Where is meaning?

BBI 3219
Semantik & Pragmatik
Some things we know
• These sentences describe
the same situation:
– The small blue circle is in
front of the square.
– The square is behind the
small blue circle.
We are also capable of verifying that both sentences
are true in this particular situation.
This is because we know what the world must be
like in order for these sentences to be true.
Some things we know
• We know that the following sentence can
mean more than one thing (it is ambiguous):
– She drove past the bank.
 This seems to be related to our knowledge of what
bank denotes.
• Semantics is the branch of linguistics
that deals with the study of meaning,
changes in meaning, and the
principles that govern the relationship
between sentences or words and their
• It is the study of the relationships
between signs and symbols and what
they represent.
beautiful, excellent
bright, lively-looking
dedicated to social pleasures,
promiscuous, frivolous
bad in various extended
senses (e.g. wounds, quality)
excellent, splendid,
malicious, mischievous, sly
(jocular use)
bad in
• The study of the linguistic meaning
of morphemes, words, phrases, and
sentences is called Semantics.
• The study of semantics includes the
study of how meaning is constructed,
illustrated, simplified, negotiated,
contradicted, and paraphrased.
Some important areas of semantic theory or
related subjects include these:
Symbol and referent
Conceptions of meaning
Words and lexemes
Denotation, connotation, implication
Metaphor, simile and symbol
Semantic fields
Synonym, antonym and hyponym
Semantic change and etymology
Homonymy, homophones and
• Lexicology and lexicography
• Epistemology
• Colour
Subfields of semantics:
1. Lexical (of or relating to the vocabulary,
words, or morphemes of a language)
semantics - meanings of words, and the
meaning relationships among words;
2. Phrasal or sentential semantics concerned with the meaning of
syntactic units larger than the word.
• The study of how context affects
meaning is called Pragmatics.
• For example, the sentence "It's cold
in here" can be interpreted in certain
situations as "close the windows".
What is meaning?
‘Aboutness’ of natural language
• A noise that I make when I speak or a scribble that I
produce when I write words in English or a signlanguage gesture I make are physical objects that
convey meanings, they are about something
• We use language to communicate, to talk about
things in the world, people and their properties,
relations between people, events, in short about the
way the world is, should be, could have been …
• Semantics involves the most abstract level of
linguistic analysis, since we cannot see or
observe meaning as we can observe and
record sounds.
• Meaning is related very closely to the human
capacity to think logically and to understand.
• So when we try to analyze meaning, we are
trying to analyze our own capacity to think
and understand our own ability to create
Can we define meanings in terms of their
physical properties?
• Linguistic forms usually lack any physical
resemblance with the entities that they stand
Can we define meanings in terms of their
physical properties?
• The connection between a word and what it
stands for is ARBITRARY - there is no
relationship between the way a word is
pronounced (or signed) and its meaning.
• “The ARBITRARINESS of the linguistic sign”
(Ferdinand de Saussure, 1916, Cours de
linguistique générale) is one of the defining
properties of human language.
Language and the world
• But in characterising knowledge of meaning, we also
have the problem of distinguishing linguistic knowledge
from world knowledge
• E.g. What is the meaning of the word man or ostrich?
– Is your knowledge of the meaning independent of your
experience of the world?
– Are you born with an innate knowledge of such words?
Knowledge of language and the world
How do we account for the
relationship between
words and concepts?
How do we decode the
meaning of complex
How is linguistic meaning
related to the world?
Indirect relation between word and world
Gold is getting more and more expensive.
• What idea, concept, thought or image do you think of when
you hear this sentence?
• For EVERY PERSON, the word gold evokes a DIFFERENT
PICTURE, IDEA, CONCEPT, etc.; yet that does not prevent us all
from using the word with the same meaning.
• This means that the word gold applies to something general,
or possibly even universal.
Where is meaning?
– The meaning of words cannot be derived from their
physical properties,
– It cannot be reduced to the real-world objects or their
perception, and
– It cannot be reduced to the particular image in my or your
• The meaning of words is to be derived from the
relations between words, concepts and things in
the real world.
Levels of Meaning
1. Sentence / Expression meaning – the
linguistic meaning sentence
2. Utterance meaning – meaning of the
sentence in a particular context
Expression meaning
• The meanings of words, phrases and
sentences, taken out of context, in their
general sense constitute the level of meaning .
