Denotation & connotation

The denotation of a word is its direct, literal meaning as distinct from its connotation, which is its additional, suggested meaning, an implied or associated idea.


"In semiotics, 'connotation arises when the denotative relationship between a signifier and its signified is inadequate to serve the needs of the community. A second level of meanings is termed connotative. These meanings are not objective representations of the thing, but new usages produced by the language group." (Wikipedia, 2006).

The crucial difference between the traditional and autopoietic views of language is that the latter assumes its connotational rather than denotational nature. As Maturana (1978) points out:

denotation is not a primitive operation, it requires agreement consensus for the specification of the denotant and the denoted. If denotation is not a primitive operation, it cannot be a primitive linguistic operation, either. Language must arise as a result of something else that does not require denotation for its establishment, but that gives rise to language with all its implications as a trivial necessary result. This fundamental process is ontogenetic structural coupling which results in the establishment of a consensual domain. [...] Linguistic behavior is behavior in a consensual domain.

According to Activity Theory are the meaning of terms related to standardized forms of human practices. A hammer is in standardized human practice used to drive nails into a work piece. This use of the word hammer reflects its denotation. It may also be used for non-standardized purposes, e.g. as a murder weapon. The last use reflect its connotative meaning. 





Maturana, H. R. (1978). Biology of Language: The Epistemology of Reality.' IN: G. Miller, E. Lenneberg, eds. Psychology and Biology of Language and Thought. New York: Academic Press.

Wikipedia. The free encyclopedia. (2006). Connotation (semiotics).







Birger Hjørland

Last edited: 28-06-2006