Understanding the difference between denotation and connotation is important to understanding definitions and how concepts are used. Unfortunately, that is complicated by the fact that these terms can be used in two different ways: grammatical and logical. Even worse, both uses are worth keeping in mind and both uses are relevant to project of logical, critical thinking.
As used in semiotics and in neighbouring disciplines, the terms denotation and connotation really cover at least four main conceptual distinctions, some of which have several varieties: yet, ignoring a few marginal cases, all may be seen as different ways of carving up a particular semantic domain, made up of the two obligatory relata of the sign function, expression and content, and of a portion of the experimental world corresponding to the content, viz. the referent.
Consistent with the views of Saussure and Hjelmslev, the content is here considered to be a mental, or more precisely, an intersubjective, entity, whereas the referent is taken to be something which may be encountered in the experimental world, that is, at least potentially, in direct perception. Given these preliminaries, the four different distinctions can be adequately derived, but unlike the terms, the resulting concepts do not exclude each other, and in fact are often confused in the literature.
Denotation refers to the literal meaning of a word, the "dictionary definition."¨ For example, if you look up the word snake in a dictionary, you will discover that one of its denotative meanings is "any of numerous scaly, legless, sometimes venomous reptiles¡Khaving a long, tapering, cylindrical body and found in most tropical and temperate regions."
Connotation, on the other hand, refers to the associations that are connected to a certain word or the emotional suggestions related to that word. The connotative meanings of a word exist together with the denotative meanings. The connotations for the word snake could include evil or danger.
In the case of the logical distinction, the connotation is identical with the content, or with a particular feature analysis of the content, and the denotation is another name for the referent, or for the relation connecting the content to the referent or, in some conceptions, starting out directly from the expression. In what we shall henceforth call the stylistic distinction, denotation is considered to be a part of the content that is taken to be in one-to-one correspondence with the referent, and connotation is identified with what remains of the content when denotation is deducted; at the same time, however, connotation and denotation are ordinarily supposed to be different kinds of content, where the possible content categories are defined by psychological predicates. Moreover, in some versions of the distinction, the semantic domain subject to segmentation is extended on the side termed connotation, so as to include also the subjective mental content of the sender and/or receiver of the sign, without the latter being clearly distinguished from the marginal content domain of the sign.
The semiotical distinction, so called because it is proper to semiotics, viz. to the Hjelmslev tradition, concerns a denotation which is a relation between the expression and the content, and a connotation which relates two signs (i.e. two units of expression and content) in a partic ular way. Finally, what Eco calls connotation, when he is not simply thinking about the stylistic notion, is really what is elsewhere termed a (contextual) implication, i.e. the distinction is this time concerned with the differing degrees of indirectness with which the content is given, denotation being merely the less indirect one.
The logical distinction:
In logic and philosophy, denotation means the same thing as extension, i.e. the object or class of objects subsumed by a concept, and connotation is another term for what is also termed intension or comprehension, i.e. the list of all properties characterising the concept, or only those properties conceived to be the necessary and sufficient criteria for ascribing some objet to the concept; and/or the properties permitting us to pick out the objects falling under the concept. Employing the latter terms, the Logic of Port Royal first