• Covers word meaning and sentence meaning.
• Literal/conventionalised meaning
o“core meaning”, independent of context
o this belongs to semantics proper
Sentence / expression meaning
1. Corresponds to phrasal meaning or sense i.e. the
compositional meaning of the sentence as constructed out
of the meanings of its individual component lexemes
I don't need your bicycle.
• need, bicycle content words
• I, do, not, your function words
2. context-independent
3. The meaning of content words are concepts. It describes
what it refers to, i.e. it is descriptive meaning
4. The meaning of function words contributes to the
descriptive meaning of the sentence.
• Uncovering the knowledge of the meanings of
words and sentences and revealing its nature
are the central objectives of semantics.
Determine the meaning of the sentence in (1):
(1) I like your shirt.
The description of meaning must be specific
enough to distinguish it from all other words
with different meanings
Utterance Meaning
• The meaning that results from using an expression in
a given context of utterance (CoU).
• CoU  the sum of circumstances that bear on
reference and truth.
The speaker
The addressee(s) / recipients
The time
The place
The facts
Utterance Meaning
– Speaker meaning & context
• What a speaker means when they say
something, over and above the literal
• This and other “contextual” effects
belong to pragmatics
Oh well done! Pass it over here.
(4) Son: I’ve fixed the toy.
Dad: Oh well done! Pass it over here.
(5) Jane: Sorry, I think I’ve broken it.
Bob: Oh well done! Pass it over here.
More examples:
(6) Jack: Would you like something to eat?
Laura: I’ve just had lunch.
(7)Jack: How was that new restaurant you went
last night?
Laura: The walls were a nice colour.
Implied meaning - Implicature
To successfully analyse meaning as
used by speakers of a language, we
need to distinguish various aspects
of a communicative situation
So did you like the
You made great
black coffee.
Utterances vs. sentences
• Consider the sentence:
– John stole the meat pie.
• Every time this sentence is spoken, the result
is a new utterance of the same sentence.
• There can be many utterances of the same
• A speaker’s production of a linguistic signal in
a specific context of use.
• This is inevitably bound to the context:
who it is addressed to
the physical surroundings
• The abstract grammatical object that an utterance
– Roughly, this focuses only on grammar and lexicon.
• Reasons to distinguish from utterance:
– There can be many utterances of the same sentence.
– We can quote somebody else, extracting the sentence that
underlies their utterance: She said that John stole the meat
– The distinction gives us a way of abstracting aspects of
language from their specific context of use
 Study of sentence / linguistic meaning = Semantics
Study of utterance / speaker meaning = Pragmatics
(8) You made great black coffee.
(9) I’ve just had lunch.
(10)The walls were a nice colour.
Sentences have invariant/context-independent
properties in virtue of the meaning of the words.
Utterances are fairly concrete things: they happen;
they’re spoken. The meaning of utterance is contextdependent.
Semantics vs. pragmatics
• Many linguists make a distinction between
– Literal/conventionalised meaning
• “core meaning”, independent of context
• This belongs to semantics proper
– Speaker meaning & context
• What a speaker means when they say something, over and
above the literal meaning.
• This and other “contextual” effects belong to pragmatics
• NB. The distinction between semantics and pragmatics is
not hard and fast
Which of
figures is
of Spain?
Diego Velazquez, Las
Meninas (Museo
Prado, Madrid)
• There are many ways
to reply:
– the girl in the white
– the girl in the middle
– the person being
tended to by the
kneeling maid
Diego Velazquez, Las Meninas
(Museo Prado, Madrid)
• These different expressions mean different things, have
different content.
• However, they all pick out the same entity in this context
(the Princess of Spain).
– i.e. they refer to the princess of Spain
• In a different context, the girl in the white dress could
pick out something different.
– Sometimes, it can fail to pick out anything.
• an action on the part of a speaker
• it is context-bound
Reference is a relationship between
parts of a language and things
outside the language (in the world).
• my house - represent something outside of these
words, there’s a meaning to them
• The meaning comes from the fact that the words
represent, or symbolize, or indicate, or refer to some
real object in the real world. All such
correspondences between words and what the
words refer to are called references.
