Sunday, February 22, 2009

Seven Types of Meaning in Semantics

Seven Types of Meaning in Semantics

A M.A Project By Litton Prosad


The word semantic (from French sémantique) was invented by Michel Bréal during the 19th century.

Some people would like semantics to pursue study of meaning in a wider sense of ‘all that is communicated by language’; others (among them most modern writers within the framework of general linguistics) limit it in practice to the study of logical or conceptual meaning. It needs no great insight to see that semantics in the former, wider sense can lead us once again into the void from which Bloomfield retreated with understandable misgivings- the description of all that may be the object of human knowledge or belief. On the other hand, we can, by carefully distinguishing types of meaning, show how they all fit into the total composite effect of a linguistic communication, and show how method of study appropriate to one type may not be appropriate to another.

It has been observed that there is tremendous renewal of interest in semantic theory among linguists in the last few years. The main reason is the development of generative grammar with its emphasis on the distinction between ‘deep structure’ and ‘surface structure’. On the one hand semantics deals with the way words are and sentences are related to objects and processes in the world. On the other hand, it deals with the way in which they are related to one another in terms of such notions as ‘synonymy’, entailment’, and ‘contradiction’. According to John I Saeed, Semantics is the study of meaning communicated through language. He further says that a speaker’s semantic knowledge is an exciting and challenging task.

The semantic analysis, generally, must explain how the sentences of a particular language are understood, interpreted, and related to states, processes and objects in the world.

Seven Types of Meaning

A piece of language conveys its dictionary meaning, connotations beyond the dictionary meaning, information about the social context of language use, speaker’s feelings and attitudes rubbing off of one meaning on the another meaning of the same word when it has two meanings and meaning because of habit occurrence.

Broadly speaking, ‘meaning’ means the sum total of communicated through language. Words, Phrases and sentences have meanings which are studies in semantics.

Geoffrey Leech in his ‘Semantic- A Study of meaning’ (1974) breaks down meaning into seven types or ingredients giving primacy to conceptual meaning.

The Seven types of meaning according to Leech are as follows.

1) Conceptual or Denotative Meaning:

Conceptual meaning is also called logical or cognitive meaning. It is the basic propositional meaning which corresponds to the primary dictionary definition. Such a meaning is stylistically neutral and objective as opposed to other kinds of associative meanings. Conceptual

Meanings are the essential or core meaning while other six types are the peripheral. It is peripheral in as sense that it is non-essential. They are stylistically marked and subjective kind of meanings. Leech gives primacy to conceptual meaning because it has sophisticated organization based on the principle of contrastiveness and hierarchical structure.


/P/ can be described as- voiceless + bilabial + plosive.


Boy = + human + male-adult.

The hierarchical structure of ‘Boy’ = + Human + Male-Adult

Or “Boy” =Human – Male/Female-adult in a rough way.

Conceptual meaning is the literal meaning of the word indicating the idea or concept to which it refers. The concept is minimal unit of meaning which could be called ‘sememe’. As we define phoneme on the basis of binary contrast, similarly we can define sememe ‘Woman’ as = + human + female + adult. If any of these attribute changes the concept cease to be the same.

Conceptual meaning deals with the core meaning of expression. It is the denotative or literal meaning. It is essential for the functioning of language. For example, a part of the conceptual meaning of ‘Needle” may be “thin”, “sharp” or “instrument”.

The organization of conceptual meaning is based on two structural principles- Contrastiveness and the principle of structure. The conceptual meanings can be studied typically in terms of contrastive features.

For example the word “woman” can be shown as:

Woman = + Human, -Male, + Adult”.

On the contrary, word

“Boy” can be realized as:-

“Boy = “+ human, + male, - Adult”.

By the principle of structure, larger units of language are built up out smaller units or smaller units or smaller units are built out larger ones.

The aim of conceptual meaning is to provide an appropriate semantic representation to a sentence or statement. A sentence is made of abstract symbols. Conceptual meaning helps us to distinguish one meaning from the meaning of other sentences. Thus, conceptual meaning is an essential part of language. A language essentially depends on conceptual meaning for communication. The conceptual meaning is the base for all the other types of meaning.

