The account of meaning given by Ferdinand de Saussure implies the definition of a word as a linguistic sign. He calls it ‘signifiant’ (signifier) and what it refers to — ‘signifie’ (that which is signified).
Originally this triangular scheme was suggested by the German mathematician and philosopher Gottlieb Frege (1848-1925). Well-known English scholars C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards adopted this three-cornered pattern with considerable modifications. With them a sign is a two-facet unit comprising form regarded as a linguistic symbol, and reference which is more linguistic than just a concept. Several generations of writers, following C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards, have in their turn taken up and modified this diagram. It is known under several names: the semantic triangle, triangle of signification, Frege semiotic triangle, Ogden and Richards basic triangle or simply basic triangle.
The scheme is still over-simplified and several things are left out. It is very important, for instance, to remember that the word is represented by the left-hand side of the diagram — it is a sign comprising the name and the meaning, and these invariably evoke one another.
Meaning and the sound complex
The sound form is not identical with the meaning and their connection is conventional. Different languages have different sound forms to convey the same meaning (“dog” - “собака” - “Hund” - “chien”). In different languages the same sound form possesses different meanings: “caught” - “кот”. Besides, homonyms exists in the language. The same sound form gives different meanings (e.g., “seal1” vs. “seal2”). Diachronically, change in the sound form does not cause a change in the meaning (e.g., O.E. “lufan” vs. M.E. “love”).
Meaning and the concept
Meaning is connected with concept, but it is not identical with it. Concept is a category of human cognition. Our concepts abstract and reflect the most common and typical features of different objects and phenomena of the world. Being the result of abstraction and generalization, concepts are almost the same for the whole humanity in one and the same period of its historical development. As for meanings, they are different in different languages. Thus, words expressing identical concepts may have different meanings and different semantical structure in different languages. E.g., some meanings of the Russian “идти” cannot be found in English (It rains; to go by bus). The difference between meaning and concept can be observed by comparing synonymous words and word-groups which are not identical in their meaning (cf.: “big” - “large” - “great”). The precise definition of a concept comes withing the sphere of logic. A word is a language unit while its concept is a unit of thinking.
Meaning and the referent
Meaning is a linguistic phenomenon while referent, or object, is an extra-linguistic one. Meaning is not identical with a referent because of the following considerations:
§ We can denote in speech the same object differently. These words have the same referent (apple - fruit - food).
§ If we take “water” and “H2O”, they are not identical.
§ Besides, words can have meaning but no actual referent, e.g. “phoenix”.
Meaning is closely connected but not identical with sound form, concept or referent.
When analysing the word-meaning we observe, however, that words as a rule are not units of a single meaning. Monosemantic words, i.e. words having only one meaning are comparatively few in number, these are mainly scientific terms, such as hydrogen, molecule and the like. The bulk of English words are polysemantic, that is to say possess more than one meaning. The actual number of meanings of the commonly used words ranges from five to about a hundred. In fact, the commoner the word the more meanings it has. In polysemantic words, however, we are faced not with the problem of analysis of individual meanings, but primarily with the problem of the interrelation and interdependence of the various meanings in the semantic structure of one and the same word.
If polysemy is viewed diachronically, it is understood as the growth and development of or, in general, as a change in the semantic structure of the word. Polysemy in diachronic terms implies that a word may retain its previous meaning or meanings and at the same time acquire one or several new ones. The terms secondary and derived meaning are to a certain extent synonymous. When we describe the meaning of the word as “secondary” we imply that it could not have appeared before the primary meaning was in existence. When we refer to the meaning as “derived” we imply not only that, but also that it is dependent on the primary meaning and somehow subordinate to it. It follows that the main source of polysemy is a change in the semantic structure of the word.
Polysemy may also arise from homonymy. When two words become identical in sound-form, the meanings of the two words are felt as making up one semantic structure. Thus, the human ear and the ear of corn are from the diachronic point of view two homonyms. Synchronically, however, they are perceived as two meanings of one and the same word. The ear of corn is felt to be a metaphor of the usual type.
Synchronically we understand polysemy as the coexistence of various meanings of the same word at a certain historical period of the development of the English language. In this case the problem of the interrelation and interdependence of individual meanings making up the semantic structure of the word must be investigated along different lines. Intuitively we feel that the meaning that first occurs to us whenever we hear or see the word table, is ‘an article of furniture’. This emerges as the basic or the central meaning of the word and all other meanings are minor in comparison. It should be noted that whereas the basic meaning occurs in various and widely different contexts, minor meanings are observed only in certain contexts. Thus we can assume that the meaning ‘a piece of furniture’ occupies the central place in the semantic structure of the word table. As to other meanings of this word we find it hard to grade them in order of their comparative value. As synchronically there is no objective criterion to go by, we may find it difficult in some cases to single out even the basic meanings since two or more meanings of the word may be felt as equally “central” in its semantic structure.
Of great importance is the stylistic stratification of meanings of a polysemantic word as individual meanings may differ in their stylistic reference. Stylistic (or regional) status of monosemantic words is easily perceived. For instance the word daddy can be referred to the colloquial stylistic layer, the word parent to the bookish. The word movie is recognisably American and barnie is Scottish. Polysemantic words as a rule cannot be given any such restrictive labels. To do it we must state the meaning in which they are used. There is nothing colloquial or slangy or American about the words yellow denoting colour, jerk in the meaning ‘a sudden movement or stopping of movement’ as far as these particular meanings are concerned. But when yellow is used in the meaning of ’sensational’ or when jerk is used in the meaning of ‘an odd person’ it is both slang and American. Stylistically neutral meanings are naturally more frequent.
From the discussion of the diachronic and synchronic approach to polysemy it follows that the interrelation and the interdependence of individual meanings of the word may be described from two different angles. These two approaches are not mutually exclusive but are viewed here as supplementing each other in the linguistic analysis of a polysemantic word. It should be noted, however, that as the semantic structure is never static, the relationship between the diachronic and synchronic evaluation of individual meanings may be different in different periods of the historical development of language. The words of different languages which are similar or identical in lexical meaning, especially in the denotational meaning are termed correlated words. The wording of the habitual question of English learners, e.g. “What is the English for стол?”, and the answer “The English for стол is ‘table'” also shows that we take the words table стол to be correlated.