Friday, January 09, 2009

Types of Meaning

I don't want to spend a whole lot of time on this, but I do want to take enough time to be clear that there are, unambiguously, numerous types of meaning.

Why is this important? When we talk about teaching and learning, we are often talking about meaning. Consider the classic constructivist activity of 'making meaning', for example. Or event he concept of 'content', which is (ostensibly) the 'meaning' of whatever it is that a student is being taught.

What are we to make of such theorizing in the light of the numerous ways that words, sentences, ideas and constructs can have meaning? What does 'making meaning' mean we we consider the range between logical, semantical, and functional meaning?

The idea - often so central to transmission and transactional theorists of learning, that a word or sentence can have a single meaning, or a 'shared meaning', is tested to the extreme by an examination of the nature and constitution of that putative meaning.

In any case, it is always better to show than to argue. Herewith, a bit of an account of some of the many different types of meaning:

Literal meaning - the sentence means what it says. Also known as 'utterance' meaning (Griffiths).

Logical meaning - the meaning of the sentence is determined by (is a part of) a set of logical inferences, such as composition, subordination, etc. Also called 'taxis'. (Kies)

Denotative meaning - the sentence means what it is about. The 'reference' of a sentence, as opposed to its 'sense'. (Frege)

Sematical meaning - meaning is truth (Tarski - 'snow is white' is true iff snow is white)

Positivist meaning - the sentence means what it says that can be empirically confirmed or falsified (Ayer, Carnap, Schlick)

Pragmatic meaning - the relationship between signs and their users. (Morris) Includes "identificational meaning, expressive meaning, associative meaning, social meaning, and imperative meaning." (Lunwen)

Intentional meaning - the sentence means what the author intended it to say. Also known as "sender's meaning" (Griffiths). - John Searle, often includes conversational implicatures

Connotative meaning - the sentence means what readers think about when they read it. Sometimes known as 'sense' (Frege). Also sometimes thought of as 'associative' meaning. (Morris) Includes 'reflected' meaning (what is communicated through association with another sense of the same expression, Leech) and collocative meaning (Leech)

Social meaning - "what is communicated of the social circumstances of language use" (from Leech; Lunwen)

Metaphorical meaning - the meaning is determined by metaphor, and not actual reference

Emotive meaning - related to connotative - the type of emotion the sentence invokes

Functional meaning - the sentence means what it is used for, what it does (Wittgenstein, meaning is use; Austin, speech acts). The 'mode' of a sentence is the function it plays in channeling communication - what degree of feedback it elicits, for example, of what degree of abstraction it considers. (Cope and Kalantzis)

Type meaning - the sentence's meaning is related to what it doesn't say, to the range of possible words or sentences that could be said instead (Derrida). Gillett writes, "Part of the meaning of a word is its 'register'. Which types of language is the word used in: letters or reports, spoken or written, biology or business etc?"

Deictic meaning - meaning is determined with reference to the situation or context in which the word is used. Griffiths writes, "Deixis is pervasive in languages." Common deixic frames include common understandings related to people )'the boss'), time ('tomorrow'), place ('nearby'), participants ('his'), even discourse itself ('this' article).

Relevance, significance or value - "what is the meaning of life?"

Accent - the manner in which the word is pronounced or emphasized can cnage its meaning.

Intralingual meaning - (Morris) intralingual meaning (the relationship between different signs; it includes phonological meaning, graphemic meaning, morphological or lexemic meaning, syntactic meaning, and discoursal or textual meaning).

Thematic meaning - "what is communicated by the way in which the message is organized in terms of order and emphasis" (Leech; Lunwen)

Some links:

Learning Vocabulary: Dealing With Meaning, from Using English for Academic Purposes, Andy Gillett, School of Combined Studies, University of Hertfordshire
Hatfield, UK.

An Introduction to English Semantics and Pragmatics
, Patrick Griffiths.

Powers of Literacy, Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis

Strange Attractors of Meaning, Vladimir Dimitriv

The Grammatical Foundations of Style
, Daniel Kies, Department of English, College of DuPage

Foundations of the Theory of Signs, Charles W. Morris

Seven Types of Meaning, Geoffrey Leech, in Semantics, pp. 10-27.

A Semantic Analysis of the Different Types of Meanings in Translation, Lunwen


  1. I thought we might see a post on this subject! Very interesting, and I'm sure there are other subtly nuanced types of meaning, too.

    With regard to 'intralingual meaning', do you suppose that includes a meaning which is inherent in the language in which the information is communicated? As a polyglot, I am often frustrated by the fact that the sense I want to convey can be perfectly captured in a certain language, but has no suitable equivalent in the language I am speaking at the time. People sometimes assume that English isn't my first language (it is) because I will turn to my husband and say "How can I say XYZ in English?" This is particularly true of Afrikaans expressions, since I speak that language almost as fluently as I do English, and it is completely integral to my culture.

    The sense of what I want to say is so perfectly captured by phrase XYZ in language A, that it is the first expression that occurs to me, to the extent that I am stumped as to how to convey the message in a different tongue.

  2. Thanks, Stephen. This is very useful to me and my current research considerations.

  3. I am looking to do a paprer on the seven types of meaning by Leech but need a topic within that, any suggestions?

  4. I'm searching the five types of meaning, speakers' meaning, symbolic meaning, discourse meaning, linguistic meaning, and natural meaning. all for my semantics task. Any suggestion?

  5. This article has helped me in my semantics course,Thanks.

  6. I hope the article would help my research students.

    Dr Umesh Jagadale
    Maharashtra, India

  7. This article has been of tremendous help to me and I hope it helps my Semantics and pragmatics students in my home university too.

  8. Thank you very much for your effort and all your explanations

  9. This thing would be much better with an actual example of each "sentence type".
    as in "Bob is in the tree." or "Duct tape is like the Force...." etc.

    But then too, there is another issue, some of this ummm...."theory" applies to more than just words, sentences, or even paragraphs or entire essays/papers/books...

    Some of this stuff could be applied to:
    1. Pictures, slide shows, {presentations?} etc.
    2. Movies, videos, etc. B/W or color, sound or no sound. Captioned or not...
    3. Sounds. Voice, music (with or without vocals)...
    4. Artifacts. Paintings, statues, machines, buildings, and so on.

    No, not all items in your list will fit. I know that. But some might. And in some cases, some new categories may have to be invented. And you may want to address that... in the future. Of course, concrete examples will be harder to find and post.

    Still, worth considering...

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  11. I've just come across this post and will find it useful in explaining how the same words can mean different things to different individuals and how this is not a BAD thing. An adult friend seems to suffer from undiagnosed Asperger's syndrome and he has been very distressed when my meanings are not exactly the same as his when discussing realms such as 'privacy' and 'medical'. He is highly intelligent and may respond well to reading this blog entry of yours. I hope so!


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