The Organization of Meaning in Language

Essay, 2005

7 Pages, Grade: 2


Language enables humans to convey and exchange information about the world they live in. A person’s interpretation of the real world is represented by the conceptual structure in the head. Concepts are “organized bundles of stored knowledge which represent an articulation of events, entities, situations, and so on” (Cruse 2004: 125). In order to interact with the world successfully one must have a concept of its structure and meaning, this concept can be represented by human language. This ability is species specific, i.e., only humans can manipulate the world symbolically. Furthermore symbolic behaviour is species uniform, which means that all humans have the ability for it. Children seem to acquire a language automatically according to a certain pattern. They learn a language on the basis of cultural context and without real instruction: linguistic ability appears to be a genetic predisposition of the human race. It is a fundamental aspect of our life as, our understanding of the world is “imposed on us by our language’s distinction” (Pinker 1994: 154). This essay will explain how meaning of language is organized and how it is reflected in the structure of language. I will first deal with the nature of the sign and then go on to explain how the meaning of complex signs is built up by word formation processes. The last part of the essay will investigate some of the processes which are involved when we categorize the world.

Words and their meanings are stored as signs in the mental lexicon. A simple sign represents the relation between a sound image, e.g. /buk/ and its meaning {&}. Once such a relation is established it is conventionalized and we use these specific conventionalized signs to express meaning when we talk about the world. Once a speaker has learned the pairing of the sound image /buk/ and its meaning, he or she is able to talk about a book without using ostensive definition (pointing at a exemplary or paradigmatic referent). It is important to mention that the meaning of book is more than one specific book. It can refer to all possible books in the world. It represents a mental concept. Signs can represent a concrete concept, like book but also abstract concepts like time. The pairing of a word (or a certain sound pattern) with a certain meaning is usually arbitrary, i.e., there is no natural correspondence between the form and the meaning of a sign. For example, the word book does not mirror its meaning in any respect. There are, however, some words whose sounds are suggestive of their meanings, so-called onomatopoeic words. For example the sound of the word cuckoo is an imitation of the sound produced by the animal. However, even onomatopoeic words differ from language to language: the sound of a rooster is imitated by cock-a-doodle-doo in English whereas it is interpreted as kickeriki in German. This example shows that sounds are interpreted and signs are coined differently in different languages and that even onomatopoeic words have a certain “arbitrariness” about them.

Any speaker can only store a finite stock of basic signs in his mental lexicon. Language, however, is creative: the speaker of a language can take basic units from the mental lexicon and use them to compose words that he may never have heard before. In order to build morphologically complex words one has to apply word formation rules. One important word formation process of English is derivation, i.e. the building of new words on the basis of affixation. Affixes are morphemes that can only occur as a part of a complex word, e.g., the word slowness consists of the base slow and the affix - ness. Knowing the rules of affixation is prerequisite to understanding a language: if we know the meaning of the word slow and we know that -ness indicates the state of being something, we will know the meaning of the word slowness. An affix which stands before the base is called a prefix. An affix which stands after the base is called a suffix. The last constituent of a morphologically complex word usually functions as its head (right hand head rule) and determines its word class, e.g., the suffix - er signals the doer of an action, thus if - er is added to the verb open, opener is a noun. However, if a prefix occurs before a verb, it only modifies the verb, but it does not affect the word class: for example re- signals the repetition of an action indicated in a verb, for example open, but reopen is still a verb. There are, however, some exceptions to this rule: if the prefix en- is attached to the noun slave the resulting word enslave is a verb. The affix en- overrides the right hand head rule and indicates a verb (AffV). Other prefixes that affect the word class are a- (AffA) and be- (AffV).

Derivation is binary, i.e., only two elements can be combined at any level. Consider the word reopener:

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re- open -er

On the basis of the word formation rules there is only one possible meaning of reopener: namely someone who reopens (not an opener who opens again!). As derivation is binary only one affix at a time can be attached. The prefix re- can only be attached to verbs. It is impossible to attach re- to the noun opener therefore re- must be attached to open first, modifying it to reopen, and on the next level the suffix -er is attached to the verb reopen, changing its meaning to “the doer of the action of reopening”. Attaching affixes to a word does not always change their word class, but it does always modify its meaning.


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The Organization of Meaning in Language
University of Cologne  (Englisches Seminar)
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This essay describes the nature of the sign as the basis of symbolic behaviour and the relationship between signs and word structures in the English lexicon. It deals with such key concepts as mental representation, arbitrariness, sound image, categorization, semantic features, word formation rules, and secondary motivation (transparency).
Organization, Meaning, Language, Hauptseminar
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Benjamin Althaus (Author), 2005, The Organization of Meaning in Language, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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