The Translation Equivalence Delusion

Meaning and Translation

by Tomasz P. Krzeszowski (Author)
©2016 Monographs 541 Pages


Almost everything that one claims about meaning is likely to be questioned or disputed. Translation studies also abound in numerous controversies. However, there is no doubt that translations entail a transfer of meaning, even if the exact sense of the word "meaning" remains vague. The same applies to the term "translation equivalence". This book is an attempt to cope with conceptual, terminological, theoretical, and practical difficulties resulting from this nebula of issues. Numerous examples of translated legal, religious and artistic texts are provided to substantiate the claim that translation equivalence, except in the most trivial sense of the term, is indeed a delusion. The book is addressed to all those persons who are interested in mutual relations between semantics and translation studies.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Notation and typographical conventions
  • Introduction
  • Part 1: Meaning
  • Chapter One: Delimiting the scope and coping with metalanguage
  • 1. Meaning, semiotics, semantics, and signs: preliminary description
  • 2. Semantics: its scope and its metalanguage
  • 3. The terminological principle and the cognitive approach to object language
  • 3.1 The terminological principle defined
  • 3.2 Alternative construals of domains of experience
  • 3.2.1 Profile and base
  • 3.2.2 Level of specificity
  • 3.2.3 Scale and scope of predication
  • 3.2.4 Relative salience of substructures (trajector and landmark)
  • 3.2.5 Background assumptions and expectations
  • 3.2.6 Perspective (orientation, vantage point, directionality, subjectivity)
  • 3.3 Conceptualizing the object language
  • 4. Implementing the terminological principle: theoretical preliminaries
  • 4.1 Three specific postulates
  • 4.2 Causes of the terminological chaos
  • 4.3 Fundamental commitments and terms
  • 4.4 The ontological triad
  • 4.5 Notation
  • 4.6 Two further philosophical commitments
  • 4.7 The communication sequence
  • 4.8 Interfaces between neural structures and mental (conceptual) structures
  • 4.9 Some ontological controversies
  • 4.10 Evidence from neurology?
  • 4.11 The Great Chain of Being
  • 4.12 Cognitive approach to empirical sciences
  • 4.13 Why is linguistics overlooked?
  • 4.14 A few more remarks about language
  • 4.15 Primary linguistic data
  • 5. Implementing the terminological principle – applications
  • 5.1 Regimentation and its limitations
  • 5.2 Semantic metalanguages as different representations
  • 5.3 Basic metaterms defined
  • 5.3.1 Designation
  • 5.3.2 Extension
  • 5.3.3 Intension (sense)
  • 5.3.4 Signification
  • 5.3.5 Reference
  • 5.3.6 Denotation
  • 5.3.7 Connotation
  • 6. Various approaches to linguistic meaning
  • 6.1 Seven types of “theories”
  • 6.2 Referential
  • 6.3 Denotational
  • 6.4 Ideational
  • 6.5 Behaviorist
  • 6.6 Meaning-in-use
  • 6.7 Verificationist and truth-conditional
  • Chapter Two: Aspects of linguistic meaning
  • 7. Semantic relations between sentences and words
  • 7.1 Semantic relations between sentences
  • 7.2 Semantic relations between words (lexemes)
  • 7.2.1 ‘Synonymy’
  • 7.2.2 ‘Antonymy’
  • 7.2.3 ‘Hyponymy’ and ‘hypernymy’
  • 7.2.4 ‘homonymy’ and ‘polysemy’
  • 7.2.5 Fluidity of senses
  • 7.2.6 Apparent polysemy
  • 7.2.7 Quasi-polysemy
  • 7.2.8 True polysemy
  • 7.2.9 Polysemy vs. homonymy as a lexicographic problem
  • 8. Sentences and utterances
  • 8.1 Linguistic meaning
