Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. August 2006

6.4. Innovations in Psycholinguistics: A Step to Innovations in Brain, Culture, Cognition and Communication Research
Herausgeberin | Editor | Éditeur: Elly Brosig (Institut für Linguistik/Germanistik Universität Stuttgart)

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Psycholinguistic Research of Human Cognition

Larysa Zasyekina (Lesya Ukrainka Volyn State University, Lutsk, Ukraine)



The problem of meaning has been investigated in different scientific studies: semiotics, psychology, and linguistics. In modern psycholinguistic conceptions meaning is viewed as an individual experience, which reflects the peculiarities of individual world picture. Thus the theoretical and experimental study of the meaning of words from the perspective of its subjective and objective components is rather urgent and promissing. The peculiarities of objective and subjective components of the meaning of words are investigated, firstly, by description of ostensive, relative, functional, operational definitions of the concept "conflict", secondly, by psychosemantic analysis of this concept and peculiarities of individual semantic spaces. The results of the comparative analysis of objective and subjective components of the meaning of words enables us to disclose their specific nature and functioning peculiarities.

Key words: objective and subjective components of the meaning of words; relevant, operational, and functional definitions of the meaning of words.



Meaning is an interdisciplinary category, which has been studied in philosophy, linguistics and psychology. Meaning is considered to be the universal form of the human activity and interpretation of the world. The importance of the meaning of words for understanding of human cognition has been increasingly recognized in semiotic studies of F. de Saussure and Ch. S. Peirce (Deely, 1993). F. de Saussure is the founder of semiology, which is treated as the study of signs and signals, especially of spoken and written language, and their relationships to the objects, concepts, and ideas to which they refer. He describes the nature of sign by dual relations between signifiant and signifié. In this dyad F. de Saussure highlighted the importance of individual world picture, which reflects the objective reality. The founder of semiotics, Ch. S. Peirce, introduced the study of patterned human communication in all its modes, including touch, facial expressions, gestures, and the spoken and written signs and symbols of human languages. Concerning the relation between the person and the environment, Ch. S. Peirce suggested the concept "interpretant", which is treated as subjective perception and interpretation of different signs. The differentiation of the interpretant (logic, emotional, energetic) is based on the peculiarities of cognitive, emotional and motivational spheres of the personality and their impact on the interpretation process. F. de Saussure’s insights on signifiant/signifié and Ch. S. Peirce’ ideas on the existence of the " interpretant" appeared to be particularly valuable in considering the role of the meaning of words in the construction of the individual world picture and the functioning of human cognition.

The structure of the meaning of words may be systematically different in different people because of the way in which the meaning of words is constructed. This view, first described by L. Vygotsky (Vygotsky, 1934), can be understood as a boundary to the meaning of words. A. Toomela further moved towards the standpoint of Vygotsky and called this boundary a topographical constraint (Toomela, 2003). In his view, in human cultures today the most common types of the meaning of words are so-called "every- day concepts" and "scientific concepts". Words of the every-day concept type encode information on the basis of perceptual attributes of referents and on the basis of observation of events in everyday life; the meaning of words is connected with immediate sensory experience. As an everyday concept, the expression "efficient person", for example, refers to observable external behavior like "a person who built a house, bought an expensive car, runs a big company". Words of the scientific concept type encode information in language; the structure of the meaning of words is abstract and hierarchical, and it does not depend on the immediate perception of the reality. "Efficient person" in this case would mean, "a person acting or functioning competently, a person who causes different effects". As the result of his research, Toomela deliberately emphasized that the dominant structure of the meaning of words is related to different structures and traits of personality and his/her cognitive ability.

Another important idea is that the meaning of words contains objective and subjective components in its structure. In this context, Turner attempted to integrate philosophical and neuropsychological views (Turner, 1994). As pointed out by Turner, on the one hand, the meaning of words is constructed on the basis of human brain activation, thus it is objective. On the other hand, the meaning of words is highly influenced by individual world pictures, thus it is subjective. Taken together, the meaning of words contains two main components: subjective and objective, each of them has its specific functions. Objective meaning is aimed at understanding between people, because it reflects a common representation of the world. The subjective component is derived from the objective one and is changed by peculiarities of individual semantic space, individual knowledge, emotions and experience

This study is the first empirical test of the hypothesis that the subjective component of the meaning of words is quite different from objective in its structure, content and functions. Two specific hypotheses were tested. First, the peculiarities of the objective component in the meaning of words were demonstrated. Secondly, and more important, it was hypothesized that the basic subjective component of the meaning of words contains a variety of associations, emotions and contextual factors.


Methods. Participants.

A sample of physically and mentally healthy adults was chosen representing a higher educational level.

The participants were 300 male and female Ukrainians.


Test material and procedure

To compare objective and subjective components of the meaning of words, conceptual and psychosemantic analyses were made. In psycholinguistic studies the conceptual analysis of the objective component of the meaning of words includes ostensive, relevant, operational and functional definitions of the word (Zasyekina, Zasyekin, 2002). Ostensive definition specifies objects which belong to the semantic volume of a concept. In relevant definition the meaning of concept is revealed through its relation to other concepts. In operational definitions the meaning is considered as a result achieved by the subject through performance of some successive actions. Functional definition of meaning, similarly to operational, also opens the content of a concept through action, although attention here is concentrated not on the action of the subject, but on the activity of the object.

Psychosemantic analysis of the meaning of words is aimed at revealing the individual semantic spaces, thus it discloses the peculiarities of the subjective component of the meaning of words. Among psychosemantic investigation of the meaning of words the most significant are associative experiments by J. Deese, the Semantic Differential by Ch.Osgood, and the prototype investigation by E. Rosch.

In the technique popularized by J. Deese, a stimulus word is read out, the subjects responding to the stimulus word as quickly as possible with the first response word that comes to mind. Then the exercise is repeated a second time with the response words as stimuli for other subjects (Deese, 1965). The analysis of response words shows the peculiarities of individual semantic space of any concept and allows defining the individual attitude to different objects and phenomena.

The Semantic Differential by Ch. Osgood is used as a device for the measuring the connotative (affective) meaning of words, which leads to defining attitudes towards other concepts and objects. There are three underlying dimensions of connotative meaning, labeled evaluation (good - bad), activity (active - passive), potency (strong - weak). Scores ranging from -3 at the negative end of each scale to +3 at the positive end are usually assigned.

A prototype theory of concepts and concept formation, introduced by E. Rosch was aimed at overcoming problems inherent in the classical componential theory originally put forward by the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle. According to the componential theory, concepts can be expressed in terms of their defining properties, which are the necessary and sufficient attributes that items must have to be instances of the concept. According to prototype theory, instances of a natural concept are defined by their resemblance to a prototype that is the most typical example of the concept, sharing the maximum number of features rather than defining properties. If an item is clearly similar to a prototype, as table is to the prototypical furniture, then it is likely to be perceived as belonging to the concept, whereas if it is somewhat dissimilar to the prototype, as carpet is to furniture, then it may be unclear whether or not it belongs to the concept.

The word "conflict" was chosen for conceptual and psychosemantic analyses. Firstly, this word can be treated as scientific notion or as an everyday concept. Secondly, this notion takes a central place in different types of modern discourse: political, social, economical, and ethnical.

The conceptual analysis of the meaning of words was based on the definition in the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology: "conflict is a situation that exists when two contradictory tendencies oppose each other " (Colman, 2003). Thus, disclosing an objective component of meaning of the concept "conflict" in our approach contains:

(1) an allocation of key components which enter into its volume (ostensive definition). It gives way to establishment of the conflict structure,

(2) a definition of relations between these components for the expression of causality, mechanisms of conflict dynamics (relative definitions),

(3) the description of the components interaction from the perspective of the subject’s activity (operational definition),

(4) a definition of the importance of conflict in itself in a person’s life (functional definition).

Ostensive definition of the meaning of words discloses such notions as situation, and contradictory tendencies. A relevant definition demands revealing relations between analyzed notions. In our example they are represented by causal relations, where contradictory tendencies cause the situation of conflict. An operational definition can be: the result of some subjects’ activities, which are strong and oppose each other. A functional definition is disclosed through revealing the significance of the notion "conflict" in human life. From this perspective, conflict is treated both as a destructive and constructive phenomena.

The conceptual analysis of the notion "conflict" through ostensive, relevant, operational and functional definitions reveals the main peculiarities of the objective component of the meaning of words. The results shown in the Table 1 strongly support a scientific view on the structural and functional characteristics of conflict phenomena.

Table 1: Objective component of the meaning of words


Procedure of conceptual analysis

Meaning of the word


Ostensive definition

Situation, opposite tendencies


Relevant definition

Causal relations


Operational definition

Subjects’ opposite activity


Functional definition

Destructive and constructive phenomena

Another hypothesis about the subjective component of the meaning of words is supported by the results of psychosemantic investigations of the notion "conflict". The research procedure includes three stages. In the first stage the subjects (150) were asked to give any association with the word "conflict". The associations were represented by 96 words. Then these associations were proposed as stimuli for the other group of subjects (150). As a result, associations for 97 semantically close words were gathered.

The matrix of associations was calculated by a factor analysis procedure. Three main factors were defined. The first monopolar factor is represented by words: misunderstanding, struggle, death. The factor demonstrates the dynamics and escalation of conflict and its negative results. The second factor is bipolar. The first one is represented by the words: death, Iraq; the second contains the words: conflict, struggle. The existence of this factor suggests that conflict is a global phenomenon, which activates personal and political states and situations. It is highly associated with the actual political situation in the world, safety and security of people’s lives. The third factor is also represented by two levels. The first level includes the words: quarrel, dispute. The second one comprises such words as conflict, death, grief. In other words, the individual semantic space of the notion "conflict" contains all the levels of its meaning: everyday level (quarrel), semantic level (struggle), and conventional level (social and political conflicts).

Thus the results of the psychosemantic analysis of the meaning of words reveal great differences in objective and subjective components of the notion "conflict". Whereas the objective component includes a limited number of situations and contradictory trends, the subjective one contains a lot of semantic components, which represent personal experience (quarrel, misunderstanding, struggle) and acute political situation in the world. The subjective component (death, Iraq) of the meaning of words represents the variety of individual knowledge and experience.

The second stage of the subjective component investigation includes the analysis of connotative meaning of the word conflict through Osgood’s Semantic Differential (SD). The connotative meaning was measured by three underlying dimensions: evaluation, activity, and potency. Scores ranging from -3 at the negative end of each scale to +3 at the positive end were assigned (e.g. good-bad, active-passive, strong-weak). The results of the empirical analysis of connotative meaning show a strong negative attitude towards the notion of conflict (-2,78). Whereas the objective component of the respondents, as was mentioned above, includes positive characteristics of this phenomenon, such as constructive conflict, cognitive conflict, the subjective component expresses only negative attitudes to the conflict phenomenon.

The third stage of the psychosemantic analysis is based on a prototypical approach, introduced by E. Rosch. In her view, each category is represented by the most typical notion - the prototype. A prototype has the main characteristics of the category and is the main center for certain mental representations. The subjects of our sample were proposed a list of words, associated with the notion "conflict". The instruction was to define the most typical word by the scale from 1 to 7, where 1 is the most typical, 7 the least typical. The results of the prototype investigation for category of conflict show that the main center for this mental representation is the word "struggle" (1, 29). The results of the psychosemantic analysis of the concept "conflict" are shown in the Table 2.

Table 2: Subjective component of the meaning of words

N o

Procedure of psychosemantic analysis

Meaning of word


Associative experiment

Factor 1: misunderstanding, struggle, death.

Factor 2: death, Iraq/ conflict, struggle.

Factor 3: quarrel, dispute / conflict, death, grief.


Semantic differential

Negative connotative meaning



Prototype investigation

Prototype is expressed by the word "struggle".



As noted above, the meaning of words can be divided into objective and subjective components. In this article, I have selected the psycholinguistic approach to the meaning of words that allows for a deep investigation of the subjective component as a way to an individual world picture and human cognition. Theoretically, words have two main functions. On the one hand, they are used in communication and understanding between people. This function is fulfilled by the existence of the objective component in the meaning of a word. On the other hand, words can be treated as psychological mechanisms for thinking, memory, perception, emotion, attention, i.e. individual cognition. These intra-individual characteristics are represented in the subjective component of the the meaning of words. One fundamental fact about the meaning of words is that the subjective component often does not coincide with the objective one. The deep investigation of the meaning of words, especially its subjective component leads to the deeper understanding of the interpretation process and the nature of individual mental representations in human cognition.

© Larysa Zasyekina (Lesya Ukrainka Volyn State University, Lutsk, Ukraine)


Colman, A. (2003). Dictionary of psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Deely, J. (1993). Reading the Signs: Some Basics of Semiotics. Semiotica, 3/ 4, 247 - 266.

Deese, J. (1965). The structure of associations in language and thought. Baltimore: The John Hopkins Press.

Osgood, Ch., Suci, G., Tannenbaum, P. (1957). The measurement of meaning. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Rosch, E. (1973). On the internal structure of perceptual and semantic categories. In T.Moore (Ed.). Cognitive development and the acquisition of language. New York; London: Academic Press, 114 - 144.

Toomela, A. (2003). Relationships between personality structure, structure of word meaning, and cognitive ability: A study of cultural mechanisms of personality. Journal of personality and social psychology, 85/4, 723 - 735.

Turner, M. (1994). Design for a theory of meaning. In Overton W., Palermo D. (Eds.). The nature and ontogenesis of meaning. Lawrence Erlbaum, 91 - 107.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1996). Myshlenije i rech [Thinking and speech]. Moscow: Labirint. (Originally published 1934).

Zasyekina, L., Zasyekin, S. (2002). Vstup do psicholinguistiky. [Introduction to psycholinguistics]. Ostroh: Ostroh Academy Publishing House.

6.4. Innovations in Psycholinguistics: A Step to Innovations in Brain, Culture, Cognition and Communication Research

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Larysa Zasyekina (Lesya Ukrainka Volyn State University, Lutsk, Ukraine): Psycholinguistic Research of Human Cognition. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005. WWW:

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