Sense-Relations

Meaning is more than denotation and connotation. What a word means depends in part on its associations with other words, the relational aspect. Lexemes do not merely ‘have’ meanings; they contribute meanings to the utterances in which they occur, and what meanings they contribute depends on what other lexemes they are associated with in these utterances. The meaning that a lexeme has because of these relationships is the sense of that lexeme. Part of this relationship is seen in the way words do, or do not, go together meaningfully. It makes sense to say John walked and it makes sense to say An hour elapsed. It doesn’t make sense to say John elapsed or An hour walked. Part of the meaning of elapse is that it goes with hour, second, minute, day but not with John, and part of the meaning of hour, second and so forth is that these words can co-occur with elapse. Part of the relationship is seen in the way word meanings vary with context. A library is a collection of books (Professor Jones has a rather large library) and is also a building that houses a collection of books (The library is at the corner of Wilson and Adams Streets). A number of English verbs can be used in two different ways —different grammatical association—and then have slightly different meanings.

Here what happened to the window is the same, but in the first sentence broke is equivalent to ‘became broken’ and in the second it is equivalent to ‘caused to be broken.’ (More about this in the next chapter.) Adjectives, too, can have different senses. If you come across some object which you have never seen before, and you wonder about its origin and its purpose, we can say that you are curious about it. But we can also call the object a curious kind of thing. The same term is used for your subjective feelings and for the supposedly objective properties of this item—a curious person, a curious object. A judge makes decisions; if he is guided by personal whim or choice, the judge is arbitrary (dictionary definition: ‘inclined to make decisions based on personal whim’) but we also say that the decision is arbitrary (dictionary definition: ‘based on personal choice rather than reason’). A lexeme does not merely ‘have’ meaning; it contributes to the meaning of a larger unit, a phrase or sentence. Take these phrases with the adjective happy.

When happy combines with a word that has the feature [human], like child and family in the first line, it is roughly equivalent to ‘who enjoy(s) happiness’—a happy child is a child who has or enjoys happiness. In combination with words that have the feature [event] such as accident and experience, its contribution is roughly ‘that produces happiness.’ In combination with words that have the feature [discourse]—story, report—its meaning is roughly ‘containing a happy event or events.’ Each of these words has a range of meanings; each meaning is determined by its linguistic context, just as the meaning of door on any specific occasion is determined by the physical context in which it occurs. The meaning of a lexeme is, in part, its relation to other lexemes of the language. Each lexeme is linked in some way to numerous other lexemes of the language. We can notice two kinds of linkage, especially.

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