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Linguistic strings can be made up of phenomena such as words, phrases, and sentences, each of which has a different kind of meaning. Individual words, such as the word “bachelor”, refer to some abstract concept. Phrases, such as “the brightest star in the sky”, are different from individual words, as complex symbols arranged into some order. Sentences, such as “Barry is a bachelor”, are both complex wholes, and express a statement that might be true or false.
In linguistics the fields most closely associated with meaning are semantics and pragmatics. Semantics deals most directly with what words or phrases mean, and pragmatics deals with how the environment changes the meanings of words. Syntax and morphology also have a profound effect on meaning. The syntax of a language allows a good deal of information to be conveyed even when the specific words used are not known to the listener, and a language’s morphology can allow a listener to uncover the meaning of a word by examining the morphemes that make it up.
The field of semantics in so far is it is objectified by not considering particular situations and the real intentions of speakers and writers examines the ways in which words, phrases, and sentences can have meaning. This type of semantics is contrasted with communication-focused semantics where understanding the intent and assumptions of particular speakers and writers is primary as in the idea that people mean and not words, sentences or proposition. An underlying difference is that where causes are identified with relations or laws then it is normal to objectify meaning, while if causes are identified with particular agents, objects, or forces as if to cause means to influence as most historians and practical people assume, then real or non-objectified meaning is primary. Objectified semantics in much linguistics (following Ferdinand de Saussure) usually divides words into their sense and reference. The reference of a word is the thing it refers to: In the sentence “Give the guy sitting next to you a turn”, the guy refers to a specific person, in this case the male one sitting next to you. This person is the phrase’s reference. The sense, on the other hand, is that part of the expression that helps us to determine the thing it refers to. In the example above, the sense is every piece of information that helps to determine that the expression is referring to the male human sitting next to you and not any other object. This includes any linguistic information as well as situational context, environmental details, and so on. On the other hand, following J.S. Mill, sense is often called connotation and reference denotation. Furthermore, in semantics outside of both linguistics and philosophy, denotation normally means the primary use of a word and connotation means the associations made with the word, including value connotations which indicate whether the author is praising or criticizing what is denoted or referred to.
In objectified semantics there are at least four different kinds of sentences. Some of them are truth-sensitive, which are called indicative sentences. However, other kinds of sentences are not truth-sensitive. They include expressive sentences, “Ouch!”; performative sentences, such as “I baptise you”; and commandative sentences, such as “Get the milk from the fridge”. This aspect of meaning is called the grammatical mood. Idealized meaning has value when attempting to understand how words are normally used, while in non-objectified or practical meaning especially in particular situations and where irony, satire, humor.
Among words and phrases, different parts of speech can be distinguished, such as noun phrases and adjectival phrases. Each of these have different kinds of meaning; nouns typically refer to entities, while adjectives typically refer to properties. Proper names, which are names that stand for individuals, like “Jerry”, “Barry”, “Paris,” and “Venus,” are going to have another kind of meaning.
When dealing with verb phrases, one approach to discovering the way the phrase means is by looking at the thematic roles the child noun phrases take on. Verbs do not point to things, but rather to the relationship between one or more nouns and some configuration or reconfiguration therein, so the meaning of a verb phrase can be derived from the meaning of its child noun phrases and the relationship between them and the verb.
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 (like Socrates, Saussure didn’t much concern himself with the written word). The signified, on the other hand, is the mental construction or image associated with the sound. The sign, then, is essentially the relationship between the two.
Signs themselves exist only in opposition to other signs, which means that “bat” has meaning only because it is not “cat” or “ball” or “boy”. This is because 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 between signified and signifier. This, in turn, means that 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, that is, a public thing, 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).
