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Unit 2: Meaning and definition

The concept of a words meaning is closely linked to the concept of definition. Definitions have
been particularly important for conceptual theories of meaning which assumed a close link
between concepts and definitions: knowing the concept horse, for example, is simply the ability to
use the word horse in a way that fits its definition. And I will be able to utter and understand the
concept in different contexts.

In pretheoretical terms we could say that in order to understand the meaning of a word we could
somehow make a definition of a word, and it would match with what a word relates to.

Since the 16th century, dictionaries have played an important role in the way we think about and
use our own language. As a result, it is important to clarify the similarities and differences between
the definitions that might be proposed in theoretical linguistic semantics, and the types that can be
found in dictionaries.

2.1.1 Semantics and lexicography

Lexicography is making dictionaries: put together what people can understand.

Lexicology Lexicography: They are sciences that deal with the study of words, they define
words but they do it in a different way. Lexicology (Or lexical semantics) is a branch of semantics
that has to do with linguistics, to know the meaning of words, how we express it, how we
understand it, how we store it. This science is more theorical and it is related with other science :
lexicography which aim is to create a commercial product to sell but to be useful (With part of
theory), put together what people can understand.

Terminology Terminography Terminology study special words (in a particular context, medical
terms etc) study of terms in a language and terminography is a science more commercial.

Our brains holds a store of words in long term memory from which the grammar constructs
phrases and sentences. This stock of words and associated meanings is usually referred to as the
mental lexicon. Associated meaning because in our mind we store words and definitions and its
relation with other words. But actually our brain stores more information than a encyclopedia or a
dictionary contains.

The primary task of linguistic will be to specify the entry of this mental lexicon, the meaning

When someone does not know a word it is searched in a dictionary, we understand and create a
mental representation: Just as a language-learner discovers the meaning of an unknown word by
looking it up in a dictionary, the production and understanding of ordinary speech is conceived of
as a process of matching between stored forms and the stored meaning representations.

But the entries on our mental lexicon are far more complex that the ones in a dictionary, we store
associated meanings, contexts, implications, connotations, words with which it may appear,
phonological information, grammatical information etc.

Onomasiological VS Semasiological Two types of organizing language in lexicology

Onomasiological: (ideas) We look from idea to word, these type of onomasiological dictionaries
organize information according to general concepts and these concepts are associated with words.
They use to be monolingual.

Semasiological: (lengua) We go from word to definition and meaning (Normal dictionaries). Can
be bilingual, monolingual or multilingual.

Whereas a semasiological analysis would start with a list of verbs say, scare, frighten, terrify,
startle, spook, and panic, and specify a different meaning for each. An onomasiological analysis
would start with a general concept, FRIGHTEN, and list all these verbs as possible realizations.

Enciclopedya global terms, created to describe the world and all the things in the world that
surrounds it.
Dictionary about a language from point of view of language to describe the language, with
basic things.


If we want to associate meaning and form we have to start from the levels below and above the
word level: minimal units of meaning in language (Morphemes) Words Idioms.

But what is really a word / lexeme? It is hard to decide, especially for unfamiliar languages. In the
European system is quite clear that a word is a unit surrounded by spaces in standard orthography.
But this definition fails for two reasons:

-1. Writing conventions tend to be quite unstable (As it is the example in African languages). This
may happen to languages that have been recently have a written form, so they have an unstable
concept of word and something that one speaker writes separately, another one could write it close
to another piece of writing.

-2. We are pressuming that every language has a written form and we assume word to be related
with an ortographical form. For example in ancient Greek they did have written forms but they did
not have word division whereas modern Greek does, but this does not mean that ancient Greek did
not have words.

Using a spoken-based approach does not work either. If we define word as something in spoken
language preceded and followed by pauses, this does not work; we may talk to fast, put words
together etc. This may work in languages with non-complex morphology but in languages such as
English this does not work abso-bloody-lutely Is this a word, two words?

According to Bloomfield Words are Minimum free form The minimal unit which may appear
on its own without any additional grammatical material is insufficient, for example in forms like
the, of etc. they do not go alone in language although they must be considered words

To clarify the term word it is neccessary to distinguish two levels: phonological level: divisions
between words are determined according to the application of phonological rules and processes

grammatical level of wordhood must also be considered. These grammatical words have certain
characteristics (Cohesiveness, fixed order and conventionalized coherence and meaning)

-Cohesiveness: We do not separate for example a verb from the time

-Fixed order Root + suffix, there is certain order and a fixed order to create words
But the domain of meaningfulness extends both above and below the word level. Below word level,
morphemes, by definition, have meanings. Given the definition of a morpheme as the minimal
meaning-bearing unit of language, it is impossible to conceive of a morpheme without a meaning
even if it is hard to specify exactly what this meaning is.

