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DENOTATIVE AND CONNOTATIVE MEANING




In the previous paragraphs we emphasised the complexity of word meaning and mentioned its possible segmentation into denotative and connotative meaning. In this paragraph we shall analyse these in greater detail. In most cases the denotative meaning is essentially cognitive: it conceptualises and classifies our experience and names for the listener some objects spoken about. Fulfilling the significative and the communicative functions of the word it is present in every word and may be regarded as the central factor in the functioning of language.

The expressive function of the language with its orientation towards the speakers feelings, and the pragmatic function dealing with the effect of words upon listeners are rendered in connotations. Unlike the denotative meaning, connotations are optional.

The description of the denotative meaning or meanings is the duty of lexicographers in unilingual explanatory dictionaries. The task is a difficult one because there is no clear-cut demarcation line between the semantic features, strictly necessary for each definition, and those that are optional. A glance at the definitions given in several dictionaries will suffice to show how much they differ in solving the problem. A cat, for example, is defined by Hornby as a small fur-covered animal often kept as a pet in the house. Longman in his dictionary goes into greater detail: a cat is a small animal with soft fur and sharp teeth and claws, often kept as a pet, or in buildings to catch mice. The Chambers Dictionary gives a scientific definition a cat is a carnivore of the genus Felix, esp. the domesticated kind.

The examples given above bring us to one more difficult problem. Namely, whether in analysing a meaning we should be guided by all that science knows about the referent, or whether a linguist has to formulate the simplest possible concept as used by every speaker. If so, what are the features necessary and sufficient to characterise the referent? The question was raised by many prominent scientists, the great Russian philologist A. A. Potebnya among them. A. A. Potebnya distinguished the proximate word meaning with the bare minimum of characteristic features as used by every speaker in everyday life, and the distant word meaning corresponding to what specialists know about the referent. The latter type we could have called special or terminological meaning. A. A. Potebnya maintained that linguistics is concerned only with the first type. The problem is by no means simple, especially for lexicographers, as is readily seen from the above lexicographic treatment of the word cat.

The demarcation line between the two types is becoming more fluid; with the development of culture the gap between the elementary notions of a layman and the more and more exact concepts of a specialist narrows in some spheres and widens in others. The concepts themselves are


constantly changing. The speakers ideolects vary due to different life experience, education and other extra-linguistic factors.

The bias of studies depends upon their ultimate goals.

If lexicology is needed as the basis for language teaching in engineering colleges, we have to concentrate on terminological semantics, if on the other hand it is the theory necessary for teaching English at school, the meaning with the minimum semantic components is of primary importance. So we shall have to concentrate on this in spite of all its fuzziness.

Now, if the denotative meaning exists by virtue of what the word refers to, connotation is the pragmatic communicative value the word receives by virtue of where, when, how, by whom, for what purpose and in what contexts it is or may be used. Four main types of connotations are described below. They are stylistic, emotional, evaluative and expressive or intensifying.

The orientation toward the subject-matter, characteristic, as we have seen, of the denotative meaning, is substituted here by pragmatic orientation toward speaker and listener; it is not so much what is spoken about as the attitude to it that matters.

When associations at work concern the situation in which the word is uttered, the social circumstances (formal, familiar, etc.), the social relationships between the interlocutors (polite, rough), the type and purpose of communication (learned, poetic, official, etc.), the connotation is stylistic.

An effective method of revealing connotations is the analysis of synonymic groups, where the identity of denotation meanings makes it possible to separate the connotational overtones. A classical example for showing stylistic connotations is the noun horse and its synonyms. The word horse is stylistically neutral, its synonym steed is poetic, nag is a word of slang and gee-gee is baby language.

An emotional or affective connotation is acquired by the word as a result of its frequent use in contexts corresponding to emotional situations or because the referent conceptualised and named in the denotative meaning is associated with emotions. For example, the verb beseech means 'to ask eagerly and also anxiously'. E. g.: He besought a favour of the judge (Longman).

