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THE LEXICAL MEANING VERSUS NOTION

The term notion (concept) is introduced into linguistics from logic and psychology. It denotes the reflection in the mind of real objects and phenomena in their essential features and relations. Each notion is characterised by its scope and content. The scope of the notion is determined by all the objects it refers to. The content of the notion is made up of all the features that distinguish it from other notions. The distinction between the scope and the content of a notion lies at the basis of such terms as the identifying (demonstrative) and significative functions of the word that have been discussed above. The identifying function may be interpreted as denoting the objects covered by the scope of the notion expressed in the word, and the significative function is the function of expressing the content of the respective notion. The function of rendering an emotion or an attitude is termed the expressive function.

The relationship between the linguistic lexical meaning and the logical notion deserves special attention not only because they are apt to be confused but also because in comparing and contrasting them it is possible to achieve a better insight into the essence of both. In what follows this opposition will be treated in some detail.

I. The first essential point is that the relationship between notion and meaning varies. A word may have a notion for its referent. In the example A good laugh is sunshine in the house (Thackeray) every word


evokes a general idea, a notion, without directly referring to any particular element of reality. The scope of the significative meaning and that of the notion coincide; on different levels they cover the same area. But a word may also have, and quite often has a particular individual object for its referent as in Do you remember what the young lady did with the telegram? (Christie)

The problem of proper names is particularly complicated. It has been often taken for granted that they do not convey any generalised notion at all, that they only name human beings, countries, cities, animals, rivers, stars, etc. And yet, names like Moscow, the Thames, Italy, Byron evoke notions. Moreover, the notions called forth are particularly rich. The clue, as St. Ullmann convincingly argues, lies in the specific function of proper names which is identification, and not signifying.1

Pronouns possess the demonstrative function almost to a complete exclusion of the significative function, i.e. they only point out, they do not impart any information about the object pointed out except for its relation to the speaker.

To sum up this first point: the logical notion is the referent of lexical meaning quite often but not always, because there may be other referents such as the real objects.

II. Secondly, notions are always emotionally neutral as they are a category of thought. Language, however, expresses all possible aspects of human consciousness (see 3.3). Therefore the meaning of many words not only conveys some reflection of objective reality but also connotations revealing the speakers state of mind and his attitude to what he is speaking about. The following passage yields a good example: Vile bug of a coward, said Lypiatt, why dont you defend yourself like a man? (Huxley) Due to the unpleasant connotations the name bug acquires a negative emotional tone. The word man, on the contrary, has a positive connotation implying courage and firmness. When used in emotionally coloured situations emphatic syntactic structures and contexts, as in our example from Huxley, words accumulate emotional associations that finally blur their exact denotative meaning.

The content of the emotional component of meaning varies considerably. Emotionally charged words can cover the whole scale of both positive and negative emotions: admiration, respect, tenderness and other positive feelings, on the one hand, and scorn, irony, loathing, etc., on the other. Two or more words having the same denotative meaning may differ in emotional tone. In such oppositions as brat : : baby and kid : : child the denotative force of the right- and left-hand terms is the same but the left-hand terms are emotional whereas those on the right are neutral.

III. Thirdly, the absence not only of identity, but even of regular

1 Ullmann St. The Principles of Semantics. P. 73. See also on the point of proper names: Jespersen O. Philosophy of Grammar. London, 1929, p.p. 63-71; Sörensen H.S. Word-Classes in Modern English (with Special Reference to Proper Names), with an Introductory Theory of Grammar, Meaning and Reference. Copenhagen, 1958.


one-to-one correspondence between meaning and notion is clearly seen in words belonging to some specific stylistic level. This purely linguistic factor is relevant not for the content of the message but for the personality of the speaker, his background and his relations with his audience. The wording of the following example can serve to illustrate the point: Well, said Kanga, Fancy that! Fancy my making a mistake like that. (Milne) Fancy when used in exclamatory sentences not only expresses surprise but has a definite colloquial character and shows that the speaker and those who hear him are on familiar terms.

The stylistic colouring should not be mixed with emotional tone although here they coincide. A word may have a definite stylistic characteristic and be completely devoid of any emotional colouring (lifer a person who has been sent to prison for life); two words may belong to the same style and express diametrically opposed emotions (compare, for instance, the derogatory lousy and the laudatory smashing, both belonging to slang).

Summing up the second and the third points, one may say that owing to its linguistic nature the lexical meaning of many words cannot be divorced from the typical sphere where these words are used and the typical contexts, and so bears traces of both, whereas a notion belongs to abstract logic and so has no ties with any stylistic sphere and does not contain any emotive components.

IV. The linguistic nature of lexical meaning has very important consequences. Expressing a notion, a word does so in a way determined by the peculiarities of the lexical and grammatical systems of each particular language and by the various structural ties of the word in speech. Every word may be said to have paradigmatic ties relating it to other words and forms, and giving it a differential quality. These are its relations to other elements of the same thematic group, to synonymous and antonymous words, phraseological restrictions on its use and the type of words which may be derived from it. On the other hand, each word has syntagmatic ties characterising the ordered linear arrangement of speech elements.

The lexical meaning of every word depends upon the part of speech to which the word belongs. Every word may be used in a limited set of syntactical functions, and with a definite valency. It has a definite set of grammatical meanings, and a definite set of forms.