• Any two expressions which refer to the same thing in
the real world have the same referent. The referent
is the real world thing indicated by the words.
• My favourite place to buy mobile phones is
The Mines Shopping Centre.
Refer to the same place in the real world
Two expressions with the same referent
Think of a referent. Find 2 or more ways to
describe the same thing in different words.
• What would be the referent of the phrase the present
President of the United States used:
(a) In 2011?
(b) in 2001?
• Therefore we can say that the phrase the present
President of the United States has variable reference.
• Does the reference of an expression vary according to
(a) the circumstances (time, place, etc.) in which the
expression is used, or
(b) the topic of the conversation in which the expression
is used, or
(c) both (a) and (b)?
Different types of reference
Three classes of reference:
• Definite reference: the entity referred to is
UNIQUELY identifiable from context, e.g. The boy
kicked my dog.
• Indefinite reference: the entity referred to is NOT
UNIQUELY identifiable from context, e.g. A boy
kicked my dog.
• Generic reference: it refers to a whole class of
entities rather than to individual members of it, e.g.
Dogs are animals./Tigers are found in Asia. (dogs and
tigers here are referred to as a species).
Reference and denotation: often used interchangeably,
e.g. “the word Labrador denotes/refers to a kind of dog”;
As distinguished by Lyons (1977) and Saeed (2003):
• Denotation = a stable relationship between a word/phrase in
a language and the thing/class of things it stands for in the
• Reference = the use of a word/phrase to pick out something in
the world, relevant to some situation.
• Therefore, denotation/denote is context-free, whereas
reference/refer is context-dependent (i.e. reference occurs in
language use)
• Referent: the entity picked out by an act of reference. E.g. The
referent of your Labrador in I like your Labrador is a particular
kind of dog which is large in size and often used by blind
Two major theories of reference
• The Denotational theory:
– direct relationship between words and the world
– meaning = the relationship between linguistic expressions
and things/situations
• The Representational theory:
– the relationship between words and the world is mediated
by our mental model
• The denotation of an expression is whatever it
• Sentences, words and so forth – in a language
were said to denote aspects of the world.
The denotational theory
• ‘Meaning’ manifests itself in the link between language (i.e.
words) and the world.
• Language enables us to describe the world. We can talk about
I met Tony Blair in London last week.
Tony Blair refers/denotes its bearer: a person named Tony Blair
• Reference (denotation)
• Referent (denotatum)
The denotation relation constitutes the most fundamental
semantic relation.
Referential/Denotational Approach
•Reference as a theory of meaning: Semantics is reference,
the so-called referential approach.
• Problems for the referential approach
(a) not all the linguistic expressions have reference;
(b) nominals like a unicorn, will never have a reference;
(c) no one-to-one correspondence for referring
expressions: names, definite descriptions, etc.; and
(d) two expressions can refer to the same individual, but
with meaning differences, i.e. different senses.
Reference vs. Denotation
• So denotation is a stable relationship between expressions
and things:
– The word ħuta (“fish”) always denotes a certain kind of
thing in the world. It can only apply to a specific set of
– This is independent of who uses the word and when.
– This is denotation or extension
• Reference depends on speakers and contexts:
– I can use ħuta to refer to different individual fish in
different situations
– So in different situations, my use can pick out different
Sense and reference
• The reference of an expression is what it
stands for on a given occasion of its use.
• The sense of an expression is the way the
reference is presented.
– a thought, the proposition, the information
content grasped in understanding a sentence.
– But senses are not subjective, differing from one
person to the next. We share senses.
Sense and Reference
a. The morning star is the morning star
b. The morning star is the evening star
• Both the morning star and the evening star pick
out the same entity, Venus, and so have the
same reference.
• But they have different senses. the morning star
= the star you see in the morning at time 1 at
latitude 1; the evening star = the star you see in
the evening at time 2 latitude 2.
• So in (1a), reference and sense coincide: The
expressions on both sides of the copula have the
same reference and sense.
• In (1b) the two expressions have the same
reference but a different sense.
Sense and Reference
• Expressions can have a sense, but no
• One can know what an expression means but
not know its reference, e.g, the star furthest
from the earth.
• But expressions which have the same sense
must have the same reference, while
expressions with the same reference may have
different senses.
