Referential approach to meaning

The referential approach distinguishes between the three components connected with meaning: (1) the sound-form of the linguistic sign, (2) the concept underlying this sound-form and (3) the actual referent, that is the object of reality to which this linguistic sign refers. These relations may be schematically represented by the so-called “basic triangle” (see Scheme 1).

Scheme 1

concept (thought, reference, meaning, designatum)

[döv] [the bird meant]

sound-form (sign, symbol) referent (thing meant, denotatum)

As can be seen from this scheme the sound-form of the linguistic sign, for example [döv], is connected with our concept of the bird which it denotes and through this concept with the referent, that is with the actual bird meant.

But there is no inherent connection between this particular sound-cluster [döv] and the meaning of the word dove. This connection is conventional and arbitrary. It can be proved by comparing the sound-forms of the words denoting this bird in different languages; for example: English [döv], Russian [golub’], German [taube]. The same can be also proved by comparing almost identical sound-forms that possess different meanings in different languages; for example: the sound-cluster [kOt] in English means ‘a bed’, in Russian it means ‘a male cat’.

The meaning of a word denoting a concrete object is not identical with the underlying concept generalizing all the objects of this class. For example, the meaning of the word denoting the bird dove is not identical with the concept ‘bird’ as a class of objects to which a dove belongs.

Concept is a category of human cognition. Concept is the thought of the object that singles out its essential features which are common to all the objects of this class. Our concepts abstract and reflect the most common and typical features of objects and phenomena of reality. Being the result of such abstraction and generalization all concepts are thus almost the same for whole humanity irrespective of the language. But the sound-forms and meanings of words representing these concepts are different in different languages.

Meaning should be also distinguished from the referent, that is from the thing denoted by the linguistic sign, the thing meant. Meaning is a linguistic phenomenon whereas the denoted object or the referent is extralinguistic. We can denote one and the same object by more than one word of different meanings. For example, the object “dove” can be denoted by two words – dove and pigeon, but these words possess different numbers of various meanings in English.

Thus, meaning is not to be identified with any of the three points of the triangle. Here we should admit that it is impossible to define word-meaning accurately.

Meaning, as understood in the referential approach, is the interrelation of these three points of the triangle – the sound-form, concept and referent.

Functional approach to meaning

The functional approach maintains that the meaning of a linguistic unit may be studied through the relation of this unit to other linguistic units within a context. For example, the meanings of the words move, movable and movement are different because their functions and distribution in the sentence are different.

The same is true of the different meanings of one and the same word in different contexts. For example, we can observe the difference of the meanings of the word move as it fulfills different functions in different linguistic contexts: move a chair, move quickly, move into town, move smb to tears.

It follows that in the functional approach meaning is understood as the function of the use of a linguistic unit in a linguistic context.

The referential and functional approaches to the study of meaning supplement each other; each handles its own side of the problem and neither is complete without the other.

Meaning, in general, may be defined as a certain reflection in our mind of objects, phenomena or relations, that make part of a linguistic sign. It is a component of the word through which a concept is communicated, in this way endowing the word with the ability of denoting real objects, qualities, actions and abstract notions.

Types of word-meaning

Within the word we distinguish grammatical, lexical, part-of-speech, significative, denotative, connotative, pragmatic and word-formation meanings.

Grammatical meaning

Let us compare, for example, a set of the following word-forms: boy’s, girl’s, day’s, night’s. All these words, though denoting different objects, have a common feature. This common semantic element is their grammatical meaning of the possessive case, which is regularly represented by the formal element ‘the apostrophe & s’.

In the same way we can distinguish the grammatical meaning of plurality if we compare the following set of word-forms: boys, girls, days, nights. The grammatical meaning of plurality is regularly represented by the formal element – ‘the ending –s’.

The grammatical meaning of the Past Indefinite Tense is evident in the set of word-forms asked, wanted, thought, taught, though here it is expressed by different morphological means.



So grammatical meaning may be defined as the component of word-meaning recurrent in identical sets of individual forms of different words. By grammatical meaningwe designate the meaning proper to sets of word-forms common to all words of a certain class.