  • 8.2 Systemic meaning vs. utterance meaning
  • 8.3 Text and discourse
  • 8.4 Classification of texts and discourses
  • 8.5 Degrees of openness of texts and discourse
  • 8.6 Contextual determinants of meaning
  • 8.6.1 Assigning specific senses
  • 8.6.2 Attributing specific reference
  • 8.6.3 Supplying information omitted due to ellipsis
  • 8.6.4 Making clear the pragmatic value
  • 8.7 Systemic sentence meaning and utterance meaning – prototypical correspondences
  • 8.8 Declarative sentences and propositions
  • 8.9 Incongruities between systemic sentence meaning and utterance meaning
  • 8.9.1 ‘Irony’ and ‘sarcasm’
  • 8.9.2 Rhetorical questions (erotesis)
  • 8.9.3 Apophasis
  • 8.9.4 Understatement
  • 8.9.5 Litotes
  • 8.9.6 Hyperbole
  • 8.9.7 ‘Conversational Implicatures’
  • 9. Connotative meaning
  • 9.1 Properties of connotative meaning
  • 9.2 Types of connotative meaning
  • 9.2.1 Reflected
  • 9.2.2 Collocative
  • 9.2.3 Stylistic
  • 9.2.4 Affective
  • 9.3 Suprasegmental phenomena
  • Chapter Three: Axiological elements of meaning
  • 10. Axiological semantics
  • 10.1 Preliminaries
  • 10.2 The scope of axiology
  • 10.2.1 Axiology
  • 10.2.2 Values, bearers of values, valuation
  • 10.2.3 Physical domain and mental domain
  • 10.2.4 Things and other entities
  • 10.2.5 Entities as bearers of values: general, particular and singular
  • 10.2.6 Valuation of other entities
  • 11. The cognitive domain of values
  • 11.1 Basic theses about meaning and valuation – profiling
  • 11.1.1 The Great Chain of Being and the vertical dimension
  • 11.1.2 The horizontal dimension
  • 11.1.3 The Domain of Values and the two coordinates
  • 11.2 Basic theses about meaning and valuation continued – conventional imagery
  • 11.2.1 Level of specificity
  • 11.2.2 Background assumptions and expectations
  • 11.2.3 Secondary activation
  • 11.2.4 Scale and scope of predication
  • 11.2.5 Relative salience of substructures
  • 11.2.6 Perspective
  • 12. Pre-axiological schemas
  • 12.1 Preconceptual image schemas
  • 12.2 Preschemas
  • 12.3 Structural properties of preschemas and the ensuing classification
  • 12.4 The interaction of the PLUS-MINUS schema with simple schemas
  • 12.5 The interaction of the PLUS-MINUS schema with complex schemas
  • 12.6 CONTAINER, CONSTRAINER and the Fundamental Axiological Matrix (FAMA)
  • 12.7 FAMA and axiological charges
  • 12.8 FAMA and other schemas
  • 12.9 Final remarks
  • 13. Metaphorical construal of discourse
  • 13.1 Metaphors of discourse
  • 13.2 Discourse and the CONDUIT metaphor
  • 13.2.1 What is the CONDUIT metaphor?
  • 13.2.2 Some alleged inadequacies of the CONDUIT metaphor
  • 13.2.3 Defending the CONDUIT metaphor
  • 13.2.4 The CONDUIT metaphor and successful communication
  • 13.3 The DISCOURSE IS MOVEMENT metaphor
  • 13.4 Cooperative discourse and oppositional discourse
  • 13.5 Axiological clashes and the two types of discourse
  • 13.6 Metaphors made real
  • 14. Semanto-axiological aspects of texts and discourse
  • 14.1 Axiological clashes (AC’s)
  • 14.2 Axiological clashes in discourse
  • 14.3 Discourse and preconceptual image schemas
  • 14.4 Internal and external clashes
  • 14.5 Meta-axiological interludes (MAIN’s)
  • 14.6 Axiological structures of discourse
  • 14.7 Axiological coherence of discourse
  • 14.8 Some linguistic exponents of ACs and MAINs
  • 14.9 Problems to investigate
  • Postlude: The MEANING IS MATTER metaphor
  • References to Part 1
  • Part 2: Translation
  • Chapter One: What is translation?
  • 1. Senses of the word ‘translation’ and related words in English and some other languages