Reference and approaches to semantics
• To fulfill the task of describing meaning, linguists have
proposed different approaches with respect to ‘reference’.
• Some researchers take a direct view of meaning
(referential/denotational theory of meaning): Meanings to
be described in terms of relationships between language and
the world, i.e. direct connection between words/expressions
and objects/things in the world.
• Others take an indirect view of meaning (representational
theory of meaning): Meanings to be described in terms of
mental representations of the world, i.e. they are mindinterim in the sense that humans use language to make sense
of the world (things or events) through their mental
The direct view of reference
• Words/phrases mean because they denote objects/things in
the world, and sentences mean because they denote
situations/events, which implies a direct relation between
words and the world.
Proper nouns -> individuals
(e.g. Jackie Chan, Beijing)
Common nouns -> sets of
(e.g. bird, cat, elephant)
verbs -> actions or states
(e.g. drive, sing; love,
adjectives -> properties of
(e.g. an elegant woman. The
actor is humorous)
adverbs -> properties of
(e.g. He drives fast. She sings
Indirect View of Reference
• Words, phrases and sentences mean by
representing aspects of a mentally projected
world; the mentally projected world may or
may not correspond closely to the actual
world (cf. memories). Thus meanings should
be described in terms of mental
representations (of the objects/situations in
the world).
Evidence for an indirect view of reference:
1)Within languages: speakers can choose to depict the same
situation in different ways, e.g. verbal aspect, voice
alternations, which casts doubt on the direct view of the
relation between words and objects, sentences and
[context: conversation took place at 9:30-9:32 a.m.]
Q: Have you seen Prof. Pinker?
A: I talked/was talking to him this morning.
[context: Tom appears with bandaged hand]
Q: What happened to Tom?
A1: His cat scratched him/He got scratched by his cat.
The representational theory
The relationship between expressions
(words, sentences) and things in the
world is mediated by the mind.
This is a cognitivist view.
mental model
of the world
Conceptualisation across languages
You have a cold.
Hargab baa ku haya.
Tá slaghdán ort.
a.cold FOCUS you has is a.cold
Lit. ‘A cold has you.’
Lit. ‘A cold is on you.’
Q: Is semantic/conceptual structure universal? (Lyons 1977: much
of it is not)
Different conceptualizations influence the description of the
real-world situations
Emphasis is on the way that our reports
about reality are influenced by the
conceptual structures conventionalised in
our language
• Referential/denotational theories of meaning
hold that linguistic meaning derives from
language attached to, or grounded in, reality,
thus excluding the role of mental
representation, whereas representational
theories of meaning contend that linguistic
meaning derives from language being a
reflection of our conceptual structures, thus
suggesting that reference relies on our
conceptual knowledge.
Concepts and mental
Why concepts?
• Without a way of categorising things and
situations, human cognition would break down.
• Concepts provide:
– a way to organise similar experiences under more
general categories;
– a way of establishing relationships among those
– a way of making generalisations about things.
Conceptual structure and language
Words and expressions do not refer directly to
the world.
What’s in your head?
• Under the representational view,
concepts underlie the meanings of
• What could a concept be?
Concepts as images
• Do we have a “mental
picture” of things?
• But not everybody has
the same picture…
• So how do we
understand each
What’s your picture of DOG?
Beyond the image theory
• Much of the work in mentalistic, cognitive
or conceptual linguistics is concerned with
Theories of concepts : the
classical view
• A concept like GIRL is simply the set of features
which distinguish it from other concepts
– GIRL = human, not adult, female …
• Essentially, to know a concept = to know a list of
necessary and sufficient conditions (a kind of
– View dating back to Aristotle.
– Dominated psychology until the 1960s
Necessary and sufficient conditions
Example: chair
• We might characterize its meaning in terms of
a conjunction (of a fixed set) of the following
A given object counts as a CHAIR if and only if it
(a) a piece of furniture
(b) for one person
(c) to sit on
(d) having a back, and
(e) four legs.
Necessary and sufficient conditions
(a) a piece of furniture
(b) for one person
(c) to sit on
(d) having a back, and
(e) four legs.
Such necessary and
sufficient conditions work
well for certain things that
we call kitchen chairs.
• But what about
office chairs
dentist chairs
beanbag chairs
barber chairs
electric chairs ?
