The linguistic science at present is not able to put forward a definition of meaning which is conclusive. However, there are certain facts of which we can be reasonably sure, and one of them is that the very function of the word as a unit of communication is made possible by its possessing a meaning. Therefore, among the word's various characteristics, meaning is certainly the most important.
Generally speaking, meaning can be more or less described as a component of the word through which a concept (mental phenomena) is communicated. Meaning endows the word with the ability of denoting real objects, qualities, actions and abstract notions. The relationships between “referent” (object, etc. denoted by the word), “concept” and “word” are traditionally represented by the following triangle:
Thought or Reference
(Concept = mental phenomena)
(word) (object denoted by the word)
By the "symbol" here is meant the word; “thought” or “reference” is concept. The dotted line suggests that there is no immediate relation between “word” and “referent”: it is established only through the concept.
On the other hand, there is a hypothesis that concepts can only find their realization through words. It seems that thought is dormant till the word wakens it up. It is only when we hear a spoken word or read a printed word that the corresponding concept springs into mind. The mechanism by which concepts (i. e. mental phenomena) are converted into words (i. e. linguistic phenomena) and the reverse process by which a heard or a printed word is converted into a kind of mental picture are not yet understood or described.
The branch of linguistics which specialises in the study of meaning is called semantics. As with many terms, the term "semantics" is ambiguous for it can stand, as well, for the expressive aspect of language in general and for the meaning of one particular word in all its varied aspects and nuances (i. e. the semantics of a word = the meaning(s) of a word).
Semantic Structure of the Word
It is generally known that most words convey several concepts and thus possess the corresponding number of meanings. A word having several meanings is called polysemantic, and the ability of words to have more than one meaning is described by the term polysemy.
Polysemy is certainly not an anomaly. Most English words are polysemantic. It should be noted that the wealth of expressive resources of a language largely depends on the degree to which polysemy has developed in the language. Sometimes people who are not very well informed in linguistic matters claim that a language is lacking in words if the need arises for the same word to be applied to several different phenomena. In actual fact, it is exactly the opposite: if each word is found to be capable of conveying at least two concepts instead of one, the expressive potential of the whole vocabulary increases twofold. Hence, a well-developed polysemy is a great advantage in a language.
On the other hand, it should be pointed out that the number of sound combinations that human speech organs can produce is limited. Therefore at a certain stage of language development the production of new words by morphological means is limited as well, and polysemy becomes increasingly important for enriching the vocabulary. From this, it should be clear that the process of enriching the vocabulary does not consist merely in adding new words to it, but, also, in the constant development of polysemy.
The system of meanings of any polysemantic word develops gradually, mostly over the centuries, as more and more new meanings are added to old ones, or oust some of them. So the complicated processes of polysemy development involve both the appearance of new meanings and the loss of old ones. Yet, the general tendency with English vocabulary at the modern stage of its history is to increase the total number of its meanings and in this way to provide for a quantitative and qualitative growth of the language's expressive resources.
When analysing the semantic structure of a polysemantic word, it is necessary to distinguish between two levels of analysis.
On the first level, the semantic structure of a word is treated as a system of meanings. For example, the semantic structure of the noun “fire” could be roughly presented by this scheme (only the most frequent meanings are given):
The above scheme suggests that meaning (I) holds a kind of dominance over the other meanings conveying the concept in the most general way whereas meanings (II)—(V) are associated with special circumstances, aspects and instances of the same phenomenon.