universe. So two expressions with the same referent do not necessarily have the same meaning; identify of reference is not a sufficient condition for identify of meaning.

The truth of an ideational theory inevitably depends on what ideas are taken to be and how the associative relation between expressions and ideas is defined. But the identical approach to meaning has traditionally been combined with a very simplistic notion of ideas as mental picture or images as such it is simply false. Mental imagery is shifting arbitrary and differs both in extent and kind from person to person and from occasion to occasion. On one day the word tablecloth may conjure up in me the depressing thought of the laundry that needs to be done, on another it may make me think of an elderly aunt who sends the same gift every Christmas, for someone else tablecloth may be associated with a party game and yet another person may have no image associated with it at all. There simply is no stable correlation between imagery and the meanings of expressions heard or uttered. And there are probably no images at all which would serve to explicate the meaning of words like how,despite, to. [5]

For an ideational theory to be plausible it would therefore have to be integrated with a much more sophisticated idea, one which is applicable to all types of expression and which is not at the mercy of the vagaries of mental imagery. But as we refine the theory in this direction it becomes more and more doubtful that we have a theory at all. Since there is no mental picture or image standard associated with the word how, we posit some more abstract kind of idea associated with it. But how do we identify this idea? Is there really any way of specifying it other than as that idea present in the mind of a person understanding or meaningfully using the word how? At worst this specification would be empty, if there is nothing that meets this description; at best it would be circular, since it defines ideas in terms of understanding and hence of meaning. We might try giving a more sophisticated account of the modes of combination of ideas into complex ones than the traditional empiricist theories provided. Then, perhaps, we could say that how has a meaning not by virtue of being associated with some particular idea but by virtue of its contribution to complex ideas associated with expressions in which how occurs. But again, we have no way of characterizing these complex ideas and no way of characterizing the contribution that how makes to them. And again this raises the deeper worry that our inability to identify the ideas that would explicate meaning is not simply a matter of the practical inaccessibility of ideas or of the lack of an adequate psychological theory, but of the need to refer to the identify conditions on the meaning of the linguistics expressions in giving the identify conditions on ideas. If this is so, meanings may serve to identify ideas but ideas cannot serve to identify meaning.

Finally let us consider behavioral theories of meaning. Since ideas seem to be as ungraspable as meanings themselves, many philosophers and psychologists (and until recently many linguists, e.g., Bloomfield) have eschewed all talk of ideas and mental processes in favor of talk about physical stimuli and behavioral responses to them. The meaning of an expression is said to be the stimulus that evokes its utterance, and/or the response which it elicits from the hearer. This cannot serve as an account of which expressions have meaning, for a nonsense is presumably evoked by a stimulus and elicits a response as much as any meaningful expression is and does. But the theory does predict that two expressions mean the same if they are evoked by the same stimuli and/or elicit the same responses. [6]

This theory goes the same way the as the ideational theory. If we interpret ‘stimulus situation’ and ‘response’ in a natural and straightforward way, what people say in different circumstances and what they do in response to things other people say is just not uniform enough to support the proposed correlation with meaning. I may utter what a nice party! In a situation consisting of a nice party but I may also not utter it in that situation; identify of stimulus situation does not guarantee identify of linguistic behavior. I might also utter party what a nice party! In a situation consisting of a dreary party given by my boss; differences between stimulus situation do not invariably correlate with differences of linguistic behavior. And I may even say what a nice party! To my toes in the bath, though no party-related change in my stimulus situation has occurred at all (except of course my thoughts, which to a strict behaviorist are inadmissible data).Responses fare no better than stimulus situations. You may respond to my comment on the party by shaking my hand, by pulling a wry face, by changing the subject, or by saying and doing nothing at all. And each of these responses could be your response to some quite different utterance of mine. So there is no hope of identifying the response evoked by a given expression. And if we were to try explicating meaning in terms of a Range of possible responses, we would have to contend with the virtual infinity of the range and the enormous overlap between the ranges for different expressions.

One irremediable defect of any behavioral theory would appear to be that apart from cases of genuinely conditioned verbal behavior such as saying Ouch! when hurt, someone could willfully refute any account of the stimuli and responses associated with an expression simply by uttering it in a situation or responding to it in a fashion, not predicted by the theory. To avoid such deliberate refutation, the theory must be framed in terms of ‘normal’ or ‘appropriate’ behavior or as has often been proposed, in terms of behavioral dispositions. Your actual response to my utterance of What a nice party! Could be anything or nothing at all. But if you wanted to be polite you might reply with We are delighted you could come, if you were shy you might simply smile, if you were hating the party yourself you might raise your eyebrows and if you wanted to refute a theory of meaning you might say Three blind mice. The trouble with this refinement of the theory is that each expressions of the language will now have to be associated with a more or less infinite class of propositions of the form “If in such-and-such state, the hearer will do so-and-so”. But this association can be achieved only on the basis of some stable property of the expression from which this vast range of predictions can be derived by general principles. And it is highly likely that the critical property of the expression will turn out to be none other than its meaning. If so, we can hardly claim that behavior provides an entry into the study of meaning. Undoubtedly, there is some correlation between behavior and the meanings of expressions, just as there is some correlation between ideas and the meanings of expressions, but these correlations are complex and indirect, and a theory of them will almost certainly require an independent characterization of meaning [7].


  1. McKnight C. H. “English words and their background”. New-York London 1931.
  2. Nida E. “Morphology. The descriptive analysis of words” L. 1946.
  3. Partridge E. “The words of words”. L. 1982.
  4. Ronnie C. “Formal semantics”. L 1982.
  5. Амосова Н. “Основы английской фразеологии” (Санкт Петербург). 1963.
  6. Арнольд И. В. “ Лексикология современного английского языка”. М. 1959.
  7. Ступин Л. П. “Обзор работ по английской и американской лексикографии”, науч. Док. 1967 № 5.
Основные термины (генерируются автоматически): meaning, nice party, ideas, meanings, theory, morning star, behavioral responses, ideational theory, expressions, stimulus situation, expression, Полезная информация, Тематические журналы, measurable sensory stimuli, theories,, weaker form, Мамадалиева Сусана Атамовна, Хамидова Мохларбегим Хамид, Правила оформления.


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