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Word meaning can be studied from multiple perspectives including linguistic, philosophical, and psychological. This article focuses on the issues of meaning of most interest to psychologists: how to characterize the knowledge that constitutes people’s mental representation of meanings, and how to describe the use of this knowledge in interpreting words that are heard or read.
1. Approaches To Word Meaning
When people think casually about the topic of word meaning, they typically think of dictionaries. They view dictionary entries as constituting a statement of a word’s meaning. They also think of the dictionary as the ultimate authority on the correct meaning: in any dispute, they defer to the dictionary deﬁnition as determining what is right. In doing so, they adopt implicit assumptions that word meanings belong to a language, as opposed to its users, and that there are experts who alone are qualiﬁed to report the true meaning of each word.
Elements of this sort of view appear in some linguistic and philosophical approaches to word meaning. For instance, language is sometimes treated as an abstract system to be analyzed, without reference to the users of the system. And Putnam’s (1975, Chap. 12) inﬂuential philosophical approach to meaning appeals to a ‘division of linguistic labor,’ suggesting that correct use of some common words can be determined only by experts who have special knowledge of the entities in question.
However, modern lexicographers—those who write dictionaries—do not hold such a view themselves. Their job in providing dictionary deﬁnitions is not to report the ‘true’ meaning of a word that is divorced from what ordinary speakers of the language use the word to mean. The meanings associated with words change over time, as their use by speakers of the language shifts. For instance, ‘nice’ currently has a highly positive connotation but in earlier times referred to someone who was ignorant or foolish; ‘hussy’ meant a housewife, and ‘mistress’ was simply a feminized form of ‘mister’ (Hock and Joseph 1996, Chap. 7). Just a generation ago, ‘mouse’ referred only to a small rodent; now it is used more often to refer to a computer peripheral. The goal of lexicographers must therefore be to capture something about how a community of speakers uses a word at a particular time in the history of the language (see, e.g., Laird 1978).
Psychologists interested in word meaning take a perspective more similar to that of lexicographers than to either the layperson’s intuitive view or the view reﬂected in the kinds of linguistic and philosophical approaches mentioned. Psychologists view meanings as changeable, as belonging to individual language users, and as shared across communities of language users. But psychologists, unlike lexicographers, are particularly interested in mental representation and in the cognitive processes that draw on mental representation. Their primary goals in the study of meaning are to characterize the knowledge that constitutes word meanings and to describe how this knowledge is used in interpreting words heard or read.
2. Meaning As Concepts
A standard way of describing what constitutes a word meaning, for a psychologist, is to say that meanings consist of concepts. Concepts are coherent nonlinguistic knowledge about some entity or set of entities (e.g., a person could have a concept of his or her brother Max and also a concept of what brothers are in general). A strict one-to-one correspondence does not exist between the words known by a person and his or her concepts, since a person can have a concept without having a word to label it. (Children in the early stages of language learning presumably are often in this situation.) Also, a person occasionally may know a word but have little or no meaning associated with that word. In most cases, though, the words stored in a person’s memory will have meanings associated with them, and the argument is that the stored meaning for each word consists of a concept. Thus, for any given person, the meaning of ‘brother’ consists of his or her concept of what a brother is, the meaning of ‘run’ consists of his or her concept of what running is, and so on. For many common words, the associated concept is assumed to be similar for most people, and so the meaning is shared.
The idea that word meanings are concepts, though, does not delve very far into the question of the nature of meaning. If meanings are concepts, and psychologists want to understand the nature of meanings, they need to know in more detail what concepts consist of. Psychologists have devoted much effort to the study of concepts, both for their own sake and in order to understand word meaning (e.g., see Natural Concepts, Psychology of ).
An early answer to the question of what concepts are like was suggested by linguists pursuing their own interests in word meaning. The proposal from linguistics was that the meaning of a word is a set of deﬁning features; that is, features true of all things appropriately called by that name and together separating those things from all things called by other names. For instance, deﬁning features for the word ‘bachelor’ might be ‘adult,’ ‘male,’ and ‘unmarried.’ This proposal was closely related to analyses by anthropologists suggesting that kin terms such as ‘mother’ and ‘grandmother’ could be analyzed in terms of elements of meaning such as such as sex (male vs. female) and generation (one removed vs. two removed). Psychologists initially adopted the deﬁning features view as a view of the nature of concepts, not of word meaning. Under the perspective that word meanings consist of concepts, though, the circle back to the original linguistic theorizing is closed, with the difference that psychologists considered deﬁning features to constitute the mental representation of the meaning, not a meaning detached from individual minds.