2) Connotative Meaning:

Connotative meaning is the communicative value of an expression over and above its purely conceptual content. It is something that goes beyond mere referent of a word and hints at its attributes in the real world. It is something more than the dictionary meaning. Thus purely conceptual content of ‘woman’ is +human + female+ adult but the psychosocial connotations could be ‘gregarious’, ‘having maternal instinct’ or typical (rather than invariable) attributes of womanhood such as ‘babbling’,’ experienced in cookery’,skirt or dress wearing ‘etc. Still further connotative meaning can embrace putative properties of a referent due to viewpoint adopted by individual, group, and society as a whole. So in the past woman was supposed to have attributes like frail, prone to tears, emotional, irrigational, inconstant , cowardly etc. as well as more positive qualities such gentle, sensitive, compassionate, hardworking etc. Connotations vary age to age and society to society.

E.g. Old age ‘Woman’ - ‘Non-trouser wearing or sari wearing’ in Indian context must have seemed definite connotation in the past.

Present ‘Woman’---- Salwar/T-shirt/Jeans wearing.

Some times connotation varies from person to person also

. E.g. connotations of the word ‘woman’ for misogynist and a person of feminist vary.

The boundary between conceptual and connotative seems to be analogous. Connotative meaning is regarded as incidental, comparatively unstable, in determinant, open ended, variable according to age, culture and individual, whereas conceptual meaning is not like that . It can be codified in terms of limited symbols.

3) Social Meaning:

The meaning conveyed by the piece of language about the social context of its use is called the social meaning. The decoding of a text is dependent on our knowledge of stylistics and other variations of language. We recognize some words or pronunciation as being dialectical i.e. as telling us something about the regional or social origin of the speaker. Social meaning is related to the situation in which an utterance is used.

It is concerned with the social circumstances of the use of a linguistic expression. For example, some dialectic words inform us about the regional and social background of the speaker. In the same way, some stylistic usages let us know something of the social relationship between the speaker and the hearer

E.g. “I ain’t done nothing

The line tells us about the speaker and that is the speaker is probably a black American, underprivileged and uneducated. Another example can be

“Come on yaar, be a sport. Don’t be Lallu”

The social meaning can be that of Indian young close friends.

Stylistic variation represents the social variation. This is because styles show the geographical region social class of the speaker. Style helps us to know about the period, field and status of the discourse. Some words are similar to others as far as their conceptual meaning is concerned. But they have different stylistic meaning. For example, ‘steed ’, ‘horse and ‘nag’ are synonymous. They all mean a kind of animal i.e. Horse. But they differ in style and so have various social meaning. ‘Steed’ is used in poetry; ‘horse’ is used in general, while ‘nag’ is slang. The word ‘Home’ can have many use also like domicile ( official), residence (formal) abode (poetic) , home (ordinary use).

Stylistic variation is also found in sentence. For example, two criminals will express the following sentence

“They chucked the stones at the cops and then did a bunk with the look”

(Criminals after the event)

But the same ideas will be revealed by the chief inspector to his officials by the following sentence.

“After casting the stones at the police, they abandoned with money.”

(Chief Inspector in an official report)

Thus through utterances we come to know about the social facts, social situation, class, region, and speaker-listener relations by its style and dialect used in sentences.

The illocutionary force of an utterance also can have social meaning. According to the social situation, a sentence may be uttered as request, an apology, a warning or a threat, for example, the sentence,

“I haven’t got a knife” has the common meaning in isolation. But the sentence uttered to waiter mean a request for a knife’

Thus we can understand that the connotative meaning plays a very vital role in the field of semantics and in understanding the utterances and sentences in different context.

4) Affective or Emotive Meaning:

For some linguists it refers to emotive association or effects of words evoked in the reader, listener. It is what is conveyed about the personal feelings or attitude towards the listener.

E.g. ‘home’ for a sailor/soldier or expatriate

and ‘mother’ for a motherless child, a married woman (esp. in Indian context) will have special effective, emotive quality.