  • 2. Some definitions
  • 3. Some related activities and their products
  • 4. Different conceptualizations of translation
  • Chapter Two: The translation equivalence delusion
  • 5. Why is translation equivalence a delusion?
  • 5.1 A few preliminary examples and the meta-term ‘2-text’
  • 5.2 Kinds of equivalence and translation
  • 5.3 Equivalence in contrastive analyses and in translation studies
  • 5.4 Denotation vs. reference
  • 5.5 A useful analogy
  • 5.5.1 Contrastive analysis
  • 5.5.2 Translational analysis
  • 5.6 Who entered the house?
  • 6. Semiotic translation and semantic (linguistic) translation
  • 7. Neutralization of some meta-terminological oppositions
  • 7.1 What is neutralization
  • 7.2 Neutralization as a graded phenomenon
  • 7.3 Neutralization of the text1 vs. text2 opposition
  • 7.4 Neutralization of two other oppositions
  • 7.5 Translating analytic and synthetic sentences
  • Chapter Three: Translating various elements of meaning
  • 8. Alternative construals
  • 8.1 Different construals across texts within 2-texts
  • 8.2 Profiling
  • 8.2.1 Same domain, same element, different scope
  • 8.2.2 Same domain, different element
  • 8.2.3 Different domain
  • 8.3 Levels of specificity
  • 8.4 Scale and scope
  • 8.4 Differences in salience
  • 8.4.1 Trajector and landmark
  • 8.4.2 Analyzability
  • 8.5 Background assumptions and expectations
  • 8.6 Perspective
  • 9. Coping with systemic meaning and utterance meaning in 2-texts
  • 9.1 Prototypical and non-prototypical functions of sentences
  • 9.2 Changes in sentence complexity
  • 9.3 Truncated sentences and full sentences (truncated → full; full → truncated)
  • 9.4 Changed punctuation
  • 9.5 Changed modalities
  • 9.6 Major category shifts
  • 9.7 Minor category shifts (person, number, tense, mood)
  • 9.8 Augmentation
  • 9.9 Diminution
  • 9.10 Rephrasing
  • Chapter Four: Translating various kinds of texts
  • 10. Translating open texts
  • 11. Relevance of context and terminology
  • 12. Translation as a multifarious activity
  • 13. Legal texts
  • 13.1 The language of the law and the lawyers’ language
  • 13.2 Semantic and lexicological aspects of terminology
  • 13.2.1 Creation
  • 13.2.2 Regimentation
  • 13.2.3 Preservation
  • 13.2.4 Loaning
  • 13.2.5 Archaisms
  • 13.3 Style
  • 13.4 Alleged distinguishing properties of “the language of the law”
  • 13.5 Translating legal texts
  • 13.5.1 Contextual and collocative (co-textual) meanings of some terms
  • 13.5.2 Translational inconsistencies
  • 13.5.3 Fluidity of meaning and inconsistencies
  • 13.5.4 Some further inaccuracies
  • 13.5.5 Stylististic and aesthetic considerations
  • 13.5.6 A note on translating the conjunction ‘or’
  • 14. Religious texts
  • 14.1 What are religious texts
  • 14.2 Selected pitfalls in translating the Bible
  • 14.3 Direct and indirect translations
  • 14.4 Some specific difficulties
  • 14.4.1 “God is love” – conceptual problems
  • 14.4.2 Praise of God – Psalms
  • 14.4.3 Instruments of praise
  • 14.4.4 Other lexical and conceptual problems
  • 15. Artistic texts
  • 15.1 Tao Te Ching (Dao De Jing)
  • 15.2 “Narcissus”
  • 15.3 Narcyz → Narcyz and other 2-texts: playing with machine translators
  • Chapter Five: Translation accuracy
  • 16. Translation accuracy
  • 16.1 Psalm 117 (116)
  • 16.2 Bhagavadgita
  • 16.3 The stricken deer
  • 16.4 Two English versions of one Act (Ustawa)
  • References to Part 2
  • References to biblical texts
  • Dictionaries and selected reference materials
  • Appendixes
  • Index of names

