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Meaning (linguistics)

Meaning (linguistics)

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Template:Linguistics In linguistics, meaning is the content carried by the words or signs exchanged by people when communicating through language. Restated, the communication of meaning is the purpose and function of language. A communicated meaning will (more or less accurately) replicate between individuals either a direct perception or some sentient derivation thereof. Meanings may take many forms, such as evoking a certain idea, or denoting a certain real-world entity. Linguistic meaning is studied in philosophy and semiotics, and especially in philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, and logic, and communication theory. Fields like sociolinguistics tend to be more interested in non-linguistic meanings. Linguistics lends itself to the study of linguistic meaning in the fields of semantics (which studies conventional meanings and how they are assembled) and pragmatics (which studies in how language is used by individuals). Literary theory, critical theory, and some branches of psychoanalysis are also involved in the discussion of meaning. Legal scholars and practitioners have discussed the nature of meaning of statutes, precedents and contracts since Roman law. However, this division of labor is not absolute, and each field depends to some extent upon the others.

Questions about how words and other symbols mean anything, and what it means to something is meaningful, are pivotal to an understanding of language. Since humans are in part characterized by their sophisticated ability to use language, it has also been seen as an essential subject to explore in order to understand human experience.


The nature of meaning

In the introduction, it was mentioned that meanings are considered to be abstract logical objects. However, this explanation has not necessarily satisfied those who have inquired into the nature of meaning. Many philosophers, including Plato, Augustine, Peter Abelard, Gottlob Frege, Ludwig Wittgenstein, J. L. Austin, John Searle, Jacques Derrida, and W.V. Quine have concerned themselves with providing alternative explanations.

The nature of meaning, its definition, elements, and types, is mainly established by Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas (also known as the AAA framework). According to this classic tradition, 'meaning is a relationship between two sorts of things: signs and the kinds of things they mean (intend, express or signify)'. One term in the relation of meaning necessarily causes something else to come to the mind in consequence. In other words: 'a sign is defined as an entity that indicates another entity to some agent for some purpose'.

The types of meanings vary according to the types of the thing that is being represented. Namely:

  1. There are the things in the world, which might have meaning;
  2. There are things in the world that are also signs of other things in the world, and so, are always meaningful (i.e., natural signs of the physical world and ideas within the mind);
  3. There are things that are always necessarily meaningful, such as words, and other nonverbal symbols.

All subsequent inquiries emphasize some particular perspectives within the general AAA framework.

The major contemporary positions of meaning come under the following partial definitions of meaning:

Idea theories of meaning

To the question, "what really is a meaning?", some have answered, "meanings are ideas". By such accounts, "ideas" are either used to refer to mental representations, or to mental activity in general. Those who seek an explanation for meaning in the former sort of account endorse a stronger sort of idea theory of mind than the latter.

Each idea is understood to be necessarily about something external and/or internal, real or imaginary. For example, in contrast to the abstract meaning of the universal "dog", the referent "this dog" may mean a particular real life chihuahua. In both cases, the word is about something, but in the former it is about the class of dogs as generally understood, while in the latter it is about a very real and particular dog in the real world.

Stronger idea theories

The classical empiricists are usually taken to be the most strident defenders of strong forms of idea theories of meaning.

David Hume is well-known for his belief that thoughts were kinds of imaginable entities. (See his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, section 2). It might be inferred that this perspective also applied to a theory of meaning. Hume was adamant about one point: that any words that could not call upon any past experience were without meaning. His forebearer, John Locke, seemed a bit more reserved in his analysis. Locke considered all ideas to be both imaginable objects of sensation and the very unimaginable objects of reflection. He stressed, in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, that words are used both as signs for ideas -- but also to signify the lack of certain ideas.

However, over the past century, strong forms of the idea theories of meaning have been criticized by many philosophers for several reasons.

One criticism made as early as George Berkeley and as late as Ludwig Wittgenstein, was that ideas alone are unable to account for the different variations within a general meaning. For example, any hypothetical image of the meaning of "dog" has to include such varied images as a chihuahua, a pug, and a Black Lab; and this seems impossible to imagine, all of those particular breeds looking very different from one another. Another way to see this point is to question why it is that, if we have an image of a specific type of dog (say of a chihuahua), why it should be entitled to represent the entire concept.

Another criticism is that some meaningful words, known as non-lexical items, don't have any meaningfully associated image. For example, the word "the" has a meaning, but one would be hard-pressed to find a mental representation that fits it. Still another objection lies in the observation that certain linguistic items name something in the real world, and are meaningful, yet which we have no mental representations to deal with. For instance, it is not known what Bismarck's mother looked like, yet the phrase "Bismarck's mother" still has meaning.