Objections to the classical view
• Most concepts simply can’t be analysed like this.
– What are the necessary and sufficient conditions
for the concept GAME? (Wittgenstein, 1953)
• Many concepts have fuzzy boundaries.
• We often use words without knowing the true nature
of things
– Do you need to know the chemical make-up of aluminium
in order to know the word?
– Putnam (1975): We rely on experts a lot of the time, a
division of linguistic labour
Mentalistic, cognitive theories of meaning
• Problem of categorization: many words describe
concepts that have no clear category boundaries and
that not all members of a given category have an
equal status.
• Words like CHAIR are not defined in terms of
necessary and sufficient conditions, but instead
categorized around good, clear exemplars like
KITCHEN CHAIRS, and that these good exemplars or
PROTOTYPES serve as reference points for the
categorization of not so clear instances.
Mentalistic, cognitive
theories of meaning
• Words like CHAIR are not defined in terms of
necessary and sufficient conditions, but instead
categorized around good, clear exemplars like
KITCHEN CHAIRS, and that these good exemplars
or PROTOTYPES serve as reference points for the
categorization of not so clear instances.
– Members of the category like CHAIR can be
graded in terms of their typicality.
– Membership in a prototype category is a matter
of gradience.
Mentalistic, cognitive
theories of meaning
• Among things that we call ‘chairs’, there are
– better examples of the category ‘chair’ like
kitchen chairs and some are
– less good examples like dentist chairs and some
– very marginal examples like beanbag chairs and
electric chairs.
Prototype Theory
• Extensively studied by psychologist Eleanor Rosch in
the 1970’s.
• Central argument is that concepts have internal
structure, with some members being “better” than
• Example: BIRD:
• ‘warm-blooded, egg-laying, feathered vertebrae with
forelimbs modified to form wings’ (dictionary
– central/typical members (sparrow)
– peripheral members (ostrich, penguin)
• There is a gradient from centre to periphery
Prototype example
Evidence I: Goodness of exemplar
• Experimental subjects are shown pictures of
different things of the same category (e.g.
– Asked to rate each one in terms of how good an
example of the category they are.
– E.g. carrot, turnip, cabbage, beetroot, lemon
• Subjects tend to be quite homogeneous in
agreeing on what typical and not-so-typical
members are.
– (As long as they come from the same cultural
Evidence II: Prototype effects
• Order of mention: Under time pressure, when
asked to list members of a category, subjects
tend to list the prototypical members first.
• Acquisition: prototypical members tend to be
acquired first.
• Learning: kids learn new words faster if taught
the meaning with reference to the prototype.
Consequences of prototypes
• Views concepts as having fuzzy boundaries
– some things might qualify as CHAIR, but they
might not be typical
– some things qualify as RED, but others are
between RED and PURPLE
Conceptual Organisation
Feature-based representation
• Prototype theory raises the problem of how
concepts are actually represented in the mind.
• One possibility is to list features of members of a
– the more features an object has, the more typical it is
– e.g. BIRD typically has feathers, flies, etc
Conceptual relationships
• Concepts seem
to be organised
in a taxonomy
• Things higher
up include the
ones lower
Levels of conceptual representation
• Rosch et al. 1976 propose 3 levels
Or “top” level
Basic level:
This is the level we tend
to use and think about
Subordinate level:
Much more specific
Hierarchical representations and inheritance
• A node in a conceptual
network inherits some
properties from its
Has feathers
• It can also add new
properties of its own
Does not fly
• It can override properties of
the superordinate
Properties of the basic level
1. The easiest to visualise:
easier to imagine a CAR (basic) than a FIAT PUNTO
2. Used for neutral, everyday usage:
we’re more likely to say “that’s a dog” than “that’s a
3. Names of basic-level categories tend to be
morphologically simple
Compare: spoon vs. teaspoon, soup spoon…
More properties of the basic level
4. high distinctiveness
 maximally different from other categories
5. strong within-category resemblance
 objects within the category resemble eachother more than
they do objects outside the category
6. optimal level of informativeness:
 it’s more informative to say “x is a dog” than “x is an animal”
 but in most cases, saying “x is a dachshund” is too specific…
What’s the relationship between concepts,
language and thought?
• Strong Universalist view:
– The way we think is completely independent of language.
