министерство образования российской федерации
Столичный институт переводчиков
факультет английского языка
of english words
What Is "Meaning"? 3
Polysemy. Semantic Structure of the Word 3
Types of Semantic Components 6
Meaning and Context 7
What Is "Meaning"?
The linguistic science at present is not able to put forward a definition
of meaning which is conclusive. However, there are certain facts of which
we can be reasonably sure, and one of them is that the very function of the
word as a unit of communication is made possible by its possessing a
meaning. Therefore, among the word's various characteristics, meaning is
certainly the most important.
Generally speaking, meaning can be more or less described as a component of
the word through which a concept (mental phenomena) is communicated.
Meaning endows the word with the ability of denoting real objects,
qualities, actions and abstract notions. The relationships between
“referent” (object, etc. denoted by the word), “concept” and “word” are
traditionally represented by the following triangle:
Thought or Reference
(Concept = mental phenomena)
(word) (object denoted by the word)
By the "symbol" here is meant the word; “thought” or “reference” is
concept. The dotted line suggests that there is no immediate relation
between “word” and “referent”: it is established only through the concept.
On the other hand, there is a hypothesis that concepts can only find their
realization through words. It seems that thought is dormant till the word
wakens it up. It is only when we hear a spoken word or read a printed word
that the corresponding concept springs into mind. The mechanism by which
concepts (i. e. mental phenomena) are converted into words (i. e.
linguistic phenomena) and the reverse process by which a heard or a printed
word is converted into a kind of mental picture are not yet understood or
The branch of linguistics which specialises in the study of meaning is
called semantics. As with many terms, the term "semantics" is ambiguous for
it can stand, as well, for the expressive aspect of language in general and
for the meaning of one particular word in all its varied aspects and
nuances (i. e. the semantics of a word = the meaning(s) of a word).
Semantic Structure of the Word
It is generally known that most words convey several concepts and thus
possess the corresponding number of meanings. A word having several
meanings is called polysemantic, and the ability of words to have more than
one meaning is described by the term polysemy.
Polysemy is certainly not an anomaly. Most English words are polysemantic.
It should be noted that the wealth of expressive resources of a language
largely depends on the degree to which polysemy has developed in the
language. Sometimes people who are not very well informed in linguistic
matters claim that a language is lacking in words if the need arises for
the same word to be applied to several different phenomena. In actual fact,
it is exactly the opposite: if each word is found to be capable of
conveying at least two concepts instead of one, the expressive potential of
the whole vocabulary increases twofold. Hence, a well-developed polysemy is
a great advantage in a language.
On the other hand, it should be pointed out that the number of sound
combinations that human speech organs can produce is limited. Therefore at
a certain stage of language development the production of new words by
morphological means is limited as well, and polysemy becomes increasingly
important for enriching the vocabulary. From this, it should be clear that
the process of enriching the vocabulary does not consist merely in adding
new words to it, but, also, in the constant development of polysemy.
The system of meanings of any polysemantic word develops gradually, mostly
over the centuries, as more and more new meanings are added to old ones, or
oust some of them. So the complicated processes of polysemy development
involve both the appearance of new meanings and the loss of old ones. Yet,
the general tendency with English vocabulary at the modern stage of its
history is to increase the total number of its meanings and in this way to
provide for a quantitative and qualitative growth of the language's
When analysing the semantic structure of a polysemantic word, it is
necessary to distinguish between two levels of analysis.
On the first level, the semantic structure of a word is treated as a
system of meanings. For example, the semantic structure of the noun “fire”
could be roughly presented by this scheme (only the most frequent meanings
The above scheme suggests that meaning (I) holds a kind of dominance over
the other meanings conveying the concept in the most general way whereas
meanings (II)—(V) are associated with special circumstances, aspects and
instances of the same phenomenon.
Meaning (I) (generally referred to as the main meaning) presents the centre
of the semantic structure of the word holding it together. It is mainly
through meaning (I) that meanings (II)—(V) (they are called secondary
meanings) can be associated with one another, some of them exclusively
through meaning (I) - the main meaning, as, for instance, meanings (IV) and
It would hardly be possible to establish any logical associations between
some of the meanings of the noun “bar” except through the main meaning:
Meaning's (II) and (III) have no logical links with one another whereas
each separately is easily associated with meaning (I): meaning (II) through
the traditional barrier dividing a court-room into two parts; meaning (III)
through the counter serving as a kind of barrier between the customers of a
pub and the barman.
Yet, it is not in every polysemantic word that such a centre can be found.
Some semantic structures are arranged on a different principle. In the
following list of meanings of the adjective “dull” one can hardly hope to
find a generalized meaning covering and holding together the rest of the
1. A dull book, a dull film - uninteresting, monotonous, boring.
2. A dull student - slow in understanding, stupid.
3. Dull weather, a dull day, a dull colour - not clear or bright.
4. A dull sound - not loud or distinct.
5. A dull knife - not sharp.
6. Trade is dull - not active.
7. Dull eyes (arch.) - seeing badly.
8. Dull ears (arch.) - hearing badly.
There is something that all these seemingly miscellaneous meanings have in
common, and that is the implication of deficiency, be it of colour (m.
III), wits (m. II), interest (m. I), sharpness (m. V), etc. The implication
of insufficient quality, of something lacking, can be clearly distinguished
in each separate meaning.
