The Study of Context & Meaning in Human Language

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

If you are studying linguistics, then at some point, you will probably become interested in the role of context and meaning in human language. This lesson provides an overview of the basic concepts involved in this relationship.

What are Context and Meaning in Language?

For the last few years, Miranda has become more and more interested in learning about how human languages work. By taking linguistics classes and making informal observations, she thinks she is starting to understand a lot more about the role of language in communication.

Though Miranda has developed a good understanding of phonetics and morphology, she is now becoming more interested in the meaning of language, or how language comes to signify particular things and makes sense to receivers.

Miranda also wonders about the role of context as it relates to meaning; in other words, how does the physical and psychological setting in which language is spoken affect what it means and how it is interpreted?

Context in Understanding and Development

In order to answer that question, Miranda knows she needs to learn more about context as part of the understanding and development of language.

Verbal Context

One part of context that Miranda learns about is called verbal context, which has to do with the words that surround each other in spoken and written discourse.

Miranda can now see that verbal context can affect the meaning and significance of a word or sentence. For example, she thinks about words that have multiple meanings and she realizes that a listener or reader may discern the meaning from the verbal context.

For example, the sentence 'I am wearing a blue shirt' provides verbal context to show that 'blue' is a ¬¬modifier (changes and/or clarifies a particular word to add things like emphasis and detail) and, in this case, a color that describes the shirt. On the other hand, the sentence, 'I am feeling blue today' conveys the verbal context to allow a listener to understand that 'blue' refers, in this case, to an emotion.

Social Context

Of course, Miranda also knows that the social context, or setting, in which language is spoken can have a powerful impact on meaning and interpretation even when the verbal context remains constant.

For instance, she knows that when her best friend greets her with a smile and says, 'What are you up to?' she is being friendly and wants to know what Miranda is doing. When her boss comes into her office, looks at her suspiciously, and says, 'What are you up to?' the verbal context is exactly the same.

However, the social context is different, and Miranda knows that her boss is skeptical of how she is spending her time; he is using the phrase to mean that she should be more productive. Thus, you can see that the same words mean something different in different social contexts.

Language Variations

Context can also impact the way language variations, or alterations, develop in communities. Miranda remembers that when she was a teenager, she and her friends developed ways of using the same words to mean things that their parents could never understand. She has witnessed cultural dialects and neighborhood variations in language that also rely heavily on context for mutual understanding.

Meaning in Understanding and Development

Now that Miranda understands some of the nuances of context, she starts thinking more about how she ever knows exactly what someone means when they speak.


Miranda learns that the branch of linguistics that deals with how language makes meaning is called semantics. The study of semantics has to do with the ways words, grammar, and context come together to give a sentence, paragraph or utterance significance in language.

Semantics scholars have shown that language meaning evolves over time, and meaning is made from a complex constellation of neurology, psychology, and culture.

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