A morpheme is not identical to a word, and the principal difference between the two is that a
morpheme may or may not stand alone (Bound and Free morphemes), whereas a word, by
definition stands alone.

Below world level: sounds We associate sounds to certain meanings, example verbs that try
to reproduce a sound (Sound symbolism) associate certain meanings to certain sounds. A
correspondence between certain sound and certain meaning

There is also compositionality below word level, it happens for example in English which has
many influence of other languages: sometimes the same morpheme is used in many lexemes for
example verb + able (That can be done) but sometimes a word + able does not mean the same, it is
not compositional like fashionable, considerable

Above word level: Idioms (non-compositional meaning) the unit of meaning is the whole unit. The
meaning does not depend on the smaller units, it is an overall meaning, however sometimes it is
possible to obtain another meaning by cheking the smaller units:

Example: Throw the towel Give up / Throw a towel in a literal sense

Contextual (CO-TEXTUAL) modulation of meaning

The meaning of words change depending on the co-text (Linguistic context, words surrounding) for
example, the meanings of verbs seem to vary slightly depending on the noun which they govern.
The meaning may change from one example to another depending on the collocation of that word.

If I cut my foot, for example, I am doing something that is rather different from what I am doing
when I cut the grass. Even with the same co-text the context could vary the meaning, in I cut my
foot, it could be that I have hurt my foot with something sharpt, or to separate my foot from my

The differences in meaning is bigger if we consider this co-text, cut corner, cut a deal

But this theory poses some problems: do the differences in meaning of the different collocations
arise compositionally? Are the meanings of the collocations just the results of the combinations of
the meanings of their parts, or are the whole collocations themselves the meaning bearing units?

1. 1st possibility compositionality: The meaning is a result of compositionally from the

meaning of the verb cut and the meanings of its noun objects. The meaning of cut the grass is the
meaning of cut combined with the meaning of grass. And this could work in two ways:

-General meaning: cut may have the same general meaning in all the examples: it refers to some
act, with the particular details of each type of breach being inferred by the listener, rather than
being built into the meaning of the verb itself. It means that although the term is vague we build in
our mind the meaning, and it is modified every time we use a different collocation.
PROBLEMS with General meaning hypothesis: The problem is that describing this common
core of general meaning in all cases of cut is not easy, so to give a general definition to a term
would be impossible because it would not cover all the possible definitions.

-Multiple meaing: Cut might have a separate meaning in each collocation the cut in cut ones foot
has its own entry in the mental lexicon. We have stored a number of entries in certain co-texts.

PROBLEMS with Multiple meaning hypothesis: There are a huge number of collocations and
senses. The recognition of a different sense of cut in each of the collocations seems to fail the fact
that it is the same verb in all collocations we could not separate totally one use of cut from the
other because in the basic of meaning they are the same verb.

2. 2nd possibility non-compositionality: Some problems given in the first possibility are
avoided in this one, this possibility sees the collocations meaning as a whole (not taking into
account the components of a sentece). We learn definitions by collocaitons and for example in cut
the grass it is not implicit in the verb the instruments used to cut the grass but if we learn it as a
whole all the possible instruments are implicit.

Advantages we do not have to give a general meaning to the verb because we have one
definition to each collocation

PROBLEMS: There is no arbitrary relation between cut and grass and the meaning of the phrase
also depends on the individual meaning of each component.

Solution: Probably we store both options, compositionaly and non-compositionally, we go to the

non-compositional when we know how to decode a message but when we are not familiarized
with the term or collocation we require to the compositional meaning.


Aristotle differentiated two types of definitions:

1. Real The essence of the thing we are identifying is defined (Could be found more in
encyclopedias). According to him the only definitions worth to make (although is imposible) were
those trying to capture the meaning of the essence of the word. (He thought the concepts meaning
was more important). And according to Bloomfield, he identified the real definitions with the
scientific definitions but it is not possible to define some concepts that are not related to science,
they will just cover a little part of the universe that we want to define.