Evaluative connotation expresses approval of disapproval.

Making use of the same procedure of comparing elements of a synonymic group, one compares the words magic, witchcraft and sorcery, all originally denoting art and power of controlling events by occult supernatural means, we see that all three words are now used mostly figuratively, and also that magic as compared to its synonyms will have glamorous attractive connotations, while the other two, on the contrary, have rather sinister associations.

It is not claimed that these four types of connotations: stylistic, emotional, evaluative and intensifying form an ideal and complete classification. Many other variants have been proposed, but the one suggested here is convenient for practical analysis and well supported by facts. It certainly


is not ideal. There is some difficulty for instance in separating the binary good/bad evaluation from connotations of the so-called bias words involving ideological viewpoints. Bias words are especially characteristic of the newspaper vocabulary reflecting different ideologies and political trends in describing political life. Some authors think these connotations should be taken separately.

The term bias words is based on the meaning of the noun bias an inclination for or against someone or something, a prejudice, e. g. a newspaper with a strong conservative bias.

The following rather lengthy example is justified, because it gives a more or less complete picture of the phenomenon. E. Waugh in his novel Scoop satirises the unfairness of the Press. A special correspondent is sent by a London newspaper to report on a war in a fictitious African country Ishmalia. He asks his editor for briefing:

Can you tell me who is fighting whom in Ishmalia?

I think it is the Patriots and the Traitors.

Yes, but which is which?

Oh, I dont know that. Thats Policy, you see [...] You should have asked Lord Copper.

I gather its between the Reds and the Blacks.

Yes, but its not quite so easy as that. You see they are all Negroes. And the Fascists wont be called black because of their racial pride. So they are called White after the White Russians. And the Bolshevists want to be called black because of their racial pride. (Waugh)

The example shows that connotations are not stable and vary considerably according to the ideology, culture and experience of the individual. Even apart of this satirical presentation we learn from Barn-harts dictionary that the word black meaning a negro, which used to be impolite and derogatory, is now upgraded by civil rights movement through the use of such slogans as Black is Beautiful or Black Power.

A linguistic proof of an existing unpleasant connotation is the appearance of euphemisms. Thus backward students are now called under-achievers. Countries with a low standard of living were first called undeveloped, but euphemisms quickly lose their polite character and the unpleasant connotations are revived, and then they are replaced by new euphemisms such as less developed and then as developing countries.

A fourth type of connotation that should be mentioned is the intensifying connotation (also expressive, emphatic). Thus magnificent, gorgeous, splendid, superb are all used colloquially as terms of exaggeration.

We often come across words that have two or three types of connotations at once, for example the word beastly as in beastly weather or beastly cold is emotional, colloquial, expresses censure and intensity.

Sometimes emotion or evaluation is expressed in the style of the utterance. The speaker may adopt an impolite tone conveying displeasure (e. g. Shut up!). A casual tone may express friendliness r affection: Sit down, kid [...] There, there just you sit tight (Chris tie).

4 49


Polysemy is a phenomenon of language not of speech. The sum total of many contexts in which the word is observed to occur permits the lexicographers to record cases of identical meaning and cases that differ in meaning. They are registered by lexicographers and found in dictionaries.

A distinction has to be drawn between the lexical meaning of a word in speech, we shall call it contextual meaning, and the semantic structure of a word in language. Thus the semantic structure of the verb act comprises several variants: do something, behave, take a part in a play, pretend. If one examines this word in the following aphorism: Some men have acted courage who had it not; but no man can act wit (Halifax), one sees it in a definite context that particularises it and makes possible only one meaning pretend. This contextual meaning has a connotation of irony. The unusual grammatical meaning of transitivity (act is as a rule intransitive) and the lexical meaning of objects to this verb make a slight difference in the lexical meaning.