Another is a problem of composition - that it is difficult to explain how words and phrases combine into sentences if only ideas were involved in meaning.

Weaker idea theories

Image:Prototype membership.gif
Memberships of a graded class

But the idea theory of meaning has lately been defended in new form by contemporary cognitive scientists Eleanor Rosch and George Lakoff. Called the theory of prototypes, it suggests that classes are understood on the basis of the ideas we might have about particular, ideal member(s) of the class.

For example, the category of "birds" may have the idea of a robin as the prototype -- the ideal kind of bird. With experience, we come to grade the members of the class as being more or less bird-like by comparing the members to the prototype. So, for example, a penguin or an ostrich would sit at the edge of the meaning of "bird", because a penguin is unlike a robin. If true, then this theory would account for the concern expressed by Wittgenstein (above). In which case, one of the more decisive criticisms against the idea theory of meaning would be overcome.

There are many contemporary philosophers (Ned Block, Gilbert Harman, H. Field) and cognitive scientists (G. Miller and P. Johnson-Laird) who insist that the meaning of a term can be found by investigating its role in relation to other concepts and mental states. These philosophers endorse a view called "conceptual role semantics". Those proponents of this view who understand meanings to be exhausted by the content of mental states can be said to endorse "one-factor" accounts of conceptual role semantics. With this emphasis upon meaning as an aspect of human psychology, they fit within the tradition of idea theories.

Truth and meaning

Some have asserted that meaning is nothing substantially more or less than the truth conditions they involve. For such theories, an emphasis is placed upon reference to actual things in the world to account for meaning, with the caveat that reference more or less explains the greater part (or all of) meaning itself.

Logic and language

One set of philosophers who advocated a truth-theory of meaning were the logical positivists, who put stock in the notion that the meaning of a statement arose from how it is verified.

Logic and reality were at the core of their understanding of truth and meaning. To understand this insight, some explanation of the history of logic is necessary.

Classical logicians had known since Aristotle how to codify certain common patterns of reasoning into logical form. But in the 19th century, Western philosophy took a turn toward language philosophy. This shift in interest is tied closely to the development of modern logic. Modern logic began with the work of the German logician Gottlob Frege in the late nineteenth century. Frege, along with contemporaries George Boole and Charles Sanders Peirce, advanced logic significantly by introducing Sentential connectives (like and, or and if-then), and quantifiers like all and some. Much of this work was made possible by the development of set theory.

Gottlob Frege

Modern philosophy of language began with the discussion of sense and reference in Gottlob Frege's essay Über Sinn und Bedeutung (now usually translated as On Sense and Reference).

Frege noted that proper names present at least two problems in explaining meaning.

  1. Suppose, as one might casually say, the meaning of a name is the thing it refers to. Sam, then, means a person in the world who is named Sam. But if the object referred to by the name did not exist -- i.e., Pegasus -- then, according to that theory, it would be meaningless. And that seems wrong.
  2. There may also be two different names that refer to the same object -- Hesperus and Phosphorus, for example -- which were once used to describe the Morning Star and Evening Star. However, it turns out that astronomers have discovered that the Morning Star and Evening Star are the same thing: both refer to the planet Venus. If the words meant the same thing, then substituting one for the other in a sentence would not result in a sentence that differs in meaning from the original. But in that case, "Hesperus is Phosphorus" would mean the same thing as "Hesperus is Hesperus". This is clearly absurd, since we learn something new and unobvious by the former statement, but not by the latter.

Frege can be interpreted as arguing that it was therefore a mistake to think that the meaning of a name is the thing it refers to. Instead, the meaning must be something else—the "sense" of the word. Two names for the same person, then, can have different senses (or meanings): one referent might be picked out by more than one sense. This sort of theory is called a mediated reference theory.

Frege argued that, ultimately, the same bifurcation of meaning must apply to most or all linguistic categories, such as to quantificational expressions like "All boats float". Ironically enough, it is now accepted by many philosophers as applying to all expressions but proper names.

Bertrand Russell

Logical analysis was further advanced by Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead in their groundbreaking Principia Mathematica, which attempted to produce a formal language with which the truth of all mathematical statements could be demonstrated from first principles.

