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Levels of meaning
Levels of meaning

Semantics seeks to unravel the mysteries behind how we derive meaning from words, sentences, the intentions of speakers and the conception of the hearers.

In this essay, we embark on a journey to explore the intricate web of language and meaning, focusing on four distinct levels: word meaning, sentence meaning, speaker's meaning and hearer’s meaning.

Word Meaning

Word meaning is the meaning of individual words. It is determined by the word's dictionary definition, as well as its usage in different contexts. For example, the word "dog" can refer to “a common animal with four legs, especially kept by people as a pet or to hunt or guard things.” Also at this level, we can talk about the lexical relations such as  (big/large= synonyms/ tall/short= antonyms  etc. ) (See Essay No. 2 Lexical Relations).

Sentence Meaning

Sentence meaning is the meaning of a complete sentence. It is determined by the meanings of the individual words in the sentence, as well as the way in which they are combined. For example, the sentence "The dog ate the bone" has a different meaning from the sentence "The bone ate the dog." It is the meaning conveyed by the sentence as it neutrally stands.  It is the literal meaning of the sentence. (See Essay No. 5 Leech’s Seven Types of Meaning).

Speaker’s Meaning

Speaker's meaning is the meaning that the speaker intends to convey by an utterance. It can be different from the sentence meaning, depending on the context and the speaker's intentions.  It goes beyond the literal interpretation of words to consider what the speaker wants to convey, which may include indirect speech acts, irony, sarcasm, or pragmatics. For example, the speaker might say "It’s raining cats and dogs" to simply mean that “ it’s raining heavily.” 

Hearer's meaning

Hearer's meaning is the meaning that the hearer actually understands from an utterance. It can be different from the speaker's meaning, depending on the hearer's background knowledge and interpretation of the utterance. For example, if someone says, "Can you pass me the salt?" during a meal, the hearer's meaning is to hand over the salt because it's a common request, not a question about the ability of the hearer to pass the salt.

Another Example:

A: Have you cleared the table and washed the dishes?
B: I've cleared the table.

Speaker B meant to say that she didn’t wash the dishes, but she didn’t say that explicitly. However, Speaker A understood that she didn’t wash the dishes although Speaker B didn’t say that. 



Sentence Literal Meaning

Speaker’s Meaning

Hearer’ Meaning

1. Tired traveller: “ This suitcase is killing me.

The suitcase is killing him with something like a knife or a gun.

The suitcase  is too heavy.

The suitcase  is too heavy.

2. A Hungry  person at a dinner table: “ I could eat a horse.”

 He has the ability to eat a horse.”

He is extremely hungry.

He is extremely hungry


Huda: Would you come to my party?

Laila:  I have to study for the exam.


Laila has an exam and she has to study for it.


Laila means she can’t go to Huda’s  party.

Huda understands that Laila is not coming to her party.



Word Literal Meaning

Speaker Intended Meaning

1. Salem is a bookworm.

He is a worm that eats books.

He likes reading, and he reads a lot of books.

2. Time flies when you're having fun.

Time has wings and it flies like a bird.

Time passes very quickly.

3. You're going out in this weather? You must be bananas!

You must be  the  banana fruit.

You must be crazy.


In conclusion, semantics operates at multiple levels, from the inherent meanings of individual words to the dynamic interplay between speakers and hearers in the context of communication. Understanding these levels is crucial for comprehending the richness and complexity of human language and its role in conveying meaning and facilitating effective communication. 


  • Hurford, J., B. Heasley and M. Smith (2007) Semantics: a coursebook (2nd edition) Cambridge University Press
  • George Yule (2014) The Study of Language (5th edition) Cambridge University Press
  • Alkhuli, M.A., An Introduction to Semantics ( 2008) Dar AlFalah, Jordan


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