Every lexico-grammatical group of words (see p. p. 28, 39) or class is characterised by its own lexico-grammatical meaning, forming, as it were, the common denominator of all the meanings of the words which belong to this group. The lexico-grammatical meaning may be also regarded as the feature according to which these words are grouped together. Many recent investigations are devoted to establishing word classes on the basis of similarity of distribution.

In the lexical meaning of every separate word the lexico-grammatical meaning common to all the words of the class to which this word belongs is enriched by additional features and becomes particularised.

The meaning of a specific property in such words as bright, clear, good, quick, steady, thin is a particular realisation of the lexico-


grammatical meaning of qualitative adjectives. These adjectives always denote the properties of things capable of being compared and so have degrees of comparison. They refer to qualities that vary along a continuous scale and are called gradable. The scope of the notion rendered by the lexico-grammatical meaning of the class is much larger than the scope of the notion rendered by the lexical meaning of each individual word. The reverse also holds good: the content of the notion expressed by the lexico-grammatical meaning of the class is smaller, poorer in features than the content of the notion expressed by the lexical meaning of a word.

In summing up this fourth point, we note that the complexity of the notion is determined by the relationships of the extra-linguistic reality reflected in human consciousness. The structure of every separate meaning depends on the linguistic syntagmatic and paradigmatic relationships because meaning is an inherent component of language. The complexity of each word meaning is due to the fact that it combines lexical meaning with lexico-grammatical meaning and sometimes with emotional colouring, stylistic peculiarities and connotations born from previous usage.

V. The foregoing deals with separate meanings as realised in speech. If we turn to the meaning of words as they exist in language we shall observe that frequently used words are polysemantic.

In every language the combinatorial possibility of meanings in one word is specific. Thus, it is characteristic of English nouns to combine individual and collective, countable and uncountable variants in one phonetic complex. In verbs we observe different meanings based on the transitive and intransitive lexico-semantic variants of the same verb, as illustrated by the following examples: burn vt destroy by fire, vi be in flames; hold vt contain, keep fast, vi be true. See also different meanings of the verbs fire, fly, run, shake, turn, walk, warm, worry, etc.

Morphological derivation also plays a very important part in determining possible meaning combinations. Thus, for instance, nouns derived from verbs very often name not only the action itself but its result as well, e. g. show n the act of showing, an exhibition.

All these examples are sufficient to prove the fifth point, namely, that the grouping of meanings is different from the grouping of notions.

VI. Last but not least, the difference between notion and meaning is based upon the fact that notions are mostly international, especially for nations with the same level of cultural development, whereas meaning may be nationally determined and limited. The grouping of meanings in the semantic structure of a word is determined by the whole system of every language, by its grammar and vocabulary, by the peculiar history both of the language in question and the people who speak it. These factors influence not only the mere presence and absence of this or that meaning in the semantic system of words that may be considered equivalent in different languages, but also their respective place and importance. Equivalent words may be defined as words of two different languages, the main lexical variants of which express or name the same


notion, emotion or object. Their respective semantic structures (in the case of polysemantic words) show a marked parallelism, but this similarity is not absolute. Its degree may vary.

The meaning of every word forms part of the semantic system of each particular language and thus is always determined by the peculiarities of its vocabulary, namely the existence of synonyms, or words near in meaning, by the typical usage, set expressions and also by the words grammatical characteristics depending on the grammatical system of each language.

A good illustration is given by the verb go. Its Russian equivalent is . The main meaning move or pass from place to place is common to both languages, as well as the meaning extend (e. g.: This road goes to London ); and so is the meaning work (Is your watch going? ?). There is, however, quite a considerable number of meanings that do not coincide. This is partly due to the existence in the English vocabulary of the words come and walk that point out the direction and character of the movement. f. , ! Here he comes! On the other hand the Russian language makes a distinction between and . So that the English go by train, go by bus cannot be translated as *umu or * .

There is quite a number of meanings that are realised only under certain specific structural conditions, such as: go fishing (skating, boating, skiing, mountain-climbing); go running (flying, screaming); go limp (pale, bad, blind); be going to ... that have no parallel in Russian (see p. 16).

It is common knowledge that there are many cases when one English word combines the meanings of two or more Russian words expressing similar notions and vice versa. For example:

A. boat , , , ; coat , , ; desk , ; floor , ; gun , ; cry , .

B. foot and leg; hand and arm; watch and clock; fingers and toes; sleep and dream; high and tall. The last example is particularly interesting because it reveals that the word high cannot cover all the cases of great vertical dimension, i.e. the scope of the notion and that of the meaning do not coincide.

Summing up all the points of difference between the thing meant, the notion and the meaning, we can say that the lexical meaning of the word may be defined as the realisation or naming of a notion, emotion or object by means of a definite language system subject to the influence of grammar and vocabulary peculiarities of that language. Words that express notions may also have some emotional or stylistic colouring or express connotations suggestive of the contexts in which they often appear. All the specific features that distinguish the lexical meaning from the notion are due to its linguistic nature. Expressing the notion is one of the words functions but not the only one, as there are words that do not name any notion; their meaning is constituted by other


functions. The development of the lexical meaning is influenced by the whole complicated network of ties and relations between the words in a given vocabulary and between the vocabulary and other aspects of the language.

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