Through language we can acquire knowledge, and to each person words mean different things. If words don’t have a meaning, it will be difficult for us to communicate information between each other. So what distinguishes meaningful words from meaningless ones? To some meanings are to be found in dictionaries, while others believe they are to be found in the world, but words are meaningful when you understand them and you are able to associate them with mental images.
There are three different theories of what distinguishes meaningful words from meaningless one. The first theory is the definition theory. It states that meaningful words can be found in dictionaries. The problem with that idea is that it is difficult to come up with a good definition of a word. And if a word is not found in a dictionary, does that mean it is meaningless? Another problem with the definition theory is that most definitions are imprecise, vague, and only explain words by using other words.
For example it is really difficult to know the meaning of the word “love” in a dictionary, but it is easy to find and understand the meaning of the word “rectangle”. Dictionaries help point us in the right direction, but they do not give us the precise meaning of a word. The denotation theory says that what distinguishes a meaningful word from a meaningless one is that the former stands for something while the latter does not, and that meanings are found in the world.
The problem is that some words, such as “love” or “wisdom”, are too abstract and they do not stand for something tangible. But words that represent something in real life are easy such as “Bahrain” are easy to define. Although it is more useful than the dictionary theory, the denotation theory is still not the best way to distinguish meaningful words. The most useful theory out of the three is the image theory. It states that the meaning of a word is the mental image it stands for, and when you have the appropriate concept in your mind then it is meaningful.
How meaningful the word is depends mostly on the context it is used in, and this theory is the only one that acknowledges this, because mental images change depending on how the word is used. Some words such as “chikawow-wow” cannot be found in the dictionary nor stand for something in the world, but they are still meaningful when they are used in the right context. And because my friends and I have had the same experience with this word, it means something to us and we associate it with a similar mental image.
The limitation with this theory is that if meanings are in the mind, different people will have different images for the same word. But then again, having different images does not make the word meaningless. You cannot explain to a person the meaning of love or other abstract words by using the dictionary theory or the denotation theory, but you could do it using the image theory by associating it with the concept of love. To some, a word can mean many different things, while to others the same word may not mean anything at all, so is this word meaningful or meaningless?
The answer is neither no or yes, because it depends on whether the word stands for a mental image. It also depends on the context in which the word is used. For example “I ate a funny song”, although the word “ate” is meaningful, in this particular context it does not make any sense and therefore is meaningless. In conclusion, although the image theory is the most useful in distinguishing meaningful words from meaningless words, it still has its limitations. Therefore a combination of the theories is required because we cannot depend on only one of them.