← 14 | 15 →

Notation and typographical conventions

‘Single quotation marks’
For linguistic expressions, i.e. lexemes, phrases, sentences, texts1 (=systemic texts)

”Double quotation-marks”

  1. For concepts and senses
  2. For quotations from other authors



  1. For forms of lexemes and other expressions
  2. For book titles
  3. For emphasis

:Italics: (between colons)

For utterances, their parts and texts2 (= discourse texts)


  1. For source and target domains of conceptual metaphors
  2. For preconceptual schemas and preaxiological schemas

‘Bold type’ (between single-quotation marks)
For metalanguage terms

<Angle brackets>
For entities

Other notational devices are explicated in the appropriate parts of the text ← 15 | 16 →

← 16 | 17 →


Almost everything that one claims about meaning is likely to be questioned or disputed. Translation studies also abound in numerous controversies. Therefore, juxtaposing meaning and translation under one title appears to be a very risky enterprise indeed. Yet, this risk must be undertaken since both these subjects are taught in numerous departments of modern languages and applied linguistics, as well as in schools of translation and in other institutions where linguistics and translation studies, sometimes also called translatology, are taught. Despite all the controversies, there are several truths which appear to be unshakable. One of them concerns the very theme of the present book viz. that translation entails meaning. This means that whenever one talks about translation, one must necessarily talk about meaning even if the opposite may not be true. One can approach meaning in abstraction from its possible relation to translation. The fact that translation evokes meaning results from another unshakable fact, namely that translation is a specific form of communication which rests on meaning. In Leech’s words “Semantics (as the study of meaning) is central to the study of communication.” (Leech 1974:ix). It follows that translation cannot be approached in isolation from meaning and anything that is said and claimed about translation must needs be placed in the context of meaning. Accordingly, the first part of the present book concerns this necessary context, while the second part views translation in terms of the semantic framework presented in the first part.

Both parts are hopefully consistent with major tenets of cognitive linguistics as formulated mainly by Ronald Langacker, George Lakoff, Mark Johnson, and Mark Turner, whose inspiration is evident throughout many parts of the book, and to whose works numerous references are made in appropriate places. Langacker’s concept of dimensions of imagery has inspired me to approach both language and translation in a number of alternative ways resulting in alternative (meta-)conceptualizations. Such multi-aspectual approach to both these phenomena determined the fundamental structure of both parts. Thus, both parts begin with a chapter viewing the described phenomena externally and conceptualizing them by means of the appropriate metalanguage and both parts continue by providing respective descriptions of meaning and translation internally.

Consequently, Chapter One of the first part establishes linguistic meaning as the object of semantics (sections 1 and 2), introduces the term ‘the terminological principle’ as well the cognitive perspective of viewing and conceptualizing language in general and meaning in particular (section 3). Chapter One also elaborates on some technical and notational nuances of the terminological principle by delimiting two important cognitive domains, viz. ‘the ontological triad’ and ‘the communication sequence’. Relative to these two domains the metalanguage terminology can be rendered more rigorous (section 4). Furthermore, Chapter One implements the terminological principle by defining some fundamental metalanguage terms ← 17 | 18 → (section 5), and it finally provides a multiaspectual view of meaning conceptualized from different points of view. These alternative construals of meaning are described by means of a strictly defined set of terms resulting from a rigorous implementation of the terminological principle.

Chapter Two, which views meaning internally, presents various semantic phenomena, such as: relations between sentences (section 7.1), relations between words (section 7.2), relations between sentences (as units in the domain of grammar) and utterances (as units in the domain of discourse), and the consequent distinction between systemic meaning and utterance meaning (section 8). Finally, Chapter Two describes some aspects of connotative meaning (section 9). All these phenomena are described in the metalanguage introduced in Chapter One.

Chapter Three highlights some axiological aspects of meaning which are relevant to metaphorical understanding of discourse and its structure.

