In linguistics, meaning is what the source or sender expresses, communicates, or conveys in their message to the observer or receiver, and what the receiver infers from the current context.[1]

The sources of ambiguity

Ambiguity means confusion about what is conveyed, since the current context may lead to different interpretations of meaning. Many words in many languages have multiple definitions.


Pragmatics is the study of how context affects meaning. The two primary forms of context important to pragmatics are linguistic context and situation context.

Linguistic context is how meaning is understood without relying on intent and assumptions. In applied pragmatics, for example, meaning is formed through sensory experiences, even though sensory stimulus cannot be easily articulated in language or signs. Pragmatics, then, reveals that meaning is both something affected by and affecting the world. Meaning is something contextual with respect to language and the world, and is also something active toward other meanings and the world. Linguistic context becomes important when looking at particular linguistic problems such as that of pronouns.

Situation context refers to every non-linguistic factor that affects the meaning of a phrase. An example of situation context can be seen in the phrase "it's cold in here", which can either be a simple statement of fact or a request to turn up the heat, depending on, among other things, whether or not it is believed to be in the listener's power to affect the temperature.

Semantic meaning

Semantics is the study of how meaning is conveyed through signs and language. Linguistic semantics focuses on the history of how words have been used in the past. General semantics is about how people mean and refer in terms of likely intent and assumptions. These three kinds of semantics: Formal, Historical, and General-Semantics are studied in many different branches of science (methods of studying meaning vary widely). Understanding how facial expressions, body language, and tone affect meaning, and how words, phrases, sentences, and punctuation relate to meaning are examples of Semantics. Denotations are the literal or primary meaning[s] of [a] word[s]. Connotations are ideas or feelings that a word invokes for a person in addition to its literal or primary meaning. During the 19th century, Philosopher John Stuart Mill defined semantic meaning with the words "denotation" and "connotation".[2] The original use of "meaning" as understood early in the 20th century occurred through Lady Welby, after her daughter translated the term "semantics" from French.

Conceptual meaning

Languages allow information to be conveyed even when the specific words used are not known by the reader or listener. People connect words with meaning and use words to refer to concepts. A person's intentions affect what is meant. Meaning (in English) as intent harkens back to the Anglo-Saxon and is associated today still, with the German verb "meinen" as to think or intend.


Ferdinand de Saussure described language in terms of Signs, which he in turn divided into signifieds and signifiers. The signifier is the sound of the linguistic object. The signified is the mental construction, or image associated with the sound. The sign, then, is essentially the relationship between the two.

S to other signs, which means that "bat" has meaning only because it is not "cat" or "ball" or "boy". Signs are essentially arbitrary, as any foreign language student is well aware: there is no reason that bat couldn't mean "that bust of Napoleon over there" or "this body of water". Since the choice of signifiers is ultimately arbitrary, the meaning cannot somehow be in the signifier. Saussure instead defers meaning to the sign itself: meaning is ultimately the same thing as the sign, and meaning means that relationship is between signified and signifier. All meaning is both within us and communal. Signs "mean" by reference to our internal lexicon and grammar, and despite their being a matter of convention, signs can only mean something to the individual (what red means to one person may not be what red means to another). However, while meanings may vary to some extent from individual to individual, only those meanings which stay within a boundary are seen by other speakers of the language to refer to reality: if one were to refer to smells as red, most other speakers would assume the person is talking nonsense (although statements like this are common among people who experience synesthesia).

See also

Important theorists


  1. ^ Nick Sanchez. "Communication Process". New Jersey Institute of Technology. Retrieved January 14, 2012. 
  2. ^ Fred Wilson (Jan 3, 2002). "John Stuart Mill". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford. Retrieved October 8, 2010. 

Further reading

  • Akmajian, Adrian, Richard Demers, Ann Farmer, and Robert Harnish. Linguistics: an introduction to language and communication, 4th edition. 1995. Cambridge: MIT Press.
  • Allan, Keith. Linguistic Meaning, Volume One. 1986. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  • Austin, J. L. How to Do Things With Words. 1962. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Bacon, Sir Francis, Novum Organum, 1620.
  • Berger, Peter and Thomas Luckmann. The Social Construction of Reality : A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. 1967. First Anchor Books Edition. 240 pages.
  • Blackmore, John T., "Section 2, Communication", Foundation theory, 2000. Sentinel Open Press.
  • Blackmore, John T., "Prolegomena", Ernst Mach's Philosophy - Pro and Con, 2009. Sentinel Open Press.
  • Blackmore, John T. Semantic Dialogues or Ethics versus Rhetoric, 2010, Sentinel Open Press
  • Chase, Stuart, The Tyranny of Words, New York, 1938. Harcourt, Brace and Company
  • Davidson, Donald. Inquiries into Truth and Meaning, 2nd edition. 2001. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Dummett, Michael. Frege: Philosophy of Language, 2nd Edition. 1981. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Frege, Gottlob. The Frege Reader. Edited by Michael Beaney. 1997. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing
  • Gauker, Christopher. Words without Meaning. 2003. MIT Press
  • Goffman, Erving. Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. 1959. Anchor Books.
  • Grice, Paul. Studies in the Way of Words. 1989. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Hayakawa, S.I. The Use and Misuse of Language, 11th edition, 1962 [1942]. Harper and Brothers.
  • Ogden, C.K. and I.A. Richards, The Meaning of Meaning, New York, 1923. Harcourt Brace & World.
  • Schiller, F.C.S., Logic for Use, London, 1929. G. Bell.
  • Searle, John and Daniel Vanderveken. Foundations of Illocutionary Logic. 1985. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Searle, John. Speech Acts. 1969. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Searle, John. Expression and Meaning. 1979. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Stonier, Tom: Information and Meaning. An Evolutionary Perspective. 1997. XIII, 255 p. 23,5 cm.

External links

  • "Conceptual role semantics" by Ned Block
  • A summary of Wittgenstein's view of meaning
  • Meaning at CCMS
  • Meaning from a translator's point of view
  • - research group
  • Semiotics and Saussure at CCMS
  • USECS as the general catalog of meanings