Semantic Categories

A lexeme is a lexical unit, usually a word, that has semantic meaning.

Conceptual/Denotative meaning is the literal meaning of a lexeme. These meanings might be easily definable or not, especially when compared with similar lexemes. One would expect to see conceptual meaning represented in a dictionary.

For example, the conceptual meaning of the lexeme widow is woman who’s husband has died.

Connotative meaning is the notion(s) evoked by a lexeme, but not inherent to that lexeme. These meanings vary between various individuals and groups.

For example, the connotative meaning of the lexeme woman may range from positive to negative. A second-wave feminist may associate connotations of strength and resilience with woman, whereas an abrahamic religious conservative may associate connotations of weakness and delicacy with woman.

Social meaning is the social circumstances of an utterance and of the speaker. This includes lexemes that have different conceptual meanings between different speaking groups, lexemes that have the same conceptual meaning but are exclusive to different speaking groups, and lexemes that have the same conceptual meaning in use by the same speaking group but have differing uses.

For example, many dialects of English utilise different lexemes for open footwear. Thongs, sandals, jandals, flip flops, etc. Some of these lexemes may be indicative of other conceptual meanings (<sandals> has a different meaning to <thongs> in Australian English, but in dialects where <thongs> is absent, the same type of footwear may be prototypical of <sandals>), but broadly speaking these terms indicate where a speaker is from or a socio-geographic speaking group that the speaker is evoking.

For another example, the lexemes residence, abode, domicile, home, and place all have the same conceptual meaning in the context of belonging to a person (i.e. place only has this meaning in my/your/our/her/his/their place). The use of these different lexemes evoke different social contexts, ranging in formality. This may be accurate to the actual social context of the speaker and listener(s), but may be used incorrectly for humour or to assert formality.

Affective meaning is the emotion conveyed by a statement. This is also context-dependant. This includes lexemes that have a different emotive or affective significance in the context, as well as lexemes used specifically to modulate the affective meaning of a statement. Affective meaning can also be encoded purely in intonation.

For example of the former, the word home to a soldier on campaign has an emotive/affective significance absent from domestic life.

For example of the latter, modifying expletives are often employed to express the emotional state of the speaker respective of the lexeme that the expletive modifies. e.g. “Shut the bloody door” expresses an emotive focus on the state of the door in a way that “Shut the door” does not.

Reflected meaning is the evocation of one conceptual meaning from the obvious intended use of another for the same lexeme. This can be innocuous or can even significantly affect word choices and create taboos around words.

For an innocuous example, the lexeme dear has both the conceptual meaning of being expensive, as well as being precious. Both of these have a core theme of valuation, but one is socio-economic and other is personal. However, in a particular context where a speaker says this book is quite dear, the intentional meaning may be abundantly clear, but the utterance will just as likely evoke both conceptual meanings.

For a more taboo example, we need only look at innuendos. Erection has the conceptual meaning of causing a structure to be brought high and made solid, but through innuendo has developed a reflected meaning relating to an anatomical state during sexual excitement.

Collocational meaning is the meaning derived from other ideas typically found with a lexeme. This may include the conceptual meaning of lexemes found in collocations (such as the clarity of crystals, as in crystal clear despite many crystals being opaque), or meanings categorically associated with a lexeme.

For an example of the latter, pretty and handsome have the same conceptual meaning, but vary in their application due to their use with stereotypically feminine and masculine concepts.

Thematic meaning is the focus and emphasis produced by the ordering of words.

A classic example of this is the use of grammatical voice to foreground the undergoer of an argument or background the actor. e.g. Thor drank the coffee is a statement focusing on Ivan, the actor, whereas “The coffee was drunk by Thor” is a statement focusing on the mead, the undergoer. This is evident by testing the grammaticality of removing the actor (i.e. *”drank the coffee” vs “The coffee was drunk”), but the point is that the focus is at the front of the utterance.

However, this same thematic positioning can be found in non-passive constructions, such as “I like this drink. Another!” vs “This drink, I like it. Another!”

Connotational meaning, social meaning, affective meaning, reflected meaning, collocational meaning, and thematic meaning are all categorised in Geoffery Leech‘s Semantics (1974, 1981) as aspects of associative meaning. This has continued forward into modern teachings of semantics.

Content largely derived from University of Newcastle’s LING3310 Language and Meaning

Feature Image by Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash

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