By the mid 1970s, psychologists were ﬁnding this analysis of concepts and meanings problematic because for many words, it was impossible to determine deﬁning features. Rosch and Mervis (1975) suggested that concepts consist, instead, of sets of features having varying strengths of association to the category. For instance, most fruits are juicy but a few are not; many fruits are sweet, but some are not; some have a single pit while others have many seeds. The most common features, like sweet and juicy for fruit, are true of prototypical examples but are not deﬁning features. If word meanings are represented by concepts, then according to this analysis, they are represented by concepts that include prototypes and probabilistically associated features, but not deﬁning features.
Reﬁnements and modiﬁcations to this view of concepts have been made. Most notable is the idea that concepts are not simply unstructured collections of features; instead, they are held together by a ‘conceptual glue’ that provides information about the relation of features to one another and to the entities in question (e.g., Murphy and Medin 1985). For instance, a person’s concept of birds might include the information that they all have wings, that most ﬂy, and that some nest in trees, but these are not unrelated pieces of information. Instead, the concept includes the knowledge that having wings has a particular causal relation to ﬂying and being able to ﬂy has a particular causal relation to being able to nest in trees. If concepts include such information, then word meanings, likewise, do.
3. Multiple Meanings: Polysemy
Research on concepts has thus by now provided a fairly detailed (though still evolving) view of what concepts consist of. In that sense, word meanings are also understood in some detail. However, saying that meanings are concepts leaves some important issues unresolved. These issues revolve around the fact that many words have more than one meaning. In a small number of such cases, a word has two unrelated meanings, such as ‘ear’ meaning either a sense organ or a part of a corn plant. In these cases, it is often historical accident that the two meanings are expressed through the same word. During the earlier history of the language, two more distinctly different words may have been used, but they evolved into the same form as changes to the sound or spelling patterns of the language took place. Of greater interest for theories of meaning are cases of polysemy, where a single word has two or more meanings that are related in some way. For instance, the word ‘run’ means something somewhat different, but not entirely so, in each of the following phrases: ‘run a race,’ ‘run errands,’ ‘run for election,’ ‘run a company,’ ‘the machine is running,’ ‘the water is running,’ ‘the movie runs three hours.’ In other cases of polysemy, a word may be used in more radically different (yet still clearly related) ways. For instance, the word ‘newspaper’ most typically refers to a physical object consisting of printed pages of newsprint, but in sentences like ‘The newspaper is being sold’ or ‘The newspaper says Jones is leading in the polls,’ the same word is being used to refer to the corporate entity that produces the physical object, or to the writers whose writing appears in the physical object. Sometimes a word is even used as a part of speech it has not been used as before, as ‘siren’ is in ‘The police sirened the car to a stop’ (Clark and Clark 1979). The challenge for a psychological view of meaning is to explain how mental representations accommodate the different senses a word may have, and how the intended sense is understood.
One approach to addressing this challenge is to say that people have a single meaning stored in their memory for a given word, and variations on that meaning are created by the context it occurs in. A person would take into account his or her stored concept for the word along with other information in the sentence and discourse context to determine the meaning. In some cases, there may be regularities in what kinds of meanings can be constructed that allow people to quickly arrive at the relevant meaning. For instance, there may be a general rule that says that names of objects can be used to stand for people associated with those objects, making ﬁguring out the meaning of cases like ‘The newspapers says Jones is leading in the polls’ straightforward (Nunberg 1979). In other cases, there may be no standard rule, but other aspects of the context, including knowledge of the background and goals of the person who said or wrote the sentence, are sufficient for the reader or hearer to ﬁgure out the right meaning.
