Have you ever considered what the meaning of “meaning” is? If you were to look at a dictionary definition for ‘meaning,’ it would likely direct you to the verb ‘mean,” which might give you a definition like the following: “intend to convey, indicate, or refer to (a particular thing or notion); signify.”1 That doesn’t really seem to be entirely helpful. One could make a recourse to the philosophy of language to try to understand what meaning is, at least in the case of language, but there has never been an account that has not been met with serious objections. There are more traditional, reference-based understandings of words that refer to something in the real world. There are usage-based understandings of language from philosophers like Wittgenstein and the field of cognitive linguistics.
I would posit that part of the problem with defining linguistic meaning is more so in the way we analyze words than it is how words mean to use in conventional, non-reflective use. When you read a sentence and you understand all the words, grammar, etc., there is just an intuitive sense of what the words mean. One does not have to think about it. However, if you don’t know what the words mean, or you decide to want to really explore a sentence more deeply, then you try to imagine what a specific word means. At this point, one is actually changing how you are cognitively relating and responding to the word, changing how you construe the way the word “means.”
The meaning of “cat” in the sentence “the dog is chasing the cat” when one is watching a corresponding scene is different from trying to think of what the meaning of “cat” is. “Cat” is used to refer to a specific animal given that label, and the meaning word conveys is the specific cat that is being referred to. T This is the source of reference based approaches to language. On the other hand, the word “cat” would convey the meaning of a specific cat. There is a difference being meaning in communication and meaning in a non-communicative context, such as reflecting on the meaning of a word in a general sense. In other words, as inspired by Wittgenstein, the way the word is used determines how it means. The meaning of “cat” in the sense and the meaning of “cat” in a general sense are different uses of the same word.
This does not mean, however, that there isn’t anything important about reflecting on the meaning of a word outside of specific communicative contexts. There is certainly something that ‘carries over’ between different uses of words. This is what we are generally trying to get at when we try to give a definition of a word such as cat. The usage of ‘cat’ in “the dog is chasing the cat” while such an event is being witnessed can be intelligible and convey meaning because we have a sense of what ‘cat’ means. Because ‘cat’ has a specific semantic sense as a word, our brains uses that semantic sense to help narrow down the specific animal in a scene. In other words, even though “cat” in “the dog is chasing the cat” would bring to mind the cat that is one’s visual field, imagination, etc., the word can only accomplish this because there is a semantic sense that helps regulate our attention (‘seed’ our imagination with a specific type of animal).
In other words, there is a mutual relationship between the sense of the word and the reference of the word, both of which are significant to the meaning. But this relationship is not simply one way, from sense to reference, but it can also flow in reference from reference to sense. When parent points to a cow and says to their child “cow,” the perception of the cow combined with the associated word “cow” gives the word “cow” a referential function that will develop a sense of the word as the child matures. Or, when one is reading the Bible for the first time, the various scenes that the Gospel portrays about Jesus becomes references for the words Christ, Lord, etc., that then can lead to refining and reforming what those titles mean.
However, the meaning of the word can not reduced to just sense and reference and the way they mutually influence each other. There are at least three other relevant factors in how words give meaning.
Firstly, there is the ‘context’ of the word. According to cognitive linguistics, words have an encyclopedic knowledge that allows us to make sense of what the words are meaning. When talking about the cat in “the dog is chasing the cat,” not only do we have the standard sense of what a cat is and the specific reference, but there is also implicit knowlede about the cat that thelps inform the scence. For instance, it is known that cats are reguarly chased by dogs, and it is this piece of encyclopedia knowledge that helps refine the sense of meaning of the word cat, especially in the sentence. Or, when Paul speaks of confessng Jesus as Lord in Romans 10.9, there is not just the semantic sense of the word in play, but also the way κύριος is used in the Septuagint at the Greek translation of the Tetragrammaton. The wider context of a words usage, which spans beyond the specific sense of a word, provides a range of material that can impact the meaning of the word when uses in the relevant contexts that makes those understandings salient.
Secondly, there is knowledge of the grammatical function of a word. We know that “cat” and “cow” are nouns, that “run” is verb, that “and” is a conjunction, etc. These grammatical funtions, while often taken for granted, are often critical for making sense of words in sentences. We know that “cat” as something. This might seem rather insignificant, but consider how often times words are used in multiple ways. For instance, a gerund “running” can be used with a noun or a verb, which changes how the word means in the sentence. This specific grammatical knowledge impinges on how words mean.
Thirdly, there is the actually sensory experience of the word itself, which is known in structuralism as the sign. Words, especially when spoken have a potential contribution to understanding the meanings of the word, especially in unique contexts. Asides from onomatopeia’s, which words whose sounds are an approximately represent of non-linguistic sounds, the sound of words becoming significant for meaning in non-conventional uses. For instance, imagine a dating partner or spouse who has a predilection towards puns and their partner affectionately refers to them as “Puney,” as a portmanteau of Pun and Honey. Or, to press on beyond that, sometimes the sounds of names can be used in unique ways, such as my name Owen could be used as a game chant to win a game.
The overarching point here is in normal language usage, the meaning of a word comes from, to use a previous metaphor, various streams that come together. Meanings can not be reduced to semantics sense and real-world references, and the interaction between those two. There are multiple streams that when they come together influence each other. Sometimes these streams are weak so as to be irrelevant, such as grammatical function and the sound of the word, and sometimes these streams are not really knowable apart from the specific context, such as the encyclopedia knowledge. While sense and reference are usually the most powerful streams and are thus given the greatest emphasis in the philosophical and study of language, this does not diminish the way these other, various streams can be be relevevant in giving a word a different meaning.