Meaning – Concept in linguistics, semiotics and pragmatics

We explain what the meaning is, what types exist and what are the characteristics of the different disciplines that study it.

Meaning exists in a range of nuances, implicatures, and interpretations.

What is the meaning?

It is understood by meaning the meaning of the words and / or phrases of the language, that is, the specific referent or the set of referents to which a term alludes. It is a meaning shared to a certain extent by sender and receiver, without which they would not be able to understand each other, but which exists amidst a range of nuances, implicatures and interpretations that depend on different contexts.

So, strictly speaking, there is not really a meaning, but a set of possible meanings. Thus, we can identify two types of meanings:

  • Denotative meaning: It is the objective meaning of a term, one that tends to be universal among speakers of the same language. It is the one that appears in all dictionaries.
  • Connotative meaning: They are the subjective meanings of the same term, which vary according to the group, the individual or the culture, it is known as.

Both exist at the same time in language: the word “night” denotes the period of absence of the sun in the sky, but at the same time it connotes in the Western imagination the end of things, the absence itself, the secret, the hidden and to some extent, the danger.

There are many ways of thinking and understanding what meaning is. The posture of traditional linguistics understands it as a concept or an abstraction that we form from real things, and that we mentally attribute to a signifier: a mental “footprint” of the word with which to express that meaning.

Thus, the signifier and signified pair would be found within the functioning of language, and this is what allows us its complex relations of meaning: that which we call synonymy, for example, is nothing more than the same meaning shared by two different signifiers.

However, there has been much debate regarding the nature of meaning. There are those who prefer to think of it as an interpretation that we make of linguistic signs, while others attribute it to the use we make of them, that is, some positions assume that words “have” a meaning, and others that words We “give” them meaning when we use them.

The science that studies meaning is known as semantics, and it applies to linguistics, logic, and other cognitive sciences.

Linguistic semantics

Linguistic semantics is the discipline that studies meaning within the framework of language itself, that is, what is related to the linguistic sign. It seeks to understand the functioning of lexical structures and their relationship with referents, as well as the complex mental mechanisms that allow multiple meanings (or nuances) to be attributed to words. He is also interested in the change of meaning throughout history (historical semantics).

However, linguistic semantics is not capable of covering all matters of meaning, but only those that are proper to the linguistic sign. The rest of the nuances are a matter of syntax (the order of the sentence) and pragmatics (the context in which the verbal language is used).

Formal semantics

formal semantic meaning
Formal languages ​​refer to abstract relationships.

Once semantics emerged within the framework of linguistic study, it was replicated in other areas of study, such as formal languages ​​(that is, non-verbal). The latter are those human languages ​​whose expressions do not have a referential meaningRather, they acquire their meaning within the framework of their own expressions.

An example is mathematics: “two” does not refer to a specific referent of reality, but to a type of relationship and formal abstraction that we make of it. The same happens with multiplication: it does not have a concrete referent, but rather it is an idea that operates in the world of mathematical abstractions.

Thus, formal semantics is the study of interpretation in formal languages, in which logical consequence relationships are fundamental, since the meaning of symbols in a formal language is arbitrary, that is, it is assigned voluntarily during its use, and does not usually refer to perceptible reality, but to abstract relationships between ideas.

Semiotics or semiology

With these two terms it is known, interchangeably, to the discipline that studies communication systems within human societies, that is, to the process of semiosis (or significance).

It consists fundamentally in studying the signs in civilization, understood as the germ of both language and thought. Thus, this discipline transcends the mere study of meaning, having communicating ties between linguistics, neuroscience, anthropology, etc.

In a practical sense, there is no difference between using the term “semiotics” or “semiology”, simply some academies prefer one and others another.

However, there are divergences of theoretical approach between one and the other: semiotics tends to be more related to functionalism, at least in the American academy; while semiology tends more towards structuralism, at least in the European and Latin American academies.


Pragmatics is, along with semantics, the discipline that deals with meaning in verbal language. In this sense, both are branches of linguistics, but unlike semantics, pragmatics pays special attention to the non-verbal, non-linguistic elements that intervene in communication.

In other words, the pragmatic is the science of context in verbal communication. Thus, in the pragmatic analysis, factors such as gestures, proxemics, individual linguistic abilities, etc. are taken into consideration.