– Therefore, thought and concepts are largely independent
of linguistic differences.
• Strong Relativist view:
– Relativism: Language reflects the culture in which it is
• Cultural differences result in linguistic differences.
– Determinism: Language determines our way of thinking.
• Linguistic differences, reflecting cultural differences,
result in differences in ways of thinking and
conceptualising the world.
Universalism vs. relativism
Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
• Theory of Linguistic Relativity
• Popularized by Linguist Edward Sapir and his
student Benjamin Lee Whorf
• What one perceives is dependent on the spoken
• Thought is dependent on language.
• One’s language shapes one’s view of reality.
• A mould theory in that it “represents language as
a mould in terms of which thought categories are
cast” (Chandler, 2002, p.1) - thought is cast from
language - what you see is based on what you say.
• Edward Sapir viewed language as part of culture, shaping
us and our world views and thoughts:
– The fact of the matter is that the 'real world' is to a
large extent unconsciously built up on the language
habits of the group . . . . We see and hear and
otherwise experience very largely as we do because
the language habits of our community predispose
certain choices of interpretation. (Sapir 1929)
• Sapir’s student Benjamin Lee Whorf took this further:
– “We cut nature up, organise it into concepts … because
we are party to an agreement … that holds through our
speech community and is codified in … our language”
(Whorf, 1956)
Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
• Can be divided into two basic
1. Linguistic Determinism
2. Linguistic Relativity.
Linguistic determinism
• Refers to the concept that what is said, has only
some effect on how concepts are recognized by
the mind. This basic concept has been broken
down even further into “strong” and “weak”
determinism (The Sapir-Whorf Hypotheses, 2002,
• Asserts that language determines the way we
think, that is, the grammar, semantics or lexicon
in a natural language shape thought.
• “Strong” - language and thought are equaled, a
variant that almost nobody advocates.
• “Weak” - Thought may be influenced by language.
Linguistic Relativity
• The Linguistic Relativity hypothesis suggests
that language, culture and thought are closely
• This is largely reflected in the semantic
structure of language.
• Whorf paid particular attention to how
differences in grammar give rise to different
ways of thinking.
Time: an example from Whorf
• Whorf compared the conception of time in
English and Hopi (American Indian).
• English conceptualises recurrent phases like
ordinary objects. E.g.:
– we speak of 10 days as we do of 10 men
• Hopi has no equivalent of 10 days [sic].
– English: They stayed 10 days.
– Hopi: They stayed until the 11th day.
– English objectifies time in terms of units; Hopi
conceptualises time in terms of a stretch.
Time in English
• In English, time is a formless “substance” which is
divided into phases, periods etc.
– use of nouns for stretches of time (seasons etc): this
summer; it is a hot summer
– “time” is a substance, “contained” in these phases
– spatial metaphors for time: long, short, quick, slow…
• Whorf suggested that this leads to an objectifying
tendency in the way we think of abstractions like
Time in Hopi
• Hopi does not use nouns for phases. Most expressions are
– emphasis on the relation between earlier and later and
• The Hopi word for morning would be translated as while morningphase is occurring.
– less tendency to use spatial metaphors
– more tendency to view time as a factor influencing things
as they age or change
– less tendency to identify events as single, individual
• Whorf suggested that this leads to more emphasis on the
“subjective” passing of time.
Why does this matter?
• It seems obvious that languages differ in the concepts
they encode as words.
• Equally “obvious” is the idea that a people will have
developed words that are most useful in their
• At the same time, people in different cultures seem to
have a lot in common, biologically and psychologically.
– We would expect all languages to have words for food, drink, air,
Sense Relations
• relations between concepts or meanings.
• semantic relation between units of meaning
• There are various types of sense relation e.g.
synonymy and homonymy.
• Two expressions α, β of a language are called
SYNONYMS if they mean the same.
• Thesaurus
Scribbler [slang]
Pen or pencil driver
or pusher [slang]
Recording Secretary
Chirographer [i.e. a person
whose job it is to write]
Do all these words really ‘mean the same thing’?
Scribbler [slang]
Pen or pencil driver
or pusher [slang]
Recording Secretary
Chirographer [i.e. a person
whose job it is to write]
• They all have to do with the activity of writing.
• ‘Loosely synonymous’ - they belong to the same
semantic field.