Russell differed from Frege greatly on many points, however. He rejected (or perhaps misunderstood) Frege's sense-reference distinction. He also disagreed that language was of fundamental significance to philosophy, and saw the project of developing formal logic as a way of eliminating all of the confusions caused by ordinary language, and hence at creating a perfectly transparent medium in which to conduct traditional philosophical argument. He hoped, ultimately, to extend the proofs of the Principia to all possible true statements, a scheme he called logical atomism. For a while it appeared that his pupil Wittgenstein had succeeded in this plan with his "Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus".

Russell's work, and that of his colleague G. E. Moore, developed in response to what they perceived as the nonsense dominating British philosophy departments at the turn of the century, a kind of British Idealism most of which was derived (albeit very distantly) from the work of Hegel. In response Moore developed an approach ("Common Sense Philosophy") which sought to examine philosophical difficulties by a close analysis of the language used in order to determine its meaning. In this way Moore sought to expunge philosophical absurdities such as "time is unreal". Moore's work would have significant, if oblique, influence (largely mediated by Wittgenstein) on Ordinary language philosophy.

Other truth theories

The Vienna Circle, a famous group of logical positivists from the early 20th century (closely allied with Russell and Frege), adopted the verificationist theory of meaning. The verificationist theory of meaning (in at least one of its forms) states that to say that an expression is meaningful is to say that there are some conditions of experience that could exist to show that the expression is true. As noted, Frege and Russell were two proponents of this way of thinking.

A semantic theory of truth was produced by Alfred Tarski for the semantics of logic. According to Tarski's account, meaning consists of a recursive set of rules that end up yielding an infinite set of sentences, "'p' is true if and only if p", covering the whole language. His innovation produced the notion of propositional functions discussed on the section on universals (which he called "sentential functions"), and a model-theoretic approach to semantics (as opposed to a proof-theoretic one). Finally, some links were forged to the correspondence theory of truth (Tarski, 1944).

Perhaps the most influential current approach in the contemporary theory of meaning is that sketched by Donald Davidson in his introduction to the collection of essays Truth and Meaning in 1967. There he argued for the following two theses:

  • Any learnable language must be statable in a finite form, even if it is capable of a theoretically infinite number of expressions--as we may assume that natural human languages are, at least in principle. If it could not be stated in a finite way then it could not be learned through a finite, empirical method such as the way humans learn their languages. It follows that it must be possible to give a theoretical semantics for any natural language which could give the meanings of an infinite number of sentences on the basis of a finite system of axioms.
  • Giving the meaning of a sentence, he further argued, was equivalent to stating its truth conditions. He proposed that it must be possible to account for language as a set of distinct grammatical features together with a lexicon, and for each of them explain its workings in such a way as to generate trivial (obviously correct) statements of the truth conditions of all the (infinitely many) sentences built up from these.

The result is a theory of meaning that rather resembles, by no accident, Tarski's account.

Davidson's account, though brief, constitutes the first systematic presentation of truth-conditional semantics. He proposed simply translating natural languages into first-order predicate calculus in order to reduce meaning to a function of truth.

Saul Kripke

Saul Kripke examined the relation between sense and reference in dealing with possible and actual situations. He showed that one consequence of his interpretation of certain systems of modal logic was that the reference of a proper name is necessarily linked to its referent, but that the sense is not. So for instance "Hesperus" necessarily refers to Hesperus, even in those imaginary cases and worlds in which perhaps Hesperus is not the evening star. That is, Hesperus is necessarily Hesperus, but only contingently the morning star.

This results in the curious situation that part of the meaning of a name - that it refers to some particular thing - is a necessary fact about that name, but another part - that it is used in some particular way or situation - is not.

Kripke also drew the distinction between speaker's meaning and semantic meaning, elaborating on the work of ordinary language philosophers Paul Grice and Keith Donnellan. The speaker's meaning is what the speaker intends to refer to by saying something; the semantic meaning is what the words uttered by the speaker mean according to the language.

In some cases, people do not say what they mean; in other cases, they say something that is in error. In both these cases, the speaker's meaning and the semantic meaning seem to be different. Sometimes words do not actually express what the speaker wants them to express; so words will mean one thing, and what people intend to convey by them might mean another. The meaning of the expression, in such cases, is ambiguous.

Critiques of truth-theories of meaning

W.V. Quine attacked both verificationism and the very notion of meaning in his famous essay, "Two Dogmas of Empiricism". In it, he suggested that meaning was nothing more than a vague and dispensable notion. Instead, he asserted, what was more interesting to study was the synonymy between signs. He also pointed out that verificationism was tied to the distinction between analytic and synthetic statements, and asserted that such a divide was defended ambiguously. He also suggested that the unit of analysis for any potential investigation into the world (and, perhaps, meaning) would be the entire body of statements taken as a collective, not just individual statements on their own.

