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I have been studying the fact that words have multiple meanings. When it comes to language translation, there is no simple way to define a word without having to analyze it through the lens of seven semantic fields that there are in the study of linguistics. This linguistic scenario is what our article is about today.
I started to dig deep into this question after realizing that famous English dictionaries such as Meriam Webster, for example, sometimes define one term in over a dozen different ways. This is the case for other dictionaries such as Collins, Cambridge, Oxford, Larousse, Longman, to mention a few.
Most of the time, a term is defined based on the context in which it is used even though there are other circumstances that affect the meaning such as geographical location (words carry a different meaning based on the country you are in), cultural, and social settings.
So, why do words have many different meanings? To answer this question, I will refer to semantics—one of the major fields of linguistics concerned with the meaning of words, phrases, sentences, and texts in general.
The University of Georgia defines semantics as the study of meaning in language, including the logical aspects of meaning (formal semantics), word meanings and their relations (lexical semantics), and the cognitive structure of meaning (conceptual semantics)[i].
In this article, I will also reference a theory by Geoffrey N. Leech—one of the most famous specialists in the field of linguistics and in the English language in general. Leech authored over 30 academic books and 120 published papers.
Leech’s theory discusses that there are 7 types of meaning, namely conceptual, connotative, collocative, reflective, affective, social, and thematic. Let’s take a closer look at each of them, why each one is crucial in language translation, and how they complement each other.
Conceptual semantics deals with the literal meaning of words. Essentially, when you read or hear a certain word before you give it too much thought, the meaning that comes directly to mind is what conceptual semantics is concerned with. For example, the word cat literally means cat and dog means dog. These two are domestic animals. Nothing more.
Therefore, conceptual meaning is the literal meaning and core sense of the concept in question. Conceptual meaning is also known as cognitive meaning, denotative (as opposed to connotative or implied) meaning, linguistic meaning, descriptive meaning, or dictionary meaning.
This type of meaning is a result of the context in which a word is associated with other words. For example, fork, spoon, and knife collocate with cutlery while shampoo, conditioner, and toothpaste collocate with toiletry. Collocative meaning can be very predictable based on the set of words that are juxtaposed together. These words bear conventional meanings through context-dependent use.
Unpacking Leech’s theory, the Internet Public Library discusses that collocative meaning conveyed by association with a word tends to occur in the context of another word and refers to a word’s association [sic] because it often habitually occurs with certain types of words. Thus, collocational meanings arise not only from co-occurring events, but also from stylistic and conceptual differences, and have the idiosyncrasies of certain words.[i]
Defining this type of meaning, Leech says that it “is the communicative value of expression based on what it refers to, exceeds and above its pure conceptual content.” (Leech 1981, 12).[i]
Also called associative meaning, this category comes about in various social contexts and conveys the speaker’s opinion to the listener. In informal conversations, people associate word meanings with everyday life situations embedded in their culture. For example, a dishonest person is called a dog in some African cultures, while an elegant person can also be referred to as such.
For an outsider to understand a connotative meaning, they either must tune their ear and follow along or ask the speaker to explain what they mean. This is simply because you can’t just understand what a concept means in a certain culture without being a part of it or at least learning about it.
The word “connotation” (from which connotative is derived) means that a certain concept goes beyond the conceptual (literal) meaning, or the standard meaning that language users are familiar with. In a nutshell, associative meaning is a result of cognitive rather than linguistic definition.
This type of meaning relates to the speaker’s personal point of view. Like the connotative meaning, affective depends entirely upon the speaker’s feelings towards the listener and the circumstances around the topic being discussed. For example, one person may dislike something while another hates, abhors, or detests the same thing.
Therefore, whatever emotions the speaker conveys will carry a meaning that may be totally different than an outsider’s experience. It is vital to convey these elements of personal viewpoint for the translation to be accurate.
Sometimes the vocabulary of a given may be limited so that there is no right terminology fit for that specific context. That is when a translator resorts to different translation techniques. To read more about those techniques, check out my July article about How to Handle Untranslatability.
This semantic classification brings us to another branch of linguistics called sociolinguistics, which is the study of the sociological aspects of language. Social meaning is determined by social circumstances in a certain culture.
Social meaning is also known as expressive and stylistic meaning. In their article called Social Meaning and Linguistic Variation, Cambridge University Press states that social meanings of syntax lie at the nexus of pragmatics and social distribution […] and is reflected in the way the society views themselves, certain things, and the rest of the world.[i]
This is a broad idea built around a certain theme. It is a big picture which, without explanation, only the author knows the real meaning behind the subject in question. A theme and all other information gathered to make a point become a whole and convey the meaning together.
In literature, thematic meaning is conveyed through symbolism, allegory, and other various literary genres. When the author of an idea plots out a piece of work, they branch out ideas to support their topic, but they always develop the main theme.
Simply put, thematic meaning is an underlying message an author wants to convey through their artistic work. It can be deduced from a long piece of writing through thorough analysis of a certain concept.
As its literal definition goes, associative meaning is a result of cognitive association of ideas or things. The concept of associative meaning combines several types of meaning that are closely related. The sub-types that make up associative meaning are connotative, collocative, social, affective, and reflected meanings.
Associative meaning combines all other meanings that do not fall into the category of conceptual meaning. This is because the intended meaning is subjectively formed by the speaker’s point of view instead of stemming from conventional semantic rules.
All in all, the idea of meaning whilst translating can be subjective and not obvious at all. Apart from conceptual, the rest of other types of meaning usually need more context to comprehend the whole idea.
To that end, the real meaning can be lost in translation unless carefully handled by a linguist who does not only understand the language but also has a high command of translation techniques. It is crucial for a linguist to comprehend the message first before they convey it in a different language.
Due to the complexity of linguistics and meanings associated with every single word, it is best to rely on a native speaker of the target language to ensure accurate and high-quality translation. This is where the idea of using professional native linguists at Golden Lines Translation, Inc. comes from. We understand that no one knows a language better than a native user.
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- University of Georgia, Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, The Department of Linguistics. (n.d.). Semantics. https://linguistics.uga.edu/research/content/semantics
- Internet Public Library. (n.d.). Leech’s Theory of Affective Meaning. https://www.ipl.org/essay/Connotative-Meaning-Of-Semantics-PKAGXCCK6JE86#google_vignette
- Leech, Geoffrey N., Semantics: The Study of Meaning, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England; New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Penguin (1981), 12
- Hall-Lew, L., Moore, E., & Podesva, R. (2021). Social Meaning and Linguistic Variation: Theoretical Foundations. In L. Hall-Lew, E. Moore, & R. Podesva (Eds.), Social Meaning and Linguistic Variation: Theorizing the Third Wave (pp. 1-24). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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Thank you for stopping by! I hope you enjoyed the article and would love your feedback. My goal is to add value to my clients by making their businesses profitable and hassle-free. If you would like to learn more about how my language services can support your specific business model, I would be pleased to connect and discuss your questions further. Click here to contact me directly.
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