• Does ‘strict’ synonymy ever exist?
• Are there words in the language that have exactly
the same meaning?
• What about nouns like ‘couch’, ‘settee’ and ‘sofa’? Is
there a difference in meaning between these words?
• Ullman - strict synonymy does not exist no two
words are ever completely inter-changeable. There
are always differences of register (i.e. formality and
informality), dialect, or distribution of usage to
distinguish words and meanings.
• Consider the following. Are the words similar?
(i) brave:courageous
• Little Billy was so brave at the dentist's this morning.
• Little Billy was so courageous at the dentist's this morning.
(ii) calm:placid
• She was quite calm just a few minutes ago.
• She was quite placid just a few minutes ago.
(iv) almost:nearly
• She looks almost Chinese.
• She looks nearly Chinese.
• Consider the following. Are the words similar?
(i) brave:courageous
• Little Billy was so brave at the dentist's this morning. (+)
• Little Billy was so courageous at the dentist's this morning. (-)
(ii) calm:placid
• She was quite calm just a few minutes ago. (+)
• She was quite placid just a few minutes ago. (-)
(iv) almost:nearly
• She looks almost Chinese. (+)
• She looks nearly Chinese. (-)
'+' indicates "relatively more normal"
'-' indicates "relatively less normal"
• Lyons: strict synonymy is possible – Absolute
Two words that are strictly synonymous in some
contexts, need not be synonymous in others.
e.g sofa : settee, pullover : sweater
Very rare
How are these terms different?
Motion picture
Motion picture
• These are synonyms because they refer to
the same set of referents in the real world –
same denotative meaning.
• However, these words differ in their
connotative meanings.
1. Movie – American
2. Film – British or appropriate for movie classics
/ art movies
3. Flick – informal contexts
4. Motion picture – has connotations as a term
from the thirties or forties of the 20th century
• Fast, quick and rapid may be considered as
synonyms because they may be used
interchangeably in reference to someone’s running
speed: He’s a fast/quick/rapid runner.
• Compare: a fast talker vs a quick talker
fast lane vs rapid lane
quick mind vs rapid mind vs fast mind
Are they the same?
Fast, quick and rapid are not true synonyms.
• Quite often, words that appear synonymous at
first glance actually refer to slightly different
sets of concepts or are used in different
• If two terms have the same referent, the
meaning of one of them is usually modified to
express differences in referential, social or
affective meaning.
e.g. mother, Mum, Mom, Mummy, Mommy
Partial synonymy
• Partial synonymy is a relation in which a polysemous
word (several related meanings) shares one of its
meanings with another word.
• For example, one meaning of deep is synonymous
with profound in:
1a. You have my deep sympathy.
1b. You have my profound sympathy
2a. The river is very deep at this point.
2b. *The river is very profound at this point
Partial synonymy
• The following pairs of words are partial synonyms,
i.e. they do not share all their senses. For each pair,
(a) give a sentence in which the two can be used
(b) give another sentence in which only one of them
can be used.
1. Strong / powerful
2. Soil / earth
• Polysemy is a relation in which a single word has two or
more slightly different but closely related meanings.
e.g. The noun chip has the three following meanings:
(i) a small piece of some hard substance which has been
broken off from something larger: a chip of
(ii) a small cut piece of potato which is fried for eating: Can
I try one of your chips?
(iii) a small but vital piece of a computer: This computer
has got a faster chip than the old one
• The three meanings are closely related because they all
contain the semantic feature [+small piece].
• The verb break has the two following
(i) separate into two or more parts as a result of
force or strain (but not cutting): He broke
that cup.
(ii) become unusable by being damaged; make
(something) unusable by damaging: My
watch is broken.
• The two meanings are closely related because
both contain the semantic feature [+can no
longer be used].
• Other examples of polysemy:
1. Head : body part, top of a company or
2. Foot : body part, bed, mountain, etc.
• A relation in which various words have the
same (sound and written) form but have
different meanings.
e.g. bank
i. a financial institution
ii. the shore of a river
i. a large heavy animal with thick fur (n)
ii. give birth to (v)
iii. Tolerate (v)
• a relation in which various words have the
same sound form (pronunciation) but have
different meanings and written forms
hour vs. our
place vs. plaice
bare vs. bear
flour vs. flower
• relation in which various words have the same
written form but have different meanings and
sound forms.