Other criticisms can be raised on the basis of the limitations that truth-conditional theorists themselves admit to. Tarski, for instance, recognized that truth-conditional theories of meaning only make sense of statements, but fail to explain the meanings of the lexical parts that make up statements. Rather, the meaning of the parts of statements is presupposed by an understanding of the truth-conditions of a whole statement, and explained in terms of what he called "satisfaction conditions".

Still another objection (noted by Frege and others) was that some kinds of statements don't seem to have any truth-conditions at all. For instance, "Hello!" has no truth-conditions, because it doesn't even attempt to tell the listener anything about the state of affairs in the world. In other words, different propositions have different grammatical moods.

Deflationist accounts of truth, sometimes called 'irrealist' accounts, are the staunchest source of criticism of truth-conditional theories of meaning. According to them, "truth" is a word with no serious meaning or function in discourse except to affirm an expression. For instance, for the deflationist, the sentences "It's true that Tiny Tim is trouble" and "Tiny Tim is trouble" are equivalent. In consequence, for the deflationist, any appeal to truth as an account of meaning has little explanatory power.

The sort of truth-theories presented here can also be attacked for their formalism both in practice and principle. The principle of formalism is challenged by the informalists, who suggest that language is largely a construction of the speaker, and so, not compatible with formalization. The practice of formalism is challenged by those who observe that formal languages (such as present-day quantificational logic) fail to capture the expressive power of natural languages (as is arguably demonstrated in the awkward character of the quantificational explanation of definite description statements, as laid out by Bertrand Russell).

Finally, over the past century, forms of logic have been developed that are not dependent exclusively on the notions of truth and falsity. Some of these types of logic have been called modal logics. They explain how certain logical connectives such as "if-then" work in terms of necessity and possibility. Indeed, modal logic was the basis of one of the most popular and rigorous formulations in modern semantics called the Montague grammar. The successes of such systems naturally give rise to the argument that these systems have captured the natural meaning of connectives like if-then far better than an ordinary, truth-functional logic ever could.

Usage and meaning

Throughout the 20th Century, English philosophy focused closely on analysis of language. This style of analytic philosophy became very influential and led to the development of a wide range of philosophical tools.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was originally an artificial language philosopher, following the influence of Russell, Frege, and the Vienna Circle. In his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus he had supported the idea of an ideal language built up from atomic statements using logical connectives. However, as he matured, he came to appreciate more and more the phenomenon of natural language. Philosophical Investigations, published after his death, signalled a sharp departure from his earlier work with its focus upon ordinary language use. His approach is often summarised by the aphorism "the meaning of a word is its use in a language".

His work would come to inspire future generations and spur forward a whole new discipline, which explained meaning in a new way. Meaning in natural languages was seen as primarily a question of how the speaker uses language to express intentions.

This close examination of natural language proved to be a powerful philosophical technique. Practitioners who were influenced by Wittgenstein's approach have included an entire tradition of thinkers, featuring P. F. Strawson, Paul Grice, R. M. Hare, R. S. Peters, and Jürgen Habermas.

J. L. Austin

At around the same time Ludwig Wittgenstein was re-thinking his approach to language, reflections on the complexity of language led to a more expansive approach to meaning. Following the lead of George Edward Moore, J. L. Austin examined the use of words in great detail. He argued against fixating on the meaning of words. He showed that dictionary definitions are of limited philosophical use, since there is no simple "appendage" to a word that can be called its meaning. Instead, he showed how to focus on the way in which words are used in order to do things. He analysed the structure of utterances into three distinct parts: locutions, illocutions and perlocutions. His pupil John Searle developed the idea under the label "speech acts". Their work greatly influenced pragmatics.

Peter Strawson

Past philosophers had understood reference to be tied to words themselves. However, Sir Peter Strawson disagreed in his seminal essay, "On Referring", where he argued that there is nothing true about statements on their own; rather, only the uses of statements could be considered to be true or false.

Indeed, one of the hallmarks of the ordinary use perspective is its insistence upon the distinctions between meaning and use. "Meanings", for ordinary language philosophers, are the instructions for usage of words - the common and conventional definitions of words. Usage, on the other hand, is the actual meanings that individual speakers have - they things that an individual speaker in a particular context wants to refer to. The word "dog" is an example of a meaning, but pointing at a nearby dog and shouting "This dog smells foul!" is an example of usage. From this distinction between usage and meaning arose the divide between the fields of Pragmatics and Semantics.

