Have you ever wondered how words get there meaning, or how the same word can have two different meanings? Understanding the meaning of language can be complex to grasp but learning the three theories of meaning will help to gain a better idea of what it consists of. The first theory is the Reference Theory Meaning founded by Aristotle during the fourth century BCE, “According to this view, the meaning of a word consists in what it refers to” (Hughes, Lavery & Doran, 2015, p.21). An example of this is the word book, we all know that this word refers to all objects that are books. The meaning of a word is being able to explain it using a reference such as visualization. This could be showing a person who does not know what a book is, the object and then explaining the details of it. This theory may seem like common-sense, but it is more complex than this.
The reference theory becomes difficult when you come across words that do not have a reference class. These are words such as how, no, yes, where, of, is, unless, a, and like where the theory cannot be applied. This means that there are words that can be understood without a reference “For example we all understand the meaning of the phrase the oldest man in the world, even if when we don’t know to whom it refers. If the meaning is the reference, then we shouldn’t be able to understand what the phrase means unless we know who the oldest man in the world is” (Hughes Lavery & Doran 2015, p.22). This is where things can become confusing and meaning as well as reference must be recognized for their distinct differences.
This leads to The Idea of Theory Meaning created by John Locke during the seventh century, “He held that the meaning of a word consists of the idea or mental image that is associated with the word” (Hughes Lavery & Doran 2015, p.22). When using the Idea Theory, we create mental images of what a word means. For an example the word book, when a person mentions this word you would create a mental image in your mind of what this object is. This gives your mind an idea of the characteristics associated with the word. This theory can be difficult because our minds create an image of a book that does not contain all the characteristics of this object. When we hear the word book an image may appear with a small book but there are big, long, short, and tall books so “How, then, can our image be the meaning of a word” (Hughes Lavery & Doran 2015, p.22).
The difficulty with this theory is that everyone has different mental images of a word. If we do not all share the same mental image, how can we know the image we have is the meaning of that word. Also, how can we know that the other persons image is the same as the idea you had associated with that word. When these problems occur, we use the Meaning as Use concept, created by Ludwig Wittgenstein. He came up with the theory that “Words have meaning only when they are used in sentence; without such context they have no meaning” (Hughes Lavery & Doran 2015, p.23). This means that words can have different meanings depending on how they are used within a sentence. Every word has no meaning until it is used within a sentence, once it is used that is how you determine the meaning of it. This concept applies to words that have no reference or mental image.
Language can be complex and consist of many different rules but, understanding the three main functions can help with daily communication. The first function of language is descriptive, this is when we describe an object, place or thing. For an example this room is hot, or the air is humid outside. When we use descriptive language, we are usually making factual statements about something. Second, is evaluative function this is when we evaluate a statement that is factual such as that was the worst park I’ve ever been to. We create a judgment about something also known as an evaluation. Third, is emotive function this is a function we use in order to express our emotions in our language. It is simply providing a description of what you are feeling. An example of this would be saying I love you, you are expressing and describing how you feel towards another person.
Fourth, is evocative this function is altering your language in order to express emotion and sympathy through our words. Many use this function within quotes, poetry, and songs. Fifth, is persuasive function this is one of the most used functions in language. It is convincing someone else to believe or accept something. This is typically used on arguments where authors try to persuade the audience to believe an idea or concept. One example of this function is “You shouldn’t take astrology seriously. There is no scientific basic for it” (Hughes Lavery & Doran 2015, p.26).
Sixth, is interrogative function in which we ask a question in order to gain information. This simply doing something a question such as what is today’s date? Seventh, is directive we use this when making a demand such as wash the dishes tonight. We’re telling someone else to do a specific task. Eighth, is performative function this is used typically when actions are being performed like I quit, or your fired. Last, is the recreational function which is used in order to add a sense of humor to language such as jokes that make others become amused or interactive.
Definitions play a huge roll in meaning; it explains the use of words. There are seven different types of definitions in language, the first is reportative. This is the standard dictionary definition of a word. Reportative definitions can be difficult because they are not always clear on how to use a word or term. Second, is stipulative definitions this is when a standard definition of a word is given a new meaning or additional meaning. “For example, we might invent the word spinge to refer to the deposit that builds up between the bristles on a toothbrush” (Hughes Lavery & Doran 2015, p.33).
Third, are essentialist definitions that reflect things that have importance. Fourth, is ostensive this is a demonstrative definition used for words that are hard to understand. Fifth, is operational this definition provides the concept and meaning of a word. Sixth, is circular which states the term or word being defined within the definition. Last, is obscure which thoroughly expresses the meaning of a word’s definition. In conclusion, understanding the meaning of words and the concept of definitions can become very troublesome, but learning these theories, skills and information can provide a better understanding for those who have difficulty with language use.
- Hughes, W., Boyne, M. R., Lavery, J., & Hughes, W. (2016). Critical thinking: an introduction to the basic skills. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press.
- Erstad, W. (2018, January 22). 6 Critical Thinking Skills You Need to Master Now. Retrieved from https://www.rasmussen.edu/student-experience/college-life/critical-thinking-skills-to-master-now/
- Bassham, G. (2019). Critical thinking: a students introduction. Dubuque: McGraw-Hill Education.