Pragmatics studies the ways that context affects meaning. The two primary forms of context important to pragmatics are linguistic context and situational context. The term “pragmatics” was introduced by the Logical Positivist, Rudolf Carnap. This was an attempt to reduce subjective meaning to a secondary status and to treat what remained as objective by following Wittgenstein, who sought to objectify meaning as intent as if it were merely a matter of context. But it was Wittgenstein’s own student, G.E.M. Anscombe, however, who re-emphasized the primacy of human intent and assumptions whether they were subjective or not, and who also suggested a preference for understanding causes more as influence than as relations or laws. This of course may seem obvious in hindsight when we consider understanding irony, satire, humor, poetry, representation, or foundation theory where intent, assumptions, and various value connotations as influence on our thinking need to be understood by an audience. In short, while we all use objectified meaning and consider context important, when communication breaks down, then the primacy of subjective meaning becomes overwhelming, especially when we finally ask: “What do YOU mean?”
Nevertheless, in so far as we attempt to understand meaning without directly considering subjective factors, the importance of linguistic context as an indirect way of doing that becomes exceptionally important especially when looking at particular linguistic problems such as that of pronouns. In most situations,for example, the pronoun him in the sentence “Joe also saw him” has a radically different meaning if preceded by “Jerry said he saw a guy riding an elephant” than it does if preceded by “Jerry saw the bank robber” or “Jerry saw your dog run that way”. Indeed, studying context is about the only path in realistic speech or writing for understanding semantics and pragmatics without referring to meaning as intent and assumptions.
Linguistic context would to the extent possible refer to every non-linguistic factor that affects the meaning of a phrase. Nearly anything can be included in the list, from the time of day to the people involved to the location of the speaker or the temperature of the room. An example of situational context at work is evident 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.
When we speak we perform speech acts. A speech act has an illocutionary point or illocutionary force. For example, the point of an assertion is to represent the world as being a certain way. The point of a promise is to put oneself under an obligation to do something. The illucutionary point of a speech act must be distinguished from its perlocutionary effect, which is what it brings about. A request, for example, has as its illocutionary point to direct someone to do something. Its perlocutionary effect may be the doing of the thing by the person directed. Sentences in different grammatical moods, the declarative, imperative, and interrogative, tend to perform speech acts of specific sorts. But in particular contexts one may perform a different speech act using them than that for which they are typically put to use. Thus, as noted above, one may use a sentence such as “it’s cold in here” not only to make an assertion but also to request that one’s auditor turn up the heat. Speech acts include performative utterances, in which one performs the speech act by using a first person present tense sentence which says that one is performing the speech act. Examples are: ‘I promise to be there’, ‘I warn you not to do it’, ‘I advise you to turn yourself in’, etc. Some specialized devices for performing speech acts are exclamatives and phatics, such as ‘Ouch!’ and ‘Hello!’, respectively. The former is used to perform an expressive speech act, and the latter for greeting someone.
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.
In applied pragmatics (such as neuro-linguistic programming), meaning is constituted by an individual through the active significance generated by the mental processing of stimuli input from the sensory organs. Thus, people can see, hear, feel/touch, taste and smell, and form meanings out of those sensory experiences, actively and interactively.
Even though a sensory input created by a stimulus cannot be articulated in language or signs of any kind, it can nevertheless have a meaning. This can be experimentally demonstrated by showing that people behaviourally respond in specific, non-arbitrary ways to sensing a stimulus, consciously or sub-consciously, even although they have no way of telling what it is or means, and no possible way of knowing what it is or what it means.
 See also
- J. L. Austin
- Roland Barthes
- Rudolf Carnap
- Noam Chomsky
- Eugenio Coseriu
- Umberto Eco
- Viktor Frankl
- Gottlob Frege
- Paul Grice
- Roman Jakobson
- Saul Kripke
- Claude Lévi-Strauss
- Charles Sanders Peirce
- Bertrand Russell
- Ferdinand de Saussure
- John Searle
- P. F. Strawson
- Willard Van Orman Quine
- Ludwig Wittgenstein
 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.
- Berger, Peter and Thomas Luckmann. The Social Construction of Reality : A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. 1967. First Anchor Books Edition. 240 pages.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- Meaning.ch – research group
- Semiotics and Saussure at CCMS
- USECS as the general catalog of meanings