Word and Meaning

The Relationship Between Word and Meaning

LanguageOpens in new window we have defined—in the preceding study—as a unified system of signs that permits a sharing of meaning, and identified signs as words.

What then is a Word?

A word is a sign; that is, it stands for or represents something else. We call the “thing” it represents the referent.

The referent can be anything. It can be an object such as a table or chair, perhaps an idea, or even a feeling or need.

Important Hint! 

Note that we have said “stands for” or “represents”, rather than “are”. It is important to understand that words stands for things but are not the things themselves.

Words are mere symbols and by themselves constitute no meaning. They are letter combinations or spoken sounds that were arbitrarily selected at some point to stand for the things or referents about which we speak. In otherwords, they are the written representations of sounds that people have agreed will stand for something else.

In light of this mutual consent, we could make any sound stand for anything. It is this agreement that distinguishes a word from a random sound and gives it a meaning.

For example, the sounds made by the letters “d o g” constitute a word because English speaking people have agreed that they will stand for a particular domestic animal. However, the sounds made by the letters “r o g” do not constitute a word in English because they do not stand for anything.

If enough people agreed, we could create new signs—new words—to use in place of the ones that predominate our usage. The word water is not drinkable. The word dog does not bark. The word love is not lovable.

The word snow is not colder than the word coffee, any more than the word coffee is hotter than the word pepper. Meanings for words do not reside in their signs—their letters or their sounds—but rather in the minds of those who use them. Words, therefore, are not reality; they merely represent reality.

The Meaning of Words

To explain how words came to have meaning, we will set the scene by introducing a trio of language codes: the semantic code, the syntactic code, and the pragmatic code.

The Trio of Language Codes
  1. Semantic code
    The semantic code is the agreement to use the same symbols to communicate.
  2. Syntactic code
    Syntactic code refers to the conventions that guide word use; the agreement to use the same rules regarding word use.
  3. Pragmatic code
    Pragmatic code is the agreement to consider the context of an interaction, the interdependent nature of the relationship, and the goal of the exchange in deciphering meaning.

Words are used to help create meaning in our communication. We can use words to comfort, inspire, and make others laugh. We can also easily use words to annoy, alienate, and make them grieve.

Words help us to gain interpersonal closeness and to ensure that others keep their distance. Depending on the choices we make, words can clarify or confuse, make meaning apparent or obscure, and cause us literally to miss meaning, humbling us and contributing to our feeling that none of us speaks the same language.

However, important as words are in describing objects and ideas, they have no meaning in themselves; rather meanings reside in people and not in words.

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There is no reason, for example, why a dog should not have been called a “rog” (or for that matter, a cat), other than that people who speak English have assigned that meaning to the sign “dog”. Gamble and Gamble (1987:100) observed it so well and express that, “the meaning of a verbal message is not stamped on the face of the words”.

Because meanings exist in people rather than in words, they can differ. As you and I have our meanings, same way do other people have theirs. Even a simple word like “cat” might suggest meanings ranging from a common alley cat to a lion or leopard.

To be able to understand each other, we must understand the realities represented by our words, and ensure our meanings correspond. If not, language becomes a barrier to effective communicationOpens in new window, rather than an aid. In their classic work The Meaning of Meaning, C.k. Ogden and I. A. Richards use the Triangle of Meaning to illustrate the relationships among words, things, and thoughts. See the illustration below.


The Triangle of Meaning, developed by the communication theorists Ogden and Richards, helps to explain the relationships among words, things, and thoughts.

The Triangle of Meaning
Figure I: The Triangle of Meaning (adapted from Ogden & Richards 1930)

The triangle illustrates how words are related to both thoughts (meanings) and things. The dotted line connecting word (a sign) and thing (a referent) indicates that the words is not the thing and that there is no direct relationship between the two. The only direct relationship between words and the things they represent are in people’s minds, indicated by the solid lines between thought and word and between thought and thing.

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For example when we hear the word apple or see an apple, it calls up a mental picture of a particular fruit (a thought) in our minds. Ogden and Richards emphasize that words are arbitrary or indirect signs that members of a culture agree to use to represent the things they sense and experience. It is because meaning does not reside in the word that different cultures can also agree that hond, chien, injha, mpya, and dog will be used to talk about the same animal (cf. Ogden & Richards 1930; Stewart & D’Angelo 1990).

Causes of Misunderstanding

In our discussion so far, we have learnt that words can cause misunderstandings, simply because meanings differ. Experience in interpersonal communication tells us that we sometimes fail to convey the meaning we intend and, at other times we misunderstand other people’s messages.

The context of the misunderstanding we aim to pinpoint here, is not referring to the problems that arise when people speak indistinctly, or use a dialect that is unfamiliar, or have a limited vocabulary in which to express themselves, or make grammatical errors. Rather, the misunderstanding in this study, is concerned with the fact that we tend to assume that the words we use have exactly the same meaning for the other person as for us. Even though people agree that a word will stand for a particular thing, words have more than one meaningOpens in new window.

To understand and overcome the reasons for common misunderstandings in interpersonal encounters, we strongly recommend that you visit this study: Semantic BarriersOpens in new window.

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In so doing you will understand and be able to differentiate the differences between denotative and connotative meanings, and also understand the difference between concrete and abstract words. You will benefit a whole lot if you visit these studies. The links are provided below.

    This study is a series. See next page!
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