In modern linguistics it is commonly held that some elements of grammatical meaning can be identified by the position of the linguistic unit in relation to other linguistic units in speech, that is by its distribution.

For example, the word-forms reads, speaks, writes have one and the same grammatical meaning of the Present Indefinite Tense, third person, singular not only because they possess the common inflexion ‘–s’ but also because they can be found in identical distribution – only after the pronouns he, she, it.

It follows that a certain component of the meaning of a word is distinguished when this word is identified as a part of speech, since different parts of speech have different distribution.

So grammatical meaning can also be defined as an expression in speech of relationship between words based on contrastive features of arrangements in which they occur.

Lexical meaning

Lexical meaning is the realization of the notion by means of a definite language system.

If we compare the word-forms of one and the same word we can observe that besides grammatical meaning they possess another component of word-meaning.

Let us compare, for example the following word-forms: go, goes, went, going, gone.They all have different grammatical meanings of tense, person and aspect, but each of these forms contains one and the same semantic component denoting the process of movement. This is the lexical meaning of the given verb-forms.

So lexical meaning may be described as the component of word-meaning proper to the word as a linguistic unit and recurrent in all the forms of this word.

By lexical meaning we designate the meaning proper to the given linguistic unit in all its forms and distributions, while by grammatical meaning we designate the meaning proper to sets of word-forms common to all words of a certain class.

Both the lexical and grammatical meanings make up the word-meaning as a whole because neither of them can exist without the other. The lexical meaning of a word is dependent upon its grammatical meaning.

Part-of-speech meaning

Lexical items or words are generally classified into major word-classes such as nouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs and into minor word-classes such as articles, prepositions, conjunctions and so on.

All members of the same word-class share a distinguishing semantic component which can be viewed asthe lexical component of part-of-speech meaning. The grammatical aspect of part-of-speech meaning is conveyed as a rule by a set of forms. Here we may speak about the meaning of lexico-grammatical groups or classes of words and, consequently, about lexico-grammatical meaning.

A lexico-grammatical class may be defined as a class of lexical elements possessing the same lexico-grammatical meaning and a common system of forms in which the grammatical categories inherent in these units are expressed. So every lexico-grammatical group or class is characterized by its own lexico-grammatical meaning forming the common denomenator of all the meanings of the words which belong to this group. The lexico-grammatical meaning may be also regarded as the feature according to which these words are grouped together.

As it was mentioned above, the lexical meaning of every word depends upon the part of speech to which this word belongs. In the lexical meaning of every separate word the lexico-grammatical meaning common to all the words of the class to which this word belongs is enriched by additional features and becomes particularized.

Let us take, for example, such words as bright, clear, good. These adjectives denote the properties of things capable of being compared and so have degrees of comparison. In the lexical meanings of these words in the forms brighter, clearerand better the lexico-grammatical meaning of qualitative adjectives common to all the words of this class is enriched the additional meaning of the comparative degree of the quality these words denote.

If we describe the word as a noun we mean to say that it is bound to possess a set of forms expressing the grammatical meanings of number, case, sometimes gender and so on. A verb is understood to possess sets of forms expressing the grammatical meanings of tense, aspect, mood and so on.

The part-of-speech meaning of words that possess only one form, for example, prepositions, is observed only in their distribution; compare, for example, to come in and inthe table.

One of the levels at which grammatical meaning operates is that of minor word class like articles, prepositions and pronouns.

One criterion for distinguishing these grammatical items from lexical items is in terms of closed and open sets of units.

Grammatical items form closed sets of units usually of small membership, such as articles, prepositions, pronouns. New items are practically never added there.

Lexical items proper belong to open sets of units which have indeterminately large membership; new lexical items which are constantly coined to name new objects of reality are added to these open sets of units.

The interrelation of the lexical and grammatical meanings within the word-meaning and the role played by each of them varies in different word-classes and even in different groups of words within one and the same class. In some parts of speech the prevailing component of the word-meaning is the lexical meaning, in others – the grammatical meaning.









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