The Challenges of Denotative and Connotative Meaning for Second-Language Learners

By Omar, Youssif Zaghwani | et Cetera, July 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

The Challenges of Denotative and Connotative Meaning for Second-Language Learners


Omar, Youssif Zaghwani, et Cetera


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I. Introduction

The most noticeable feature that distinguishes human beings from animals is their (human beings) ability to communicate with each other in different contextual situations. Due to the flexibility and arbitrariness of language, people might use similar words and expressions in different contextual situations with different meanings. Wolfram and Estes (2006) explain that, "The relationship between the sounds that make up a given word and the meaning or meanings associated with this word is essentially arbitrary. That is, there is no one 'true' name for a given object or idea" (p. 60). Also, people might have the capability to use different sounds and symbols to contact with other people in different cultures. Yet, it is important that both parties - sender and receiver - understand the meanings of these sounds and symbols to communicate.

Nevertheless, sometimes, people fail to communicate because of the barrier of failing to decode meanings of sounds uttered. For example, if two people from different cultures, who speak English, converse, they might not understand one another. A non-native speaker might understand the Englishman, saying, "It's not my cup of tea" that the Englishman is talking about a cup of tea that does not belong to him. In this regard, Andrews (1993) said, "One of the most basic reasons human beings bother to communicate with each other is to impart some kind of meaning" (p. 10). Thus, this work is trying to shed some lights on the importance of understanding meaning of words in order to understand others' intentions, focusing, mainly, on denotative and connotative meaning.

II. Literature Review

1. Word as Carrier for Meaning

Talking about "word" and "meaning" forces me first to find definitions for "word" and see how words collocate with meaning. Rosenblatt (1994) see that words "point to something outside themselves, often to something that has a separate existence in real life" (p. 33). Moffett (1992) discussed, "Words stand for concepts, and concepts grow as youngsters grow" (p. 33). Garrison (1985) emphasized, "Semanticists, who study meaning, remind us that 'the word is not the thing,' not the reality, just as 'the map is not the territory,' not the actual ground" (p. 42). Dewey (1997) sees that a word "is an instrument for thinking about the meaning which it expresses" (p. 178).

Aitchison (2003) defines "word" as "a minimum free form, that is, the smallest form that can occur by itself" (p. 56). This definition, in fact, does not specify the main function of a word as a carrier of meaning as Postman (1985) does, saying, "Words have very little to recommend them except as carriers of meaning. The shapes of written words are not especially interesting to look at" (p. 50). Therefore, we cannot divorce a word from its meaning. Another issue that Aitchison does not refer to in her definition is that a word gives meaning only when it is in a context. Postman (1985) refers to this point, showing that the meaning of a word is distorted when it is taken away from its context (p. 73).

Goodman (1986) believes that people can set symbols together to form words when representing something, but the meanings of such words are given by users of these words (p. 13). Crystal (2006) clarifies this idea, saying, "Words have no life of their own. It is people who have life, and it is they who give life to words. Or death. And as people, and their societies, never stand still, neither do words. Change is the norm. The only words that do not change any more are dead ones" (p. 149). Also, Hoffman (1994) emphasized, "We ascribe meaning to each thing around us: things have no meaning until we give them meaning, and then they are only what we mean them to be" (p. 58).

Bixby (2000), also, believes that words do not have meanings. Rather, people give meanings to the words they use. Hence, meanings of words change according to users of these words (p. …

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