Linguistics: Describing Meaning of Words

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In trying to understand language, linguists who study semantics have always been concerned with explaining the meaning of words in natural languages such as English. Several problems have surfaced from an examination of the various existing methods used to describe the meaning of these words, in particular dictionary definition, binary descriptors and referents. Context is also an important consideration when defining meaning.

The dictionary definition of a word has been a problem because of its vagueness (Winkler, 2012). According to Winker (2012), because dictionary uses words to define words generally, therefore the different sense and connotations of each word will result in an array of interpretations. To illustrate, the dictionary defines meaning as ‘… logical connotation of a word or phrase.’ However, the word logical is ambiguous in this case such as to whom and how (ibid.).

Linguists then attempted the use of binary descriptors to remove vagueness of word definitions. A binary descriptor is a list of properties used to describe concepts, for example, mare as +equine +female +mature, eliminating the ambiguity (ibid.). However, no list of terms can be joined to give a clear definition of abstract words, such as happiness, self (Winkler, 2012) or freedom (Fromkin, et al, 2005). Additionally, gradable words like coldness and slowness are subjected to individual interpretation (Winkler, 2012).

The problem of definition is also assumed to be solvable by referents. According to Winkler (2012), referents describe meaning by referring words to items existing in real life. However, there are numerous drawbacks with this method. Firstly, function words such as on, an and but do not have any referent (ibid.). Certain nouns do not have referents as well. For instance, we may portray a picture of an elf or demon in our mind through movies or books, but these things do not have referents in real life (ibid). Even things that exist but are not specified have



Bibliography: Fromkin, V., Rodman, R., Hyams, N., Collins, P., & Amberber, M. (2005). The Meanings of Language. An Introduction to Language, pp. 157-167. Winkler, E. (2012). Semantics: Language and Meaning. Understanding Language - 2nd ed, pp. 197-205. London, Continuum International.

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