The second part, focusing on translation, is constructed in an analogous way. Chapter One describes translation viewed externally by presenting various definitions and approaches to translation connected with alternative conceptualizations of translation and, consequently, with different kinds of translation. Chapter Two deals with translation viewed internally and conceptualized in terms of the semantic metalanguage introduced in the first part by presenting and exemplifying specific aspects of translation also consistently implementing the semantic metalanguage and semantic distinctions drawn in the first part. Chapter Two, entitled “The translation equivalence delusion”, which also serves as the title of the whole book, appears to be “the heart of the matter” when it comes to considering mutual relations between meaning and translation. Everything in the present book that precedes this chapter contributes to formulating the hypothesis that translation equivalence is a delusion, and everything that follows this chapter is intended to substantiate this claim.

The book is addressed primarily to students pursuing translation studies but also to all those persons who are interested in semantics and translation for whatever other reasons. The main aim of the book is to provide the prospective reader with a necessary quantum of knowledge in the two areas and with the metalanguage terminology as an indispensable tool to conduct professional discourse concerning meaning and translation.

A subsidiary aim of the book is to tidy up the metalanguage terminology, which is replete with such deficiencies as polysemy of many terms whereby one term is laden with a number of senses, as well as synonymy due to which one sense is connected with more than one linguistic expression (word).1

1 The metaterm ‘sense’ is defined in section 5.3.3.

← 18 | 19 →

Part 1: Meaning

← 19 | 20 →

← 20 | 21 →

Chapter One: Delimiting the scope and coping with metalanguage

1.   Meaning, semiotics, semantics, and signs: preliminary description

Meaning has attracted notice of various specialists, such as philosophers, psychologists, and naturally enough linguists. Whatever we do or say may have meaning both for us and for someone else, in some sense of the word ‘meaning’. Even when we do something unintentionally, there is always a way to attribute some meaning to what we have done or what happened to us. Suppose, for example, that you accidentally fall over and break your right arm. This simple accident can be interpreted and understood in an unlimited and unpredictable number of ways, not only by yourself as the direct experiencer of the event but also by all possible witnesses as well as by those who hear about it by means of verbal accounts. For you your fall and the resulting fracture of the arm may mean that you will not be able to do certain things for the next few weeks, that you must be more careful when you walk down the street, that your mother or your wife will be worried, and so on. Also for those who watched the accident it may mean an indefinite number of things, depending on how they interpret what they witnessed. Whatever you or anyone else associates with this accident is part of the meaning of what happened. Generally speaking, whatever happened, in this case falling down and breaking an arm, stands for or represents or means something else. This is what meaning is all about: something somehow stands for something else. Therefore, this is what the study of meaning, perhaps least controversially called ‘semiotics’ is about. Anticipating what will be said later, we shall tentatively define ‘semantics’ as those aspects of meaning which have to do with language.

Let us now look at some ramifications of what has just been said. The first one is that the same entity can be perceived, interpreted, and understood in a number of different ways. Using different words, one can say that one entity can be ‘experienced’ and ‘construed’ in a number of different ways. The second ramification, which is directly connected with the first one, is that perceiving, interpreting and understanding, viz. experiencing and construing require someone who is the subject of these activities. The natural word to use when talking about this someone is the word ‘experiencer’. The third ramification, which follows from the first two, is that meaning is necessarily related to someone who perceives, interprets and understands, which is to say that meaning is necessarily related to experiencing. It follows that since not all people experience various things and events in the same way, not all people attribute the same meaning to particular things and events. The accident described above may evoke a great number of different, possibly contradictory, interpretations. It may bring about sympathetic, neutral or malicious reactions, ← 21 | 22 → depending on personal attitudes of particular witnesses and their relations to the sufferer. Some witnesses may interpret the accident as being a kind of punishment for some real or imagined mischief performed by the sufferer, others may regard it as a cruel accident of blind fate, and still others may attribute no particular meaning to the event. Consequently, what has meaning to one person may be meaningless to another. In any case, those who experience the accident as being meaningful must associate it with something else. Briefly speaking, they understand the accident as being a ‘sign of something else. At this point let us note that the term ‘sign’ may be also understood somewhat more broadly as not only the accident itself but also what it stands for in the mind of some experiencer, including the relation between the two. This is indeed how de Saussure seemed to understand it when he described sign as a mental entity consisting of a signifié, signifiant and the relation between them (de Saussure 1916). Thus, the expression ‘is a sign’ may be understood either as an equivalent of ‘stands for’ in the formula ‘X stands for Y’, ie. ‘X is a sign of Y’, or as an equivalent of the entire formula ‘X stands for Y’, ie. ‘X is a sign of Y’ or ‘X signifies Y’ or in de Saussure’s terminology ‘X as signifiant signifies Y as signifié’. This distinction rarely appears to be relevant. However, to avoid confusion, in the subsequent parts of this book we shall be using the term ‘sign’ in the broader of the two senses. Whenever there is a need to talk about signs in the narrower sense, we shall be using de Saussure’s term ‘signifiant’. It is now possible to say that semiotics as a study of meaning is primarily concerned with signs and all possible relations between them. The term ‘sign’ will be discussed more extensively in section 5.3.4.

2.   Semantics: its scope and its metalanguage

Semantics abounds in numerous controversies, which is partly due to the fact that neither the scope of semantics nor its metalanguage are sufficiently precise, and both continue to evoke further controversies. With regard to the scope, the following citation from a reputed semantician aptly expresses the controversy:

“A perennial problem in semantics is the delineation of its subject matter. The term meaning can be used in a variety of ways, and only some of these correspond to the usual understanding of the scope of linguistic or computational semantics. We shall take the scope of semantics to be restricted to the literal interpretations of sentences in a context, ignoring phenomena like irony, metaphor, or conversational implicature.”

(Pulman 1997: 105)

According to some linguists those ignored phenomena fall within the scope of what they call linguistic pragmatics (cf. Leech 1983). This view has been an element of a certain tradition in the approach to describing meaning. The tradition was initiated by Morris (1946), who, inspired by Peirce and Carnap, distinguished between syntax (relations between signs), semantics (relations between signs and their designata) and pragmatics (relations between signs and their users). However, this division was questioned as soon as it was promulgated and has been criticized ever since. The following quotation aptly and representatively expresses the crux of these criticisms: ← 22 | 23 →

“But a complicating factor in these debates is the lack of a clear and accepted criterion among philosophers of language and linguists for what counts as semantic versus what counts as pragmatic. That is, among philosophers of language, there is no stable agreement on the semantics-pragmatics distinction. Furthermore, even among those who agree on terminology, there is disagreement about the scope of semantic content.”

(King – Stanley 2005: 112–113).

There is a similar lack of agreement in matters pertaining to metalanguage, ie. the language used to talk about some other language. The disagreements take place in two major areas. The first one concerns mutual relations between language as an object of description and the metalanguage in which the description is formulated. The second one concerns the notoriously inconsistent terminology employed in various metalanguages.

The first of the two controversies manifests itself in two mutually contradictory claims: 1. Metalanguage is contained in object language. 2. Object language is contained in metalanguage. The first claim is thus elaborated by Ajdukiewicz:

“Język, którym operuje teoria języka i który jako taki, zawsze musi zawierać nazwy wyrażeń badanych, nazywa się zwykle metajęzykiem, język zaś badany nazywa się językiem przedmiotowym. […] warunek skonstruowania adekwatnej teorii prawdy i oznaczania można więc też wyrazić w ten sposób, że logika języka może skonstruować adekwatną definicję prawdy i oznaczania pod tym tylko warunkiem, że metajęzyk, którym logika języka operuje, obejmuje jako swą część język przedmiotowy.”

(Ajdukiewicz [1948], II 1965: 108).2

Similarly, Kotarbiński distinguishes between “a language and its metalanguage, which includes names of symbols used in the former” (Kotarbiński 1979: 39, italics supplied).

The contrary claim is thus expressed by Lyons:

“it is a commonplace of philosophical semantics that natural languages (in contrast with many non-natural, or artificial, formal languages) contain their own metalanguage: they may be used to describe not only other languages (and language in general), but also themselves. The property by virtue of which a language may be used to refer to itself (in whole or in part) I will call reflexivity.”

(Lyons 1995: 7, italics supplied). ← 23 | 24 →

Like many other semantic controversies this controversy remains unsolved. Choosing one or the other option depends on initial philosophical commitments, which have no immediate bearing on our linguistic concerns. This is so because the concept of metalanguage rests on the opposition between the object of description and the instrument of description rather than on some inherent properties which could potentially distinguish the two. Hence the difference is functional rather than structural or semantic. Whether formalized or not, metalanguage is always based on some object language which metalanguage may purport to describe. As long as object language is perceived as being separate from its metalanguage, observing simple notational conventions eliminates potential misunderstandings and confusions (see section 4.5).

The second controversial area concerns what without any exaggeration may be called terminological chaos which results from two independent sources: polysemy of terms and synonymy of terms. It is not difficult to see that semantic terms employed in various texts display an intolerably high level of polysemy, which defies the most fundamental principle of terminology, whereby one word used as a term in a given field, or in a less stringent version in a given text, should, at least in principle, correspond to one sense. One of the most glaring examples of polysemy is the word ‘denotation’, which merits a small dictionary. Some of these senses enter into rather amusing oppositions. The sample presented below, inspired by Wikipedia, does not do full justice to the richness of the data, but it sufficiently well exemplifies the terminological chaos.3

In logic, linguistics and semiotics, a denotation of a word or phrase is a part of its meaning; however, several parts of meaning may take this name, depending on the contrast being drawn. Therefore,
connotation and denotation are
in basic semantics and literary theory, the figurative and literal meanings of a word, respectively
in philosophy, logic and parts of linguistics, the intension and extension of a word;
in philosophy of language denotation can be synonymous with reference as
opposed to sense;
in computer science denotational semantics is contrasted with operational
in media-studies terminology, denotation is an example of the first level of
analysis, i.e. what the audience can visually see on a page. Denotation often ← 24 | 25 →
refers to something literal, and avoids being a metaphor. Here it is usually
contrasted with connotation, which is the second level of analysis, being
what the denotation represents.
In a more popular sense, a denotation is the strict, literal, dictionary
definition of a word, i.e. its sense devoid of any emotion, attitude, or

This brief survey shows that on the one hand, the word ‘denotation’ is used as a synonym of ‘intension’, ‘definition’, and ‘sense’ (in a certain sense of the word ‘sense’), but on the other hand, it is also used as a synonym of ‘extension’, ‘reference’, and ‘sense’ (in another sense of the word ‘sense’). Since ‘extension’ and ‘intension’ are used in opposition to each other, it follows that unless some terminological regime is implemented, the word ‘denotation’ may stand in opposition to itself!

The terminological chaos has its other source in a marked tendency to proliferate new terms, some of which may turn out to be superfluous. What results is the interchangeable use of various terms, which appear in textbooks on semantics and which may have their origins in various other disciplines, such as philosophy, informatics or literary studies. The resulting terminological tangle well instantiates the popular dictum “the cobbler’s wife goes unshod”.

In brief, some of the major controversies inherent in contemporary semantics present mutually contradictory claims concerning:

  1. scope of semantics, i.e.
    semantics embraces linguistic pragmatics
    semantics does not embrace linguistic pragmatics
  2. metalanguage of semantics, i.e.
    metalanguage of semantics is included in object language
    object language is included in metalanguage of semantics.

Further controversies arise from terminological inconsistencies resulting from polysemy and synonymy of semantic terms.

The most poignant comment on this situation comes from Leech:

“each new book is its author’s unique attempt to shed new light on a subject which always threatens to return to primeval darkness, and such is diversity of approaches that one may read two books on semantics, and find scarcely anything in common between them.”

(Leech 1974: ix–x).

Today these words are as valid as when Leech wrote them. In the present book we shall attempt to cope with these difficulties by strictly observing the terminological principle (see the next section) and by specifying the domains relative to which particular metalinguistic terms are defined. Some necessary inconsistencies will be pointed out in the appropriate places. ← 25 | 26 →

3.   The terminological principle and the cognitive approach to object language

3.1   The terminological principle defined

The terminological principle is well known and accepted by all who claim expertise in a given field, but regrettably it is not always consistently observed, as is demonstrated by the examples cited above. The principle says that a given term ought to have only one sense in a given text. Particular authors of particular texts usually strive to observe this principle. Difficulties arise when there is a need to make reference or to allude to texts written by other authors.4 Readers of various texts dealing with semantics may be confronted with both polysemy of particular semantic terms (the same linguistic expression appears in different senses in different texts) and with near synonymy (different linguistic expressions may have nearly identical senses). All such cases are conducive to metalinguistic reflections, which usually result in the realization that these different senses emerge from different authors having different initial assumptions about the subject matter of their investigations and research.

3.2   Alternative construals of domains of experience

Such divergences can be naturally expected, seeing that language with its semantics may become, like all other entities, the object of conceptualization, which, as is correctly recognized by cognitive linguists, always involves different ”dimensions of imagery” (cf. Langacker 1988). It also results in the fact that one and the same thing may be viewed in a number of different ways, depending on differences in perspective, vantage point, scale and salience of perception, and, what is particularly important, differences in profiling.

The lack of agreement in specifying the domains relative to which various linguistic expressions are defined necessarily leads to misunderstanding and miscommunication. On the one hand, there is no agreement as to what exactly is being described, and on the other hand, even if the object of description is properly specified, there are also various possible alternative ways of construing it. According to Langacker (1988a: 2002), conceptualizations involve various ”domains of experience” and are manifested in our “capacity to structure or construe the content of a domain in alternative ways.” (Langacker 2002: 5). These alternate construals account for the fact that one and the same phenomenon can be conceptualized in a number of different ways, according to what Langacker calls dimensions of imagery, which include: 1. imposition of “profile” on a “base”; 2. level of specificity; 3. scale and scope ← 26 | 27 → of predication; 4. the relative salience of substructures (trajector vs. landmark); 5. background assumptions and expectations; 6. perspective (a. orientation, b. vantage point, c. directionality, d. objectivity/subjectivity).

3.2.1   Profile and base

All semantic structures (which Langacker calls ‘predications’), inherent in all concepts (Langacker 2002: 3), require the imposition of a ‘profile’ upon a certain cognitive (experiential) domain which Langacker calls a ‘base’. Particular concepts result from profiling some identifiable element within a particular domain or a matrix of domains. These profiled elements are naturally enough called ‘profiles’. For example the concept “hypotenuse” can be conceived only by relating it to the conceptual domain “right triangle”. In Langacker’s metalanguage the meaning of the expression ‘hypotenuse’ is the concept “hypotenuse”, which results from imposing the profile on the appropriate portion of the conceptual domain “right triangle” as the base. Graphically, profiles can be represented by thick lines, iconically representing the distinctive prominence characteristic of a profile

Fig. 1. (hypotenuse – right triangle).


(Langacker 2002: 5)

Similarly the concept “tip” can be described as resulting from profiling a certain area in the domain of elongated objects, such as tongues, icebergs or matches as in Fig 2 (cf. Langacker 2002: 6). ← 27 | 28 →

Fig. 2 (tip).


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (March)
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016, 541 S., 5 farb. Abb., 21 s/w Abb., 17 s/w Tab.

Biographical notes

Tomasz P. Krzeszowski (Author)

Tomasz P. Krzeszowski is a Professor Emeritus at Warsaw University and a Professor at the School of English of the University of Social Sciences in Łódz´/Warsaw. His areas of academic research include contrastive linguistics, cognitive linguistics, axiological aspects of language and metaphor theory.


Title: The Translation Equivalence Delusion