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Skip to 0 minutes and 7 secondsPROFESSOR ROUMYANA SLABAKOVA: What is meaning? Few people start learning a second language just because they like the way it sounds or for its elegant sentence structure. Meaning is what we are all after. But what is meaning? The notion of meaning is actually quite complex. In this segment, we are going to begin by distinguishing several types of meanings. Lexical, sentence meaning, grammatical, and pragmatic meaning. One, lexical meaning. For many people, when they start thinking about learning a new language, they think of lexical meaning. The meanings of words. They're looking for the equivalent of the native words in the second language. For example, the English 'cat' is 'gatto' in Italian. Both words denote a small, furry animal.

Skip to 1 minute and 12 secondsVery simply put, we have a concept of this animal in our head, maybe even a picture. And we link the two words that we know to the concept that we have in our head. Gatto and cat. Two, sentence meaning. You have heard the word semantics. It refers to the meaning of sentences. Lexical meanings are stored in the mental lexicon in our heads, but sentence meanings are calculated every time we hear a sentence. The sentence meaning is made up of the meanings of the lexical items or the words. But also, taking their order into account. That's why we call it compositional. So words can change meaning depending on what sentence they're in. What is the sentence meaning?

Skip to 2 minutes and 8 secondsThat's the message of the whole sentence. And about each sentence we know whether it is true or false. That's its meaning. Three, grammatical meaning. Grammatical meaning is absolutely essential for the meaning of the whole sentence. Consider the two sentences, "Jane eats sushi." And "Jane ate sushi." They contain two identical words, Jane and sushi. But the third, the verb, captures a grammatical difference in tense and aspect. We understand that the first sentence, "Jane eats sushi", refers to a present habit, but not an ongoing event. While the second sentence is very different. It may mean that Jane used to like sushi and eats sushi, but it can also mean that she ate sushi on one occasion in the past.

Skip to 3 minutes and 7 secondsGrammatical meanings are reflected in the endings of words. What linguists called inflection or inflectional morphology. So that was grammatical meaning. Four, pragmatic meaning. Pragmatic meaning depends on knowledge of the world and the discourse situation. We shall illustrate this meaning with what linguists call implied meaning. Consider the following example of a well known pragmatic inference. When we hear the sentence "Some professors are smart", we actually understand that the speaker wants to say "not all professors are smart". If the speaker wanted to say all professors are smart, he or she would have said "professors are smart" or "all professors are smart".

Skip to 3 minutes and 59 secondsSince she didn't do that, and said "some professors are smart", then the implication is that she actually means not all professors are smart. Our understanding of the sentence is not based on the lexical items only or the sentence message, but on that pragmatic meaning that comes on top of all the other meanings.

What is meaning?

“Few people start learning a second language for the exotic sounds, or for the elegant sentence structure. Meaning is what we are all after.

We would all like to understand and to be able to convey thoughts and feelings and observations in another language the way we do in our native language.

Ever since Aristotle, linguists have considered language to be the coupling of form (sound or written strings) and meaning. But what do we mean by ‘meaning’? The notion of meaning is actually quite complex…”


In this video, Roumyana Slabakova begins by distinguishing between several types of meanings: lexical, grammatical, semantic, and pragmatic.

How would you explain ‘meaning?’ What does ‘meaning’ mean to you?

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This video is from the free online course:

Understanding Language: Learning and Teaching

University of Southampton

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