This view assumes that the word’s meaning itself changes in the contexts. An alternative way of framing what happens is to say that interpretation of the word is modiﬁed by the context, but the word meaning itself stays the same. For instance, the meaning of ‘newspaper’ is always about a physical object made of newsprint, but a person can draw on that meaning, along with any standard rules and various clues from the sentence and discourse context, to ﬁgure out that the speaker is using the word ‘newspaper’ to refer to something somewhat different. This alternative framing is more consistent with the idea that meaning consists of concepts, because it distinguishes between meaning as stored knowledge and the use of that stored knowledge to construct an interpretation on an occasion of use.
Whichever framing is used, it is unlikely that all variations in interpretation / meaning are constructed anew in interpreting a word in a particular context. One reason for thinking so is that it has been impossible to determine ‘core’ meanings from which all other meanings can be derived. For instance, there is no set of features associated with the central meaning of ‘run’ that seem to be true of all the senses of ‘run.’ In some cases, senses of a word seem to develop in chains (Lakoff 1987, Case Study 2), where one sense derives from another, and another from that one, until there are senses having little or nothing in common with the typical sense. For instance, the concept associated with ‘box’ in its most central sense is something like a rectangular container made of cardboard for storing solid objects. However, there have come to be cardboard juice boxes (for drinking, not storing, and for liquids, not solids). From those developed plastic (not cardboard) reuseable juice boxes, and from them, plastic juice boxes in the shape of various animals (not rectangular). A plastic bearshaped juice box has none of the properties associated with typical boxes, yet people willingly call it ‘juice box.’ Thus it seems likely that people learn and store senses for ‘box’ that are distinct from and in addition to their stored knowledge about ordinary cardboard boxes. Another reason for thinking that at least some of the variations are stored in memory is that some are encountered repeatedly (as in the case of ‘juice box’), so it would be inefficient to have to derive them anew each time.
If, as this last point suggests, a number of different senses are stored in memory, one might wonder what part of the stored knowledge should be identiﬁed as the concept that constitutes the word’s meaning. One way to resolve the problem may be simply to say that each word has multiple concepts associated with it, with the concepts in some cases differing only subtly from one another. Just as a person’s concept of a sparrow vs. of a ﬁnch may be distinct but only slightly different, so may be his or her concepts associated with a polysemous word like ‘run.’
4. Meaning Across Languages
So far, all the examples discussed have been of English words and their associated concepts. Speakers of English generally have the intuition that the distinctions they make between chairs and sofas, bottles and jars, and so on are so obvious that the same distinctions must be observed by speakers of other languages: the words would differ but the concepts associated with them would be the same. However, the situation is not that simple. Words that are traditionally translated as equivalent by dictionaries are not always fully equivalent on closer examination. For instance, Spanish speakers apply the word ‘botella’ to a much narrower range of objects than English speakers apply the word ‘bottle’ to. On the other hand, English speakers apply the word ‘on’ to a more restricted range of spatial relations than Spanish speakers apply the word ‘en’ to. Apparently, the concepts associated with the words are not identical. Such differences can be found across many languages and for words labeling many different kinds of entities.
This observation raises at least two important questions, one theoretical and one practical. The theoretical one concerns the relation between language and thought. A controversial proposal in psychology and linguistics has been that the language a person speaks inﬂuences the way he or she perceives the world (see Lucy 1992). If the meaning of ‘bottle’ and ‘botella’ are not the same, or the meaning of ‘on’ and ‘en’ are not, do people in some way perceive the objects or spatial relations differently depending on their language? For instance, if ﬁve objects are all called ‘bottle’ in English, but require two different names in Spanish, does the Spanish speaker see them as more different than the English speaker does? The available evidence suggests not (Malt et al. 1999). However, the cross-linguistic differences may inﬂuence other aspects of thought, such as how early a child learns a word or what features he or she ﬁrst focuses on (e.g., Bowerman 1996).
The practical issue concerns second language learning. Second language instruction has typically taught vocabulary as paired associate learning: students learn that ‘chair’ is ‘silla’ in Spanish, ‘bottle’ is ‘botella,’ and so on. If the words are not truly equivalent in their meaning, then learners’ use of the words may not be like native speakers’. For instance, learners may use the word ‘botella’ for the same set of objects that they would use ‘bottle’ for in English and not realize that their use is inappropriate. It may take second language learners extensive experience with the language to ﬁne tune their meanings and their word use to match native speakers, if they ever do.
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