Does this road lead to town?
Lead is a heavy metal
read vs. read
• a relation in which two words have different
(written and sound) forms and are opposite in
pass vs. fail
hot vs. cold
thinner vs fatter
buy vs sell
Binary antonymy (complementaries)
• a relation in which two members of a pair of
1. are mutually exclusive: not alive is dead and not
dead is alive.
2. cannot be used in a comparative or superlative
*He is more single/more married than his brother.
3. cannot be used in questions with how to ask
about degrees:
*How single/How married is he?
Obey vs disobey; inside vs outside; stop vs continue
Gradable (polar) antonymy
• a relation in which two members of a pair of
1. are gradable: between hot and cold are three
“intermediate terms” [Palmer, 1981: 95] warm,
tepid (or lukewarm) and cool
2. can be used in a comparative or superlative sense:
wider is less narrow, more difficult is less easy, etc.
3. can be used in questions with how to ask about
How difficult is the test?
• The distinction between binary antonymy and
gradable antonymy is sometimes blurred by
language users.
• E.g. alive vs dead  binary antonyms
• However, we do have expressions like halfdead, barely alive, and more dead than alive,
which suggest that, in some contexts, we see
alive and dead as gradable antonyms.
Relational antonymy
• Two members of a pair of relational antonyms
display symmetry in their meaning.
• The “if…, then …” formula can be used to test
and identify relational antonyms:
– if Mr. Brown is Jack’s employer, then Jack is Mr.
Brown’s employee;
– if Jenny is thinner than Mary, then Mary is fatter
than Jenny;
– if John bought a car from Fred, then Fred sold a
car to John; etc.
• a relation in which the referent of a word is
totally included in the referent of another
• In other words, hyponymy is the relationship
between each of the hyponyms (the “lower”
word) and its superordinate (the “higher”
• Also referred to as subordinates / specific
lexical items
• Hyponyms often exist at more than one level,
resulting in multiple layers of hyponymic
In this case, blue is a word that has a hyponym and a superordinate
at the same time. Since turquoise, aquamarine and royal blue refer
to different shades of blue, these words are IMMEDIATE hyponyms
[Palmer: 1981: 87] of blue. The word blue in its turn is, along with
many other colour terms, an IMMEDIATE hyponym of colour.
• Meronymy (Greek meros: ‘part’) is the relation
of part to whole
hand is a meronym of arm
seed is a meronym of fruit
blade is a meronym of knife
• Conversely, arm is the holonym of hand, fruit
is the holonym of seed, etc.).
• This relationship is essentially based on a close
connection in everyday experience.
• It may be container-content relation (canjuice); a whole-part relation (car-wheels); or a
representative-symbol relation (king-crown).
• A relation of inclusion:
‘dog’ & ‘poodle’ are hyponyms of ‘animal’
‘poodle’ is a hyponym of ‘dog’
• Conversely, ‘animal’ is a hypernym (or
superordinate) of ‘dog’, and ‘dog’ is a
hypernym of ‘poodle’.
Meronym vs Hyponym
• Hyponymy = a relation of inclusion
• Meronymy = a kind of part-whole relationship
Clutch, brake, engine  meronyms of car
(because they are parts of a car)
Please note that the two are not the same.
A poodle is a type of dog and a cheetah is a kind
of cat, but a leaf is not type of tree and a clutch
is not a type of car.
How can we describe the meaning
of different words?
• Three types of semantic analysis:
– Words as ‘containers’
Semantic features
– ‘roles’ they fulfill
Semantic roles
– ‘relationship’ with other words
lexical relation
• the phenomenon when a single word has
two or more meanings
• The house is at the foot
of the mountains
• One of his shoes felt
too tight for his foot
The difference between the meanings
can be obvious or subtle.
Polysemy vs Homonymy
• If you hear (or read) two words that sound (or
are written) the same but are not identical in
meaning, you need to decide if it's really two
words (homonyms), or if it is one word used in
two different ways (polysemy).
Examples of homonymy
• a. Sarah climbed down the ladder.
• b. Sarah bought a down blanket
• a. My dog would always bark at mailmen.
• b. The tree's bark was a rusty brown.