-But also people that do not master science would not be able to relate the scientific definition with
the real use of a concept.

-Another problem would be trying to define abstract nouns, invented objecs, like love or hate which
lack scientific definition, unicorn etc. That can not be made a scientific definition.

2. Nominal We define the meaning of the word. They fulfil two different functions:
1. fixing the meaning of a word so that there can be no ambiguity about its denotation, and
2. bringing an understanding of the meaning of a word in someone who does not already understand

There are two types of nominal definitions, extensional definitions and cognitice definitions.
Extensional: We refer to the denotations (All the possible objects that a word can refer to).
Create a definition that if it is applied, the denotational range of the word is shortened. HUMAN:
featherless biped. (We add things to shorten the range)

Cognitive: Brings a knowledge about a concept of a word you are trying to define, it is more
related to define the sense of the word. Strategies associated with this type of definitions are:

Strategies and techniques used to create definitions

1. Definition by ostension by pointing out the object we refer to but it presents many
difficulties, many words can not be defined by this method, abstract words, invented words,
adjectives, prepositions, verbs etc. Point out a black cat running, you may refer to black, cat,
run, fur etc. So it is very problematic especially between languages because there is a wide
range of things that we could refer to when we point out. And every attempt to be more concrete
would bring a new set of questions. So we need to use language in order to define a concept and it
can be done in many ways.


define words by using a synonym either in the same language or another one.

The problem with this strategy is that synonyms does not always carry exactly the same meanings
and connotations of the word we are trying to define and the same happens while trying to translate
from one language to another, it could loose its sense or be understood in a different way due to the
culture. Also the languages and cultures have to be close or you may ger problems to define a
word. Mad is not fully synonym with angry because it also means insase.


To situate the word in a system of wider relations, in a context, it shows the word we are defining
in a position respect to other related notions, this is not exactly the same as synonym, because you
bring up words that are associated but that does not mean the same, for example scratch is
associated with itchy The thing you do when you are itchy. It pre-supposes that the person
shares the same context but if the other person does not share it, in culture or knowledge it is
difficult and it only works if the addressee infers the meaning.

It is good to define real or physical objects when the person speaking connects these exemplar with
the meaning. But this method does only work if the addressee infers the intended meaning.

Definition bytypical exemplar is another of this relational strategy: By giving a list of typical
examples or instances of the word you are trying to define: bird mockingbird, linnet bird,
blackbird etc.

They may work as cognitive definition but not as extensional definitions because we let the
addressee to infer the meaning


The theory was developed by Aristotle. According to him, definition involves specifying the
broader class to which the word defined belongs (often called the genus), and then showing the
distinguishing features of the word being defined (the differentia) which distinguishes it from the
members of this broader class.
A classic example is the definition of man (in the sense of human being) as rational animal.
This definition names the broader class to which man belongs animals- and specifies the
distinguishing feature that differentiates a man from the rest of the entities belonging to the same
broader class.

ADVANTAGES; Is it useful for congnitive definitions. Help to discriminate the other words that
belong to the same genus.

PROBLEMS: There are many cases, where GD definition may be ineffective or, impossible. Genus
and differentia presuposes a system of categories but this is sometimes subjective and open, it
assumes the addressee categorizes the same way that you do, and sometimes the word can be too
abstract to categorize it in a genus. There are some words that it is difficult to categorize into a
genus, it would not serve the same way to define words such as time, self, etc. More than one genus
can have a word. If we dont know the meaning of the genus we cant understand the term, it was
circularity problem.

2.4 Definition and substitutability

One of the strategies to check if a definition is accurate is by means of substitution, for example
keep in equilibrium can be accepted as the definition of balance if it is possible to substitute this
phrase for balance in all the contexts in which it occurs, but it would change sometimes the register.

Substitution poses a problem: If someone does not know the meaning of the word it is unlikely to
know the definition or the word by which we are substituting the original word, for example if
someone does not know the meaning of balance, they are unlikely to know equilibrium.

Brings us to circularity it is impossible to give a definition of every word in a language using

other words of the same language, coming to no end, since the vocabulary of a language is limited.


One of the most frequent criticisms of definitional theories of semantics is that no satisfying
definition of a word has ever actually been formulated. definition as concepts: many things that
we store in our mind and associate with a term are not included in a definition or the concept
changed through history