Types of meaning

Odgen and Richards (1923) distinguished 22 different meanings of the word mean or meaning, taking different non-theoretical or theoretical starting points.

From a linguistic perspective, we need to differentiate between lexical and grammatical meaning. Lexical meaning refers to the meaning of words that belong to one of the four lexical word classes. It is the aspect of meaning usually given in a dictionary. Important aspects in describing lexical meaning are syntagmatic relations holding between particular lexical items (bird:fly, blond:hair), as well as paradigmatic relations between words which have a similar meaning (red:blue). In contrast, grammatical meaning includes the meaning of grammatical items (e.g. function words and inflectional affixes), grammatical functions (e.g. subject and object), and different sentence-types (e.g. declarative and interrogative).

Taking into account certain non-linguistic aspects of meaning, Geoffrey Leech (1981) lists seven different types of meaning. Referential meaning (also called denotative meaning, descriptive meaning, conceptual meaning, or sense) refers to the logical, cognitive, or denotative content of an expression. In contrast, connotative meaning (associative meaning) denotes the associations and secondary meanings the expression evokes. Information that the linguistic expression conveys about certain social characteristics is called social meaning (stylistic meaning), while the emotive or affective component of the expression is referred to as its affective meaning. Social meaning and affective meaning together are sometimes called connotation. The term reflected meaning refers to certain associations with another sense of the same expression, whereas collocative meaning (collocation) is conveyed by characteristic word combinations. Finally, thematic meaning denotes the organization of a message in terms of information structure.

Exercises on types of meanings

Social meaning: autumn vs. fall

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