The diversity of meaning

The following abstract will refer to a chapter in John Lyons Language and Linguistics on the topic of Semantics. In particular this specific abstract concerns on the chapter’s section The diversity of meaning as is refered to in the title of this posting. I once started to read a german translation but bought me the book second-hand in English after I decided in my own conceit that it would be much easier to understand Lyons personal but not translated train of thought.

Now let’s start writing on what Lyons is discussing in this section. First of all Lyons changes the point of view and does not ask any longer for what meaning is, but for certain reasons wants to know what the meaning of meaning is. Let’s see, why Lyons thinks he has to change the point of view in this kind of interrogation with his object.

“According to what has long been the most widely accepted theory of semantics, meanings are ideas or concepts, which can be transferred from the mind of the speaker to the mind of the hearer by embodying them, as it were, in the forms of one language or another” (p. 136).

He himself states, that

“[t]he identification of meanings with concepts will not help us to answer the question ‘What is meaning?'” (p. 137),

just because the term concept

“is too vague, or too generealy, to support the wieght that is required by its role as the foundation-stone in the traditional conceptualist theory of meaning” (ib.).

Lyons as well states that we can not employ the asocciation that concepts are in a way visual images and this of course because words like ‘the’, ‘for’, and so on do not appear to be associated in peoples’ minds with visual images. Lyons in fact insists that

“there is no evidence to suggest that concepts […] are relevant to the construction of an empirically justifiable theory of linguistic semantics” (ib.).

Hence he’s switching the point of view in interrogating his object of ‘meaning’. And of course he has to describe and illustrate what varieties of the word meaning exist and how far this influences the boundaries of semantics (cf. p. 138-144). This is obviously what he does until reaching the end of this section. But let’s point out some of the more important differentiations Lyons makes here. Lyons though at first founds three categories – one of lexical meaning and another of sentence-meaning and more the category of grammatical meaning. He states that all the three categories

“clearly fall within the scope of linguistic semantics” (p. 140).

Another category he mentions is the one of utterance-meaning which status wether it belongs to linguistics or not is

“[s]omewhat more controversial” (ib.).

Though in Lyon’s conceit it turns out that the topic of utterance-meaning has something to do with linguistics (cf. p. 140f.). He then introduces the topic of the so called speech-acts and refers to the 3 distinctive categories of meaning that speech-acts can at least include. These are descriptive meaning, expressive meaning and social meaning. What these terms mean particularly will not be refered to at this point (cf. p. 141-144). Two of Lyon’s observations are still necessary to mention.

“The first is that, […] man is a social animal and the structure of language is determined and maintained by its use in society”


“[t]he second observation is that, whereas descriptive meaning may well be unique to language, expressive and social meaning certainly are not” (p. 144).

For now I have come to an end, but I will refer to the next section, on lexical meaning in particular, soon.

Lyons, John, 1984 (1981): Language and Linguistics. An Introduction. London et al.: Cambridge University Press

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