In affective meaning, language is used to express personal feelings or attitude to the listener or to the subject matter of his discourse.

For Leech affective meaning refers to what is convey about the feeling and attitude of the speak through use of language (attitude to listener as well as attitude to what he is saying). Affective meaning is often conveyed through conceptual, connotative content of the words used

E.g. “you are a vicious tyrant and a villainous reprobation and I hate you”

Or “I hate you, you idiot”.

We are left with a little doubt about the speaker’s feelings towards the listener. Here speaker seems to have a very negative attitude towards his listener. This is called affective meaning.

But very often we are more discreet (cautious) and convey our attitude indirectly.

E.g. “I am terribly sorry but if you would be so kind as to lower your voice a


. Conveys our irritation in a scaled down manner for the sake of politeness. Intonation and voice quality are also important here. Thus the sentence above can be uttered in biting sarcasm and the impression of politeness maybe reversed while –


“Will you belt up?”- can be turned into a playful remark between intimates if said with the intonation of a request.

Words like darling, sweetheart or hooligan, vandal have inherent emotive quality and they can be used neutrally.

I.A. Richards argued that emotive meaning distinguishes literature or poetic language from factual meaning of science. Finally it must be noted that affective meaning is largely a parasitic category. It overlaps heavily with style, connotation and conceptual content.

5) Reflected Meaning:

Reflected meaning and collocative meaning involve interconnection

At the lexical level of language, Reflected meaning arises when a word has more than one conceptual meaning or multiple conceptual meaning. In such cases while responding to one sense of the word we partly respond to another sense of the word too. Leech says that in church service ‘the comforter and the Holy Ghost ’refer to the third in Trinity. They are religious words. But unconsciously there is a response to their non-religious meanings too. Thus the ‘comforter’ sounds warm and comforting while the ‘Ghost’ sounds ‘awesome’ or even ‘dreadful’. One sense of the word seems to rub off on another especially through relative frequency and familiarity (e.g. a ghost is more frequent and familiar in no religious sense.).

In poetry too we have reflected meaning as in the following lines from ‘Futility’

‘Are limbs so dear achieved, are sides,

Full nerved still warm-too hard to stir’

Owen here uses ‘dear’ in the sense of expensiveness. - But the sense of beloved is also eluded.

E.g. Daffodils

“The could not but be gay

In such jocund company”

The word ‘gay’ was frequently used in the time of William Wordsworth but the word now is used for ‘homosexuality’.

In such type cases of multiple meaning, one meaning of the word pushes the other meaning to the background. Then the dominant suggestive power of that word prevails. This may happen because of the relative frequency or familiarity of the dominant meaning. This dominant meaning which pushes the other meaning at the background is called the reflected meaning.

Reflected meaning is also found in taboo words. For examples are terms like erection, intercourse, ejaculation. The word ‘intercourse’ immediately reminds us of its association with sex (sexual intercourse). The sexual association of the word drives away its innocent sense, i.e. ‘communication’. The taboo sense of the word is so dominant that its non-taboo sense almost dies out. In some cases, the speaker avoids the taboo words and uses their alternative word in order to avoid the unwanted reflected meaning. For example, as Bloomfield has pointed out, the word ‘Cock’ is replaced by speakers, they use the word ‘rooster’ to indicate the general meaning of the word and avoid its taboo sense. These words have non-sexual meanings too. (E.g. erection of a building, ejaculate-throw out somebody) but because of their frequency in the lit of the physiology of sex it is becoming difficult to use them in their innocent/nonsexual sense.

Thus we can see that reflected meaning has great importance in the study of semantics.

6) Collocative Meaning:

Collocative meaning is the meaning which a word acquires in the company of certain words. Words collocate or co-occur with certain words only e.g. Big business not large or great.Collocative meaning refers to associations of a word because of its usual or habitual co-occurrence with certain types of words. ‘Pretty’ and ‘handsome’ indicate ‘good looking’.

However, they slightly differ from each other because of collocation or co-occurrence. The word ‘pretty’ collocates with – girls, woman, village, gardens, flowers, etc.