Yet another distinction is of some utility in discussing language: "mentioning". Mention is when an expression refers to itself as a linguistic item, usually surrounded by quotation marks. For instance, in the expression "'Opopanax' is hard to spell", what is referred to is the word itself ("opopanax") and not what it means (an obscure gum resin). Frege had referred to instances of mentioning as "opaque contexts".

In his essay, "Reference and Definite Descriptions", Keith Donnellan sought to improve upon Strawson's distinction. He pointed out that there are two uses of definite descriptions: attributive and referential. Attributive uses provide a description of whoever is being referred to, while referential uses point out the actual referent. Attributive uses are like mediated references, while referential uses are more directly referential.

Paul Grice

The philosopher Paul Grice, working within the ordinary language tradition, understood "meaning" to have two kinds: natural and non-natural. Natural meaning had to do with cause and effect, for example with the expression "these spots mean measels". Non-natural meaning, on the other hand, had to do with the intentions of the speaker in communicating something to the listener.

In his essay, Logic and Conversation, Grice went on to explain and defend an explanation of how conversations work. His guiding maxim was called the cooperative principle, which claimed that the speaker and the listener will have mutual expectations of the kind of information that will be shared. The principle is broken down into four maxims: Quality (which demands truthfulness and honesty), Quantity (demand for just enough information as is required), Relation (relevance of things brought up), and Manner (lucidity). This principle, if and when followed, lets the speaker and listener figure out the meaning of certain implications by way of inference.

The works of Grice led to an avalanche of research and interest in the field, both supportive and critical. One spinoff was called Relevance theory, developed by Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson during the mid-1980s, whose goal was to make the notion of relevance more clear. Similarly, in his work, "Universal pragmatics", Jurgen Habermas began a program that sought to improve upon the work of the ordinary language tradition. In it, he laid out the goal of a valid conversation as a pursuit of mutual understanding.

Inferential role semantics

Main article: Inferential role semantics

Michael Dummett argued against the kind of truth-conditional semantics presented by Davidson. Instead, he argued that basing semantics on assertion conditions avoids a number of difficulties with truth-conditional semantics, such as the transcendental nature of certain kinds of truth condition. He leverages work done in proof-theoretic semantics to provide a kind of inferential role semantics, where:

  • The meaning of sentences and grammatical constructs is given by their assertion conditions; and
  • Such a semantics is only guaranteed to be coherent if the inferences associated with the parts of language are in logical harmony.

A semantics based upon assertion conditions is called a verificationist semantics: cf. the verificationism of the Vienna Circle.

This work is closely related, though not identical, to one-factor theories of conceptual role semantics.

Critiques of use theories of meaning

Cognitive scientist Jerry Fodor has noted that use theories (of the Wittgensteinian kind) seem to be committed to the notion that language is a public phenomenon -- that there is no such thing as a "private language". Fodor criticizes such claims because he thinks it is necessary to create or describe the language of thought, which would seemingly require the existence of a "private language".

Some philosophers of language, such as Christopher Gauker, have attacked use theories of meaning by denying that the discovery of a speaker's intentions is a necessary part of the listener's strategies in decoding and inferring.

In the 1960s, David Lewis published another thesis of meaning as use, as he described meaning as a feature of a social convention (see also convention (philosophy) and conventions as regularities of a specific sort. Lewis' work was an application of game theory in philosophical matters. Conventions, he argued, are a species of coordination equilibria.

Linguistic approaches to meaning

Linguistic strings can be made up of phenomena like words, phrases, and sentences, and each seems to have a different kind of meaning. Individual words all by themselves, such as the word "bachelor," have one kind of meaning, because they only seem to refer to some abstract concept. Phrases, such as "the brightest star in the sky", seem to be different from individual words, because they are complex symbols arranged into some order. There is also the meaning of whole sentences, such as "Barry is a bachelor", which is both a complex whole, and seems to 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 examines the ways in which words, phrases, and sentences can have meaning. Semantics 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. This, however, only works for nouns and noun phrases.

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, like "Ouch!"; performative sentences, such as "I damn thee!"; and commandative sentences, such as "Get the milk from the fridge". This aspect of meaning is called the grammatical mood.

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 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.

Linguistic context refers to the language surrounding the phrase in question. The importance of linguistic context becomes exceptionally clear when looking at pronouns: in most situations, 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".

Situational context, on the other hand, refers 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





Important theorists

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.
  • 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

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