Semiotics: The Study of Meaning (Part 2)

In the second installment of a three-part blog series on semiotics, Marcel Danesi, author of The Quest for Meaning: A Guide to Semiotic Theory and Practice, Second Edition explores the question, “what is meaning?” A word with many connotations, he investigates how meaning is created and how it is communicated.

Read part 1 from last week on the definition and historical background of semiotics.


Part 2: What Is Meaning?

By Marcel Danesi

When all is said and done, semiotics is concerned with meaning and how it manifests itself in human practical and creative activities. A little reflection will reveal, however, that this is a problematic word: What is meaning? As Charles Ogden and I. A. Richards showed in their classic 1923 work, titled appropriately The Meaning of Meaning, there are many meanings of the word meaning in English as, for example, the following:

He means to study math.             =                   “intends”

A red light means stop.               =                   “indicates”

Happiness means everything.      =                   “has importance”

Her look was full of meaning.     =                   “special import”

Does life have a meaning?          =                   “purpose”

What does love mean to you?             =          “convey”

To avoid such vagueness and ambivalence, the terms reference, sense, and definition are preferred instead in both philosophy and semiotics. Reference is the process itself of pointing out or identifying something; sense is what that something elicits psychologically, historically, and socially; and definition is a statement about what that something means by convention. Words may refer to the same (or similar) things, known as referents, but they have different senses. For example, the “long-eared, short-tailed, burrowing mammal of the family Leporidae” can be called rabbit or hare in English. Both words refer essentially to the same kind of mammal. But there is a difference of sense – hare is the more appropriate term for describing the mammal if it is larger, has longer ears and legs, and does not burrow. Another difference is that a rabbit can be adopted as a household companion, while a hare is unlikely to be perceived in this way. The German philosopher Gottlob Frege (pictured right) was among the first to point out the role of sense in theories of meaning. His famous example was that of the “fourth smallest planet and the second planet from the Sun” as being named both Venus and the Morning Star. The two terms referred to the same thing, he observed, but they have different senses – Venus refers to the planet in a straightforward referential way (nevertheless with implicit references to the goddess of sexual love and physical beauty of Roman mythology) while Morning Star brings out the fact that the planet is visible in the east just before sunrise.

Definition is a statement about what something means by using words and other signs (for example, pictures). As useful as it is, the act of defining leads inevitably to circularity. Take the dictionary definition of cat as “a small carnivorous mammal domesticated since early times as a catcher of rats and mice and as a pet and existing in several distinctive breeds and varieties.” One of the problems that emerges from this definition is the use of mammal to define cat. In effect, one term has been replaced by another. So, what is the meaning of mammal? A mammal, the dictionary states, is “any of various warm-blooded vertebrate animals of the class Mammalia.” But this definition is hardly a viable explication of the meaning of cat. What is an animal? The dictionary defines animal as an organism, which it defines, in turn, as an individual form of life, which it then defines as the property that distinguishes living organisms. At that point the dictionary has gone into a referential loop, since it has employed an already-used concept, organism, to define life. This looping pattern surfaces in all domains of human knowledge. It suggests that signs can never be understood in the absolute, only in relation to other signs.

To further avoid the ambiguity of the term meaning, in contemporary semiotics, the terms denotation and connotation are preferred to reference and sense. Consider, again, the word cat. The referent of this word is a type of mammal. This is its denotative meaning, which enfolds a sketch of a cat in terms of specific features that characterize it in general – “retractile claws,” “long tail,” etc. The denotative meaning allows users of signs to determine if something real or imaginary under consideration is an exemplar of a “cat.” Similarly, the word square elicits a mental image characterized by the distinctive features “four equal straight lines” and “meeting at right angles.” It is irrelevant if the lines are thick, dotted, 2 metres long, 80 feet long, or whatever. If the figure has “four equal straight lines meeting at right angles,” it is denotatively a square.

Now, all other meanings associated with the words cat and square are connotative –that is, they are culture-specific concepts that extend their original referential domains. Some connotative senses of square can be seen in expressions such as the following:

She’s so square.                      =          “old fashioned”

He has a square disposition.   =          “forthright,” “honorable”

Put it squarely on the table.    =          “evenly,” “precisely”

The concept of square is an ancient one and, thus, probably known by everyone (hence “old-fashioned”); it is also a figure with every part equal (hence “forthright”); and it certainly is an even-sided figure (hence “evenly”). Connotation encompasses all kinds of senses, including emotional ones. Consider the word yes. In addition to being a denotative sign of affirmation, it can have various emotional senses, depending on the tone of voice with which it is uttered. If one says it with a raised tone, as in a question, “Yes?” then it would convey doubt or incredulity. If articulated emphatically, “Yes!” then it would connote triumph, achievement, or victory. It should be emphasized that connotation is not an option, as some traditional philosophical and linguistic theories of meaning; it is something we invariably extract from a sign.

Rather than use the notion of meaning, Saussure also developed a special terminology (based however on that used by the Scholastics). He called the sign form itself, such as the word cat, the signifier, and the concept that the sign elicits, the signified (literally “that which is signified by the sign”). Charles Peirce, on the other hand, saw meaning as embedded in what he called the interpretant. In Western culture, a cat is considered to be a domestic companion, among other things; in others it might be viewed as a sacred animal (akin to a sacred cow); and so on. Thus, while the sign-form cat refers to the same mammal in different cultures (no matter what name is used), its interpretant varies considerably, constituting a source of supplementary sense-making.

It is accurate to say that semioticians today use a blend of Saussurean and Peircean concepts and techniques at various stages of analysis and for diverse purposes. They also frequently use ideas and findings from related or cognate disciplines, especially linguistics, philosophy, psychology, and anthropology. It should be noted, however, that this interdisciplinary mode of inquiry is a two-way street, since many ideas developed within semiotics proper are now found scattered in cognate fields. The question now becomes, how has semiotics been used in a practical way? I leave that question for my third entry in this blog series.


Interested in finding out more about the second edition of The Quest for Meaning: A Guide to Semiotic Theory and PracticeClick here to read an excerpt from the book.

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