On the other hand, the word ‘handsome’ collocates with – ‘boys’ men, etc. so ‘pretty woman’ and ‘handsome man’. While different kinds of attractiveness, hence ‘handsome woman’ may mean attractive but in a mannish way. The verbs ‘wander’ and ‘stroll’ are quasi-synonymous- they may have almost the same meaning but while ‘cows may wonder into another farm’, they don’t stroll into that farm because ‘stroll’ collocates with human subject only. Similarly one ‘trembles with fear’ but ‘quivers with excitement’. Collocative meanings need to be invoked only when other categories of meaning don’t apply. Generalizations can be made in case of other meanings while collocative meaning is simply on idiosyncratic property of individual words. Collocative meaning has its importance and it is a marginal kind of category.

7) Thematic Meaning:

It refers to what is communicated by the way in which a speaker or a writer organizes the message in terms of ordering focus and emphasis .Thus active is different from passive though its conceptual meaning is the same. Various parts of the sentence also can be used as subject, object or complement to show prominence. It is done through focus, theme (topic) or emotive emphasis. Thematic meaning helps us to understand the message and its implications properly. For example, the following statements in active and passive voice have same conceptual meaning but different communicative values.


1) Mrs. Smith donated the first prize

2) The first prize was donated by Mrs. Smith.

In the first sentence “who gave away the prize “is more important, but in the second sentence “what did Mrs. Smith gave is important”. Thus the change of focus change the meaning also.

The first suggests that we already know Mrs. Smith (perhaps through earlier mention) its known/given information while it’s new information.

Alternative grammatical construction also gives thematic meaning. For example,

1) He likes Indian good most.

2) Indian goods he likes most

3) It is the Indian goods he likes most.

Like the grammatical structures, stress and intonation also make the message prominent. For example, the contrastive stress on the word ‘cotton’ in the following sentence give prominence to the information

  1. John wears a cotton shirt
  2. The kind of shirt that john wears is cotton one.

Thus sentences or pairs of sentences with similar conceptual meaning differ their communicative value. This is due to different grammatical constructions or lexical items or stress and intonations. Therefore they are used in different contents.

“Ten thousand saw I at a glance”

Wordsworth here inverts the structure to focus on ‘ten thousand”


Sometimes thematic contrast i.e. contrasts between given and new information can be conveyed by lexical means.


1) John owns the biggest shop in London

2) The biggest shop in London belongs to John.

The ways we order our message also convey what is important and what not. This is basically thematic meaning.

Associative Meaning:

Leech uses this as an umbrella term for the remaining 5 types of meanings( connotative, social, affective, reflective and collocative).All these have more in common with connotative than conceptual meaning. They all have the same open ended, variable character and can be analyzed in terms of scales or ranges ( more/less) than in either or contrastive terms. These meanings contain many imponderable factors. But conceptual meaning is stable

Summary of Seven Types of Meaning.

1. Conceptual Meaning = Logical, cognitive or connotative content.

2. Connotative Meaning = What is communicated by virtue of what language


3. Social Meaning = What is communicated of the social circumstances of


4. Affective Meaning = What is communicated of the feelings and attitudes of

the Speaker through language.

5. Reflected Meaning = What is communicated through associations with

another Sense of the same world.

6. Collocative Meaning = What is communicated through associations with

words which co-occur with another word.

7. Thematic Meaning = What is communicated by the way in which the

message is organized in terms of order and emphasis.


Study of meaning, one of the major areas of linguistic study. Linguists have approached it in a variety of ways. Members of the school of interpretive semantics study the structures of language independent of their conditions of use. In contrast, the advocates of generative semantics insist that the meaning of sentences is a function of their use. Still another group maintains that semantics will not advance until theorists take into account the psychological questions of how people form concepts and how these relate to word meanings.

In linguistics, semantics is the subfield that is devoted to the study of meaning, as borne on the syntactic levels of words, phrases, sentences, and even larger units of discourse (referred to as texts). As with any empirical science, semantics involves the interplay of concrete data with theoretical concepts. Traditionally, semantics has included the study of connotative sense and denotative reference, truth conditions, argument structure, thematic roles, discourse analysis, and the linkage of all of these to syntax.