As a rule the contextual meaning represents only one of the possible variants of the word but this one variant may render a complicated notion or emotion analyzable into several semes. In this case we deal not with the semantic structure of the word but with the semantic structure of one of its meanings. Polysemy does not interfere with the communicative function of the language because the situation and context cancel all the unwanted meanings.

Sometimes, as, for instance in puns, the ambiguity is intended, the words are purposefully used so as to emphasise their different meanings. Consider the replica of lady Constance, whose son, Arthur Plantagenet is betrayed by treacherous allies:

LYMOGES (Duke of Austria): Lady Constance, peace!
CONSTANCE: War! war! no peace! peace is to me a war (Shakespeare).

In the time of Shakespeare peace as an interjection meant Silence! But lady Constance takes up the main meaning the antonym of war.

Geoffrey Leech uses the term reflected meaning for what is communicated through associations with another sense of the same word, that is all cases when one meaning of the word forms part of the listeners response to another meaning. G. Leech illustrates his point by the following example. Hearing in the Church Service the expression The Holy Ghost, he found his reaction conditioned by the everyday unreligious and awesome meaning the shade of a dead person supposed to visit the living. The case where reflected meaning intrudes due to suggestivity of the expression may be also illustrated by taboo words and euphemisms connected with the physiology of sex.

Consider also the following joke, based on the clash of different meanings of the word expose (leave unprotected, put up for show, reveal the guilt of). E. g.: Painting is the art of protecting flat surfaces from the weather and exposing them to the critic.

Or, a similar case: Why did they hang this picture? Perhaps, they could not find the artist.


Contextual meanings include nonce usage. Nonce words are words invented and used for a particular occasion.

The study of means and ways of naming the elements of reality is called onomasiology. As worked out in some recent publications it received the name of Theory of Nomination.1 So if semasiology studies what it is the name points out, onomasiology and the theory of nomination have to show how the objects receive their names and what features are chosen to represent them.

Originally the nucleus of the theory concerned names for objects, and first of all concrete nouns. Later on a discussion began, whether actions, properties, emotions and so on should be included as well. The question was answered affirmatively as there is no substantial difference in the reflection in our mind of things and their properties or different events. Everything that can be named or expressed verbally is considered in the theory of nomination. Vocabulary constitutes the central problem but syntax, morphology and phonology also have their share. The theory of nomination takes into account that the same referent may receive various names according to the information required at the moment by the process of communication, e. g. Walter Scott and the author of Waverley (to use an example known to many generations of linguists). According to the theory of nomination every name has its primary function for which it was created (primary or direct nomination), and an indirect or secondary function corresponding to all types of figurative, extended or special meanings (see p. 53). The aspect of theory of nomination that has no counterpart in semasiology is the study of repeated nomination in the same text, as, for instance, when Ophelia is called by various characters of the tragedy: fair Ophelia, sweet maid, dear maid, nymph, kind sister, rose of May, poor Ophelia, lady, sweet lady, pretty lady, and so on.

To sum up this discussion of the semantic structure of a word, we return to its definition as a structured set of interrelated lexical variants with different denotational and sometimes also connotational meanings. These variants belong to the same set because they are expressed by the same combination of morphemes, although in different contextual conditions. The elements are interrelated due to the existence of some common semantic component. In other words, the words semantic structure is an organised whole comprised by recurrent meanings and shades of meaning that a particular sound complex can assume in different contexts, together with emotional, stylistic and other connotations, if any.

Every meaning is thus characterised according to the function, significative or pragmatic effect that it has to fulfil as denotative and connotative meaning referring the word to the extra-linguistic reality and to the speaker, and also with respect to other meanings with which it is contrasted. The hierarchy of lexico-grammatical variants and shades of meaning within the semantic structure of a word is studied with the help of formulas establishing semantic distance between them developed by N. A. Shehtman and other authors.

1 The problem was studied by W. Humboldt (1767-1835) who called the feature chosen as the basis of nomination the inner form of the word.



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