The meaning of an expression, as opposed to its form, is that feature of it which determines its contribution to what a speaker says in using it. Meaning conveyed by a speaker is the speaker's communicative intent in using an expression, even if that use departs from the expression's meaning. Accordingly, any discussion of meaning should distinguish speaker's meaning from linguistic meaning.

We think of meanings as what synonyms (or translations) have in common, what ambiguous expressions have more than one of, what meaningful expressions have and gibberish lacks, and what competent speakers grasp. Yet linguistic meaning is a puzzling notion. The traditional view is that the meaning of a word is the concept associated with it and, as FREGE suggested, what determines its reference, but this plausible view is problematic in various ways. First, it is not clear what CONCEPTS are. Nor is it clear what the relevant sort of association with words is, or, indeed, that every word has a concept, much less a unique concept, associated with it. Wittgenstein (1953) even challenged the Platonic assumption that all the items to which a word applies must have something in common. Unfortunately, there is no widely accepted alternative to the traditional view. Skepticism about meaning, at least as traditionally conceived, has also been registered in various ways by such prominent philosophers as Quine (1960), Davidson (1984), Putnam (1975), and Kripke (1982); for review of the debates these philosophers have generated see Hale and Wright 1997 (chaps. 8 and 14-17). Psychological approaches based on prototypes or on semantic networks, as well as COGNITIVE LINGUISTICS, seem to sever the connection between meaning and reference. The most popular philosophical approaches to sentence meaning, such as truth-conditional, model-theoretic, and POSSIBLE WORLDS SEMANTICS, also have their limitations. They seem ill equipped to distinguish meanings of expressions that necessarily apply in the same circumstances or to handle non-truth-conditional aspects of meaning.

Here are five foundational questions about meaning, as difficult as they are basic:

  1. What are meanings?
  2. What is it for an expression to have meaning?
  3. What is it to know the meaning(s) of an expression? (More generally, what is it to understand a language?)
  4. What is the relationship between the meaning of an expression and what, if anything, the expression refers to?
  5. What is the relationship between the meaning of a complex expression and the meanings of its constituents?

An answer to question 1 would say whether meanings are psychological, social, or abstract, although many philosophers would balk at the question, insisting that meanings are not entities in their own right and that answering question 2 would take care of question 1. An answer to question 3 would help answer question 2, for what expressions mean cannot be separated from (and is perhaps reducible to) what people take them to mean. And question 4 bears on question 3. It was formerly assumed that the speaker's internal state underlying his knowledge of the meaning of a term determines the term's reference, but Putnam's (1975) influential TWIN EARTH thought experiments have challenged this "internalist" or "individualist" assumption. In reaction, Chomsky (1986, 1995) and Katz (1990) have defended versions of internalism about knowledge of language and meaning.

Question 5 points to the goal of linguistic theory: to provide a systematic account of the relation between form and meaning. SYNTAX is concerned with linguistic form, including LOGICAL FORM, needed to represent scope relationships induced by quantificational phrases and modal and other operators; SEMANTICS, with how form maps onto linguistic meaning. The aim is to characterize the semantic contributions made by different types of expression to sentences in which they occur. The usual strategy is to seek a systematic, recursive way of specifying the meanings of a complex expression (a phrase or sentence) in terms of the meanings of its constituents and its syntactic structure (see Larson and Segal 1995 for a detailed implementation). Underlying this strategy is the principle of semantic COMPOSITIONALITY, which seems needed to explain how a natural language is learnable (but see Schiffer 1987). Compositionality poses certain difficulties, however, regarding conditional sentences, PROPOSITIONAL ATTITUDE ascriptions, and various constructions of concern to linguists, such as genitives and adjectival modification. For example, although Rick's team is a so-called possessive phrase, Rick's team need not be the team Rick owns -- it might be the team he plays for, coaches, or just roots for. Or consider how the force of the adjective fast varies in the phrases fast car, fast driver, fast track, and fast race (see Pustejovsky 1995 for a computational approach to such problems).

The study of speaker's meaning belongs to PRAGMATICS. What a speaker means in uttering a sentence is not just a matter of what his words mean, for he might mean something other than or more than what he says. For example, one might use "You're another Shakespeare" to mean that someone has little literary ability and "The door is over there" to mean also that someone should leave. The listener has to figure out such things, and also resolve any AMBIGUITY or VAGUENESS in the utterance and identify the references of any INDEXICALS AND DEMONSTRATIVES. GRICE (1989) ingeniously proposed that communicating involves a distinctive sort of audience-directed intention: that one's audience is to recognize one's intention partly on the supposition that they are intended to recognize it. This idea, which has important applications to GAME THEORY (communication is a kind of cooperative game), is essential to explaining how a speaker can make himself understood even if he does not make fully explicit what he means, as in IMPLICATURE. Understanding a speaker is not just a matter of understanding his words but of identifying his communicative intention. One must rely not just on knowledge of linguistic meaning but also on collateral information that one can reasonably take the speaker to be intending one to rely on (see Bach and Harnish 1979 for a detailed account). Communication is essentially an intentional-inferential affair, and linguistic meaning is just the input to the inference.

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Additional links

-- Kent Bach


Bach, K., and R. M. Harnish. (1979). Linguistic Communication and Speech Acts. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Chomsky, N. (1986). Knowledge of Language. New York: Praeger.

Chomsky, N. (1995). Language and nature. Mind 104:1-61.

Davidson, D. (1984). Essays on Truth and Interpretation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Grice, P. (1989). Studies in the Way of Words. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hale, B., and C. Wright, Eds. (1997). The Blackwell Companion to the Philosophy of Language. Oxford: Blackwell.

Katz, J. J. (1990). The Metaphysics of Meaning. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Kripke, S. (1982). Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Larson, R., and G. Segal. (1995). Knowledge of Meaning. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Lyons, J. (1995). Linguistic Semantics: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pustejovsky, J. (1995). The Generative Lexicon. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Putnam, H. (1975). The meaning of "meaning." In K. Gunderson, Ed., Language, Mind, and Knowledge. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 131-193.

Quine, W. V. (1960) Word and Object. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Schiffer, S. (1972). Meaning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schiffer, S. (1987). The Remnants of Meaning. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Wittgenstein, L. (1953). Philosophical Investigations. New York: Macmillan.