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Depending on the theoretical approach taken meaning is defined and used differently. There are several reasons for the manifold ambiguity of this notion: First, meaning is not only highly relevant to linguistics but also figures centrally in philosphical, psychological, sociological and semiotic discourse; second, the adoption or (partially) synonymous expressions from different languages (e.g. German Sinn, Bedeutung, French signification, designation, etc.) has led to considerable overlap in the use of the relevant terms and, as a consequence, to a rather vague concept of what meaning is.
In semantic studies several terminological distinctions are made, most of which relate to one of the following dimensions of analysis:
- Lexical meaning vs. structural meaning (also grammatical meaning): Lexical meaning concerns the major parts-of-speech, i.e. nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. Their meaning is specified in the lexicon. Structural meaning relates to elements with a grammatical function (including function words such as prepositions and connectives and manifests itself in areas of grammar such as argument structure, TAM categories, etc.
- Lexical meaning (also 'general meaning', 'habitual meaning') vs. actual meaning (or 'occsaional meaning'): In this dichotomy 'lexical' is understood as one aspect of lexical meaning as described above, i.e. as a meaning that is langue-specific and that underlies all possible uses of a given item, while the 'actual meaning' is the meaning that is realized in a specific context, i.e. it is relates to parole rather than langue.
- Denotation vs. connotation: Depending on whether meaning relates to a (notional) concept or some object of reality, a distinction can be made between 'significative' (or 'connotative') meaning and 'denotative' (or 'referential') meaning. This dichotomy was catured by the pair of notions Sinn and Bedeutung by Frege, also often called intension and extension respectively.
Independently of the notion of meaning underlying a given conception of semantics, any framework of semantic analysis needs to address two central issues, (i) the relation between lexical semantics and sentence semantics, and the problem of how semantic and pragmatic aspects of meaning can be differentiated.