1. Uninteresting - deficient in interest or excitement.
2. ... Stupid - deficient in intellect.
3. Not bright- deficient in light or colour.
4. Not loud - deficient in sound.
5. Not sharp - deficient in sharpness.
6. Not active - deficient in activity.
7. Seeing badly - deficient in eyesight.
8. Hearing badly - deficient in hearing.
The transformed scheme of the semantic structure of “dull” clearly shows
that the centre holding together the complex semantic structure of this
word is not one of the meanings but a certain component that can be easily
singled out within each separate meaning.
On the second level of analysis of the semantic structure of a word: each
separate meaning is a subject to structural analysis in which it may be
represented as sets of semantic components.
The scheme of the semantic structure of “dull” shows that the semantic
structure of a word is not a mere system of meanings, for each separate
meaning is subject to further subdivision and possesses an inner structure
of its own.
Therefore, the semantic structure of a word should be investigated at both
these levels: 1) of different meanings, 2) of semantic components within
each separate meaning. For a monosemantic word (i. e. a word with one
meaning) the first level is naturally excluded.
Types of Semantic Components
The leading semantic component in the semantic structure of a word is
usually termed denotative component (also, the term referential component
may be used). The denotative component expresses the conceptual content of
The following list presents denotative components of some English
adjectives and verbs:
lonely, adj. - alone, without company …
notorious, adj. - widely known
celebrated, adj. - widely known
to glare, v. - to look
to glance, v. - to look
to shiver, v. - to tremble
to shudder, v. - to tremble
It is quite obvious that the definitions given in the right column only
partially and incompletely describe the meanings of their corresponding
words. They do not give a more or less full picture of the meaning of a
word. To do it, it is necessary to include in the scheme of analysis
additional semantic components which are termed connotations or connotative
Denotative Connotative components components
The above examples show how by singling out denotative and connotative
components one can get a sufficiently clear picture of what the word really
means. The schemes presenting the semantic structures of “glare”, “shiver”,
“shudder” also show that a meaning can have two or more connotative
The given examples do not exhaust all the types of connotations but present
only a few: emotive, evaluative connotations, and also connotations of
duration and of cause.
Meaning and Context
It’s important that there is sometimes a chance of misunderstanding when a
polysemantic word is used in a certain meaning but accepted by a listener
or reader in another.
It is common knowledge that context prevents from any misunderstanding of
meanings. For instance, the adjective “dull”, if used out of context, would
mean different things to different people or nothing at all. It is only in
combination with other words that it reveals its actual meaning: “a dull
pupil”, “a dull play”, “dull weather”, etc. Sometimes, however, such a
minimum context fails to reveal the meaning of the word, and it may be
correctly interpreted only through a second-degree context as in the
following example: “The man was large, but his wife was even fatter”. The
word “fatter” here serves as a kind of indicator pointing that “large”
describes a stout man and not a big one.
Current research in semantics is largely based on the assumption that one
of the more promising methods of investigating the semantic structure of a
word is by studying the word's linear relationships with other words in
typical contexts, i. e. its combinability or collocability.
Scholars have established that the semantics of words which regularly
appear in common contexts are correlated and, therefore, one of the words
within such a pair can be studied through the other.
They are so intimately correlated that each of them casts, as it were, a
kind of permanent reflection on the meaning of its neighbour. If the verb
“to compose” is frequently used with the object “music”, so it is natural
to expect that certain musical associations linger in the meaning of the
verb “to composed”.
Note, also, how closely the negative evaluative connotation of the
adjective “notorious” is linked with the negative connotation of the nouns
with which it is regularly associated: “a notorious criminal”, “thief”,
“gangster", “gambler”, “gossip”, “liar”, “miser”, etc.
All this leads us to the conclusion that context is a good and reliable key
to the meaning of the word.
It’s a common error to see a different meaning in every new set of
combinations. For instance: “an angry man”, “an angry letter”. Is the
adjective “angry” used in the same meaning in both these contexts or in two
different meanings? Some people will say "two" and argue that, on the one
hand, the combinability is different (“man” --name of person; “letter” -
name of object) and, on the other hand, a letter cannot experience anger.
True, it cannot; but it can very well convey the anger of the person who
wrote it. As to the combinability, the main point is that a word can
realize the same meaning in different sets of combinability. For instance,
in the pairs “merry children”, “merry laughter”, “merry faces”, “merry
songs” the adjective “merry” conveys the same concept of high spirits.
The task of distinguishing between the different meanings of a word and the
different variations of combinability is actually a question of singling
out the different denotations within the semantic structure of the word.
1) a sad woman,
2) a sad voice,
3) a sad story,
4) a sad scoundrel (= an incorrigible scoundrel)
5) a sad night (= a dark, black night, arch. poet.)
Obviously the first three contexts have the common denotation of sorrow
whereas in the fourth and fifth contexts the denotations are different. So,
in these five coniexts we can identify three meanings of “sad”.
Г.Б.Антрушина, О.В.Афанасьева. Лексикология английского языка. - М. Изд.
F.R.Palmer. Semantics. A new outline. - M. V.Sh. 1982
 Only a fragment of the semantic structure of “bar” is given to
illustrate the point.