According to Leech there are only seven types of meaning. Meaning plays a vital role in understanding what is communicated. Thus, there are seven types of meaning and they contributed much to the field of semantics. The study of meaning is a new field of this century, in days to come; this field of study will progress and will have much value in analysis of meaning in field of linguistics.


This is to certify that Mr. Litton Prosad Mowalie has worked on the topic “Seven Types of Meaning” A term paper on “SEMANTICS AND PRAGMATICS”, Paper - VIII in partial fulfillment of M.A. in English in Institute of Advanced Studies in English. The sources she cited in this work duly acknowledged in the Bibliography.


I take this priviledge to acknowledge and to express my sincere gratitude to Dr. Sridhar Gokhale and Miss Madhuri Gokhale who inspired and provided ample materials in the class for the better understanding of the subject. It is because of their marvelous teaching, I am able to comprehend the topic and write a term paper. I would also like to express my gratitude to my classmates who have supported me with notes and books. I am indebted to Dr. Ashok Thorat for the opportunity of studying in his institute and to the librarian for the good support with books.


The place of English language in the cultural and educational life of India is now a well-explored field. But language itself stubbornly resists all attempts to pin down into categories and pigeon holes. The matrixes and certainties of one generation give way inevitably to the perplexities of the next. Whatever were the original reasons for the promotion of English language. It has its own value all over the world. To understand what is communicated through language, the meaning is the most vital part without which no communication can be called a communication. So study of meanings becomes a very important aspect of linguistics and semantics.

This term paper is titled as “Seven types of Meanings’ as a part of curriculum in Institute of Advanced studies in English, Pune. The paper deals with various types of meaning. Since meaning is important, it becomes inevitable to study about it deeply. This term paper has been prepared with a great deal of effort to bring out the different types of meaning available in the study of semantics specially the seven types of meaning proposed by Geoffrey Leech.. The paper gives a comprehensive presentation on seven types of meaning with many examples and explanation. I am sure this paper will be beneficial for anyone who reads with enthusiasm of learning. The term paper concludes in the last part of it with the ‘associative meaning’ which is not an eight type of meaning but it includes five from the seven types of meaning.


1. Napoli, 1994, Linguistics

- Oxford University Press

2. Paul Cobley, 1993, The Cambridge Companion to Semiotics and Linguistics.


3. Chapel F. Hockett, 1986, Mordern Linguistics

-Oxford and IBH.

4. Kaplan, 1983, The Oxford Handbook of Applied


- Oxford University Press.


wied said...

Dear Litton
Thank You very much for your written of the semantics study.
It is helpfull for my study especiallly to understand about semantics " the seven types of meaning".
I ask your permission to copying this.

wied said...

Dear Litton
Thank You very much for your written of the semantics study.
It is helpfull for my study especiallly to understand about semantics " the seven types of meaning".
I ask your permission to copying this.

Miracles Collector said...

Thank you so much for a great explanation about types of meaning in Semantics. It is very useful for my Semantics subject in College.

Litton PM said...

wied.... I am happy to know that it is useful for your study..... Make the best use of it......take care.


Thanks for your appreciation

Raden Miftha said...

Thanks for your explanation about emotive meaning and types meaning in semantics..

Tri Edogawa said...

thank you very much for the explaination, but Sir, could you explain about descriptive meaning in semantics and some examples?

Riski Randa said...

Thanks for the explaination... could i use it as reference in my thesis?

Nurjannah Triana said...

thanks a lot Litton, you help me so much.. :)


thank you so much Litton.... you really came to my rescure

Unknown said...

wow....thank you......can you give 5 examples for each meaning (conceptual meaning,associative meaning and thematic meaning)

korrip shadrack said...

Thanks Mr. Litton, at least l am shaped up for my exam on morphology, syntax and semantics....thanks once again(korripshadrack)

robert njane said...

Simple and Very Well Articulated.Great Job.Will help me in my exams tomorrow.