Types of Meaning


There are three main types of meaning:

Referential meaning

Social Meaning

Affective Meaning

Referential Meaning

This is the object, notion, or state of being described by a word, phrase or sentence


Safaru Kaidha

the meaning of this is the person who goes by that particular name.

Hadigilla’s trousers

This refers to the particular piece of clothing that belongs to that particular person

i.e the meaning of the sentence is the particular piece of clothing that belongs to Hadigilla.

The piece of clothing described by the phrase Hadigilla’s trousers is the referent of the referring expression Hadigilla’s trousers.

Santhi Mariyabu is sleeping on the holhuashi.

The meaning of this sentence is that the person by the name of Santhi Mariyambu is lying down (or sitting, perhaps) on the bed-like structure made of bamboo trunks.

Therefore, the referent of the sentence is Santhi Mariyabu’s state of being on the particular structure mentioned.


Social Meaning

This is the information about the identity of the speaker that is conveyed by an utterance.


Then I says to him he can’t do nothin’ right.

The use of the verb ‘says’ with the first-person singular pronoun reveals something about the social class of the speaker

Is it a doctor in here?

The form ‘it’ where most other varieties of English would use ‘there’ indicates a speaker of an ethnically marked variety (African American Vernacular English)

Y’all gonna visit over the holiday?

The pronoun ‘y’all’ and the verb ‘gonna’ indicates a particular regional dialect of American English (Southern)

Great chow!

The choice of words here indicates that the comment was made in an informal context.

Social class, ethnicity, regional origin and context are all types of social meaning.

In addition to referential meaning, every utterance also conveys social meaning – not only in the sentence as a whole but in word choice and pronunciation.

Affective Meaning

This is the speaker’s feeling / attitude towards the content or the ongoing context.


Rehendhi, who always brags about her cooking skills, lectured me throughout the dinner on how to improve my cooking skills.

What does the speaker think of Rehendhi?

The utterance gives the impression that the speaker considers Rehendhi a pompous bore who thinks too much of herself.

What about this one?

Rehendhi, who is a skilled cook herself, gave me some wonderful tips on how to improve my cooking skills.

What does this speaker think of Rehendhi?

This gives the impression that the speaker believes Rehendhi to be a skilled and interesting person.

Although both sentences may be describing the same event (i.e they have similar referential meaning), on another level, the information they convey is very different

i.e. ‘stance’ of the two sentences are very different.

Different use of stress and intonation also provides a striking contrast in the feelings and attitudes communicated through an utterance.


Fulhu is very kind.

How many different feelings / attitudes about Fulhu can you convey with this simple utterance?

Denotation & Connotation

The reference meaning of a word or sentence is frequently called its denotation, in contrast to the connotation, which includes both social and affective meaning.

Sense, Denotation and Reference

Linguistic expressions have both detonation and sense.

Denotation has to do with relations between linguistic expressions and the world.

It is the set of entities to which a word or expression refers (also called its referents and extension).

However, denotation is not enough to decide the meaning of a word.

Sense is the linguistic version of meaning, and is the ‘presentation of the denotation’ – which lets one work out what the denotation is.

Sense is something possessed by a name or expression, whether or not it has a reference / denotation.


The following expressions are intelligible, and therefore have sense, even though there is no individual object (its reference) to which the expressions correspond:

The 32nd day of February.

The Mercurian ambassador to the planet Venus.

Present King of the Maldives.

Denotation is different from reference in that:

Reference is also about the relations between expressions and the world

Reference of an expression is specific to that particular occasion of utterance

Sense, Denotation and Reference


That man is really dumb.

The denotation of man:

{all males .. e.g. Ahmed, Thakuru, Ibrahim, Fulhu …}

The reference of man:

the specific man meant by that particular sentence, at that particular time, by that particular speaker (e.g. just Alifulhu)

Words and sentences are two units of language that carry meaning.

Content words (mainly nouns, verbs, prepositions, adjectives and adverbs):

  •  refer to concrete objects and abstract concepts

  •  are marked as being characteristic of particular social, ethnic and regional dialects and of particular contexts

  • convey information about the feelings and attitudes of the language user

Function words (e.g. conjunctions, determiners and auxiliaries):

  • signal grammatical relationships

The meaning of a sentence is dependent on the meaning of the individual words it contains.

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By azu