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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 for¬ward 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 func¬tion 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 certain¬ly the most important.
Generally speaking, meaning can be more or less de¬scribed 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” (ob¬ject, 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 con¬cepts 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 phe¬nomena) are converted into words (i. e. linguistic phe¬nomena) 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 described.
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 corre¬sponding 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 deve¬loped 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 phenome¬na. 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 poten¬tial 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 or¬gans 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 pro¬cesses of polysemy development involve both the ap¬pearance 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 lan¬guage's expressive resources.
When analysing the semantic structure of a polyse¬mantic 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 are given):
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, as¬pects and instances of the same phenomenon.
Meaning (I) (generally referred to as the main mean¬ing) 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 second¬ary meanings) can be associated with one another, some of them exclusively through meaning (I) - the main meaning, as, for instance, meanings (IV) and (V).
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 an¬other 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 be¬tween 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 ar¬ranged 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 to¬gether the rest of the semantic structure.
1. A dull book, a dull film - uninteresting, monotonous, boring.
2. A dull stu¬dent - 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 ex¬citement.
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 struc¬tural 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 sys¬tem 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 sepa¬rate 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 compo¬nent (also, the term referential component may be used). The denotative component expresses the concep¬tual content of a word.
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. -