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Is Meaning Culturally Constructed

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  • Pages: 8
  • Word count: 1961
  • Category: Culture

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Culture can be called denomination of specific class of phenomena, which are peculiar only to a human being, and which can be called “symbolic”. Symbol is an object or event; the meaning of some symbol determines a person, who uses it as a kind of means of communication. Symbol can have any recognizable form: gesture, sound, shape, color, taste, smell, etc.

But the most important form of symbolical expression is articulate speech. A person endowed sounds – or written symbols – with meaning and started to exchange his ideas with other people. A person can invent and impose meaning and value to objects by his own choice. A person can act in world of symbols of his own free will and can give any meaning to any object. Moreover, no other creature can make the same. The whole human existence depends on this unique gift and is based on it. Realization of this ability, actually, created all civilizations of humankind. A symbol in our word usage is something indicating something other.

We see smoke and guess flame; we see red light and guess danger. Another point is that meaning of symbol can be associated with its physical shape or identified with it with help of mechanism of conditioned reflex (as it happens with red light, indicating danger). In any case, as soon meaning of symbol starts to be identified with its physical shape or associatively or with help of conditioned reflex, it starts functioning as if it was characteristic of this object from the very beginning. Words can function both as symbols and as signs. To tell with other words, sometimes they can be used in symbolic aspect and sometimes in sign aspect. Meaning of symbol cannot be recognized with help of senses.

When Spanish entered Mexican territory, they heard quite clear that Aztecs pronounced word “callo”, but they couldn’t understand what it means: “home” or “tired”. Aztecs couldn’t understand word “santo” in Spanish which they clearly heard. The meaning of symbol one can understand and, therefore, to pass to the other only by means of special nerve structure, which we cannot call other then “mechanism of symbolization”.

The same is correct in reference to other symbol forms. We cannot understand while looking at color, if it means mourning, courage or leprosy. We cannot recognize with help of senses meaning of symbolical gesture. We can recognize meaning of symbol only with help of symbolic communication, using ability of our nervous system to symbolization.

So, declaring that we cannot guess the meaning of some symbol, we declare that this meaning isn’t peculiar to symbol from the very beginning, but is imposed from external. Symbols are values which aren’t recognized by senses and they are united with physical shape. Transfer of meaning takes place at the same way as the symbol is created: with help of neurological ability for symbolization”. Symbols are created with help of fixing some meaning or quality for definite physical shape. A person creates world for himself with the help of words, – a new world of ideas and philosophy.

Thinking how symbols can be organized into codes, semiotists invented two terms: paradigm and syntagm. “As Saussure was the first to observe, each word which is selected enjoys a relationship of similarity with numerous other words which are associated with it in some way, and a relationship of contiguity with those which surround it discursively” (Kaja Silverman)

Paradigm is choice of symbol from numerous claimants to place – synonyms. Syntagm is combination of chosen symbols. Paradigm relations are relations of competition; syntagm relations are relations of cooperation. In syntagm a symbol is determined how it cooperated with other symbols, whereas in paradigm – how it differs from other symbols. Paradigm is called a vertical plane of language, and syntagm- horizontal.

Classical example which illustrates concepts of paradigm and syntagm is restaurant menu. We choose cold collation and “paradigms” of cold collations; first dish from paradigms of “soups”; the second dish from paradigms of “hot dishes”, dessert from “paradigms” of desserts and then after we combine them into “syntagm” of “dinner”.

 There is also cultural paradigm of meaning – for example, cultural paradigm of business undertakings several years ago was as follows: costume, tie, probably, blue or white shirt, computer, mobile phone, and car. In case in commercial we’ll put a definite kind of mineral water near these attributes, we insert it in paradigm of business undertakings.

We have several semantic approaches, then. Actually, any object from semantic point of view is text. One of approaches is called intertextuality.

Marsha Watson writes in her article: “The term ‘intertextuality’ has come to be used to signify a range of textual functions that have been commonplace in the practice of literary interpretation for centuries. Most theorists conceive of intertextuality as an “intersection of textual surfaces” — a dynamic convergence that is not restricted merely to alluding to past writings, but is described by Kristeva as a “dialogue among several writings” — an exchange between the author, the reader, and the “contemporary or earlier cultural context” (Marsha Watson)

Here attention is dedicated to totality of relations between texts. The concept of text is being universalized: there is a demand to more or less extent that the whole world is a text. Elements constituting a separate text are thought as borrowed from and indicating the other texts.

It is not already the immanent structures, but reference and citing which are the main objects of interest and generators of text meaning. Analysis is directed not to relations between elements inside text, but to relations between elements and their totality inside “semiotic universe”, consisting of all real and potential texts.

The whole intertextuality is based on concept of culture as reservoir of meanings, interpreted in informative meaning (it means, naturally given knowledge). So, procedure of finding formal linguistic similarity (citing, paraphrase, etc) allow to make conclusion relatively similarity or identity of meaning for compared textual segments. The culture is reduced to “already achieved” (available) knowledge, parts of which migrate from one text to the other, and form a culture “life”.

One of weaknesses of structural semiotics is tendency to interpret individual texts as discrete, closed “substances” and focus attention exclusively at internal structures. Every text exists in relation to the other. In fact, text depends on other texts then on his own creators. The most evident are formal frames: TV programs, for example, can be part of series and part of genre (for example, “soap operas”). Our understanding of any separate text relates to such frame.

Text provide context, inside of which can be created and interpreted other texts (for example, an advertising of new production (cigarettes, coffee, etc) in frame of same advertisings). Ascription of text to some genre provides interpreter with definite text with key intertextual frame. Texts are quite “elastic”, and their frames always can be built by the reader once more.

Denotation and connotation: these are strict and inference meaning of symbol. Denotation is called the first level of definition, and connotation is called the second. Rollan Bart told that denotation for photography will be reproduction of object of photography and connotation is how it is photographing (what tells choice of object, light, focus, perspective, etc). Denotation is used as definite meaning of symbol, whereas connotation determines its social-cultural and personal significations (ideological, emotional, etc).

Connotations result not from the very symbol, but from way how society uses and gives meaning to signifier and signified. For example, a car in Western culture can connote freedom or maturity. British sociologist Stewart Hall proposed the following: term “connotation” in the large sense of the word is equal to literal meaning of symbol because literal meaning is recognized almost universally, especially when visual discourse is being used. Denotation is often mixed up with literal transcription of “reality” in language – and in such a way with “natural symbol” which is used without mentioning about some other code.

From the other side, connotation is used simply to point less fixed and, therefore, more conventional and changeable associative meanings, which evidently vary from example to example, and by this, depend on code. Hall supposes that the usage of difference between denotation and connotation should be only analytical.

“Understanding the difference between the extensional and intensional meaning of a word – the denotation and connotation – is critical to both understanding meaning and being aware of how others may be slanting the language to sway us” (Grazian)

So, terms “denotation” and “connotation” are simply useful analytical means for distinguishing in separate contexts not presence/absence of ideology in language, but different levels, at which ideology and discourse are crossed. Bart gave arguments in favor of fact that denotation and connotation are combined and produce ideology, which Hartley described as the third level of signification.

Let’s make clear this and examine those three levels by example of Marylyn Monroe’s photo. At denotative level it is a simple photo of Marylyn Monroe. At connotative level we associate this photo with such characteristics of Marylyn Monroe as beauty, charm, sexuality, if it is an early photo, and also with depression, usage of drugs and death, if it is a late photo. At myth level we understand this sign as embodiment of Hollywood myth – a “dream factory”, which produces such stars, but at the same time such “dream factory” which destroys these stars.

Symbolic world of advertising has its own rules. All this tells us about serious transformation which experiences real world, changing into other variant of symbolic world. We can consider news as special genre from the point of view of semiotics. For example, Swedish researcher B. Nermann (Windahl S., Signitzer B.) proposed to interpret news program as 20 minute visit to far, unfriendly, conflictive place, from which a spectator always can have possibility for departure. As a rule, such “departure” is completed in a special manner – with help of anecdote or weather forecast, thanks to which a spectator leaves this conflictive place for a safe and comfortable.

Symbol as a sign has its own signifier and signified. Signifier is a definite sensual image, which reflects nature of extra-linguistic reality. “To say that something has meaning is to say that it is a sign, a composite unit consisting of a relation between an overt signal, called the signifier, and the information that this overt signal evokes, called the signified” (W. Frawley)

For example, a flame – symbol of soul in some poems – can be presented not only as some abstract flame, but as a candle, fireplace, fire, etc. A signified is some meaning, mainly abstract. It is polysemantic structure (for example, a fire – symbol of 1) life and fertility; 2) soul (also as eternal flame – soul of dead person); 3) passions, experienced by some person; 4) vision as identity to divine fire- sun.

So, reasoning from all aforesaid my opinion is that meaning is culturally constructed. Really, declaring that we cannot guess the meaning of some symbol, we declare that this meaning isn’t peculiar to symbol from the very beginning, but is imposed from external.


Works Cited:

  1. Windahl S., Signitzer B. Using communication theory. An introduction to planned communication. – London etc., 1992. p. 137
  2. How Much Do Words Really Matter? (Journal article by Frank Grazian; Public Relations Quarterly, Vol. 43, 1998)
  3. A Classic CasePhillis Wheatley and Her Poetry (Journal article by Marsha Watson; Early American Literature, Vol. 31, 1996, p.8)
  4. The Subject of Semiotics (Book by Kaja Silverman; Oxford University Press, 1983, p. 104)
  5. Linguistic Semantics (Book by William Frawley; L. Erlbaum Associates, 1992, p. 5)

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