Codifying Connotative Meaning: The Technical Problem
For hundreds of years, lexicographers have
systematically codified the denotative meanings of words. Collections of definitions
evolved into dictionaries, thesauruses and related denotative language reference tools.
However, connotative meaning has eluded such codification or "pinning down":
Denotation and connotation. . .
represent two vocabularies using the same set of words. The denotative usage presents the
thing in its essential and objective meaning. The connotative usage presents it enriched
by associations and feelings which, though not susceptible of being pinned down, are
nonetheless real. (Weaver, R.
M. A Rhetoric and Composition Handbook. New York, NY: William Morrow & Company,
For example, a dictionary provides the
following denotative meaning for the word pub:
"a building providing
alcoholic drinks for consumption on the premises." (Oxford Dictionary)
However, the word pub
simultaneously evokes a host of emotional connotations, such as merriment, pleasure,
cheerfulness, perhaps some sadness, and so on. Similarly, words such as summer, love, and
melody carry a variety of positive emotional connotative associations for most
people, while words such as amputate, sleaze, and holocaust
have decidedly negative emotional connotations. In all cases, the associated connotations
for any given word or phrase are not systematically accessible using any existing language
reference resource or tool.
The reason for the absence of codification
of connotative meaning is that, while words readily evoke emotional connotations, the
converse is not true: emotional connotations are not easily codified using words.
Unlike denotative meaning, connotative or
affective meaning does not naturally lend itself to systematic word-symbol codification.
Emotions are felt, not thought. Lexicographers cannot employ their usual methods to codify
the relationship between a word and its associated connotative content.
People have known for thousands of years
that words convey connotative meaning. The problem of "pinning down" the
emotional or connotative meanings of words is technical in nature, not conceptual.
The development of emotional or
connotative language tools had to await two main technical developments that did not come
along until the 20th Century:
1. The development
of accurate psychological
measurement techniques, the science of which
began to mature only a few decades ago, led
by psychologists such as Likert, Thurstone,
Osgood, and others.
2. The development
of computers, especially the kind
of high capacity, very fast personal computers that
only became available in the 1990s.
Towards a Solution: Attitude Measurement
People adopt attitudes, hold opinions and
express emotions with varying levels of intensity. To
study "attitude" and
measure its intensity, researchers typically use rating scales. Statistical techniques
founded upon mathematical proofs such as the Central Limit Theorem are used to analyze
numerically-scaled data classified into various "levels of measurement." (Four
levels of measurement corresponding to increasing levels of precision are typically
identified in the literature: nominal, ordinal, interval, and ratio.) Statistics used in
data analysis may include factor analysis, sample variance, standard error of the mean,
and multinomial probability distribution.
In the 1920s and 1930s, psychologists L.
L. Thurstone and Rensis Likert pioneered attitude-measurement scaling methodologies.
Thurstones contribution was a type of "differentiated" scale, a scale that
would determine a persons attitude (towards an object or concept) along a continuum
with acceptable accuracy.
Likert, a psychologist investigating
corporate management styles, devised a "summated" scale, a type of attitude
scale that allowed for the summation and averaging of scaled responses. An example of a
Likert scale is this familiar sequence:
neither agree nor disagree
There are many variations on this theme,
but in general, Likerts method involved attaching numbers to levels of meaning. The
Likert-type scale proved to be very robust, and continues to be widely used today.
Linking Words with Attitude: Osgood's "Semantic
The scale types devised by Thurstone,
Likert and others did not explicitly connect scaled measurement with the connotative
meanings of words. Charles Osgood, an American psychologist, is credited with this
breakthrough. In the early 1950s, Osgood and colleagues used Roget's Thesaurus to
help construct bipolar scales based on semantic opposites, such as "good-bad",
"soft-hard", "fast-slow," "clean-dirty,"
"valuable-worthless," "fair-unfair," and so on. Osgood called these
scales "semantic differential" scales because they differentiated attitudinal
intensity based on a persons subjective understanding of the connotative meanings of
Osgood et al were able to use computer
technology (newly available at the time), and
a statistical technique called factor analysis, to explore large amounts of
data provided by numerous "judges" (i.e., ordinary people recruited to express
their attitudes), who evaluated numerous words and phrases on numerous semantic
differential scales. The outcome was Osgoods discovery of "semantic
space"the existence of three measurable underlying attitudinal dimensions that
everyone uses to evaluate everything in their social environment, regardless of language
or culture. These three dimensions are Evaluation, Power, and Activity, known as EPA.
Subsequent experimentation by many investigators around the world confirmed the reality of
semantic space and its cross-cultural validity (Japan, Scandinavia, Germany, Ireland etc.)
Osgoods team had, in effect,
discovered a methodology for quantifying connotative semantic meaning. In 1957, Osgood and
colleagues published their findings in a landmark volume, The Measurement of Meaning. (Osgood,
Suci, and Tannenbaum, 1957)
A vast psychological literature on
semantic differential and semantic space has developed over more than
50 years. Along with Likert scaling, Osgoods semantic differential has been in continuous use since the
method was first published, and is considered a mainstay of measurement of connotative
meaning in psychology and other social sciences.
The Evaluation, Potency, and
Activity (EPA) structure in subjective responses is one of the best documented facts in
social science, and an elaborate technology has developed for measuring EPA responses on
"semantic differential scales." (Heise, D. R. "Affect Control Theory and Impression
Formation" in Borgatta, E. and Borgatta, M. (Eds.). Encyclopedia of Sociology, Vol.
1. New York, NY: Macmillan, 1992)
Here is a brief overview of semantic
The semantic differential...is
a method for measuring the meaning of an object to an individual. It may also be thought
of as a series of attitude scales. The subject is asked to rate a given concept (for
example, Irish, Republican, wife, me as I am) on a series of seven-point bipolar
rating scales. Any conceptwhether it is a political issue, a person, an institution,
a work of artcan be rated . . . Subgroups of the scales can be summed up to yield
scores that are interpreted as indicating the individuals position on three
underlying dimensions of attitude toward the object being rated. These dimensions have
been identified by using factor-analytic procedures (factor analysis is a [statistical]
method of finding the common element or elements that underlie a set of measures) in
examining the responses of many individuals concerning many concepts or objects. It has
been found that . . . three subgroups measure the following three dimensions of attitude:
(1) the individuals evaluation of the object or concept being rated,
corresponding to the favorable-unfavorable dimension in more traditional attitude scales;
(2) the individuals perception of the potency or power of the object or
concept; and (3) the individuals perception of the activity of the object or
concept. (Kidder, L. M. Research
Methods in Social Relations. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1981)
Of the three dimensions of semantic space,
Evaluation proved to be the most important. Evaluation is also known as the
"connotative" or "affective" dimension.
Of these dimensions, the one most
heavily weighted in peoples judgments is evaluation. Osgood has recommended using it
as the prime indicator of attitude toward the object. Clearly it is an affective
dimension. (Oskamp, S. Attitudes
and Opinions. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1977)
"affect" is the term psychologists use when referring to emotion, or more
specifically, the emotion associated with an idea or set of ideas.
The problem with the semantic differential
technique is that it does not distinguish beyond a single evaluative continuum, with
positive attitude at one end of the scale through to negative attitude at the other end.
That is, it does not actually identify any individual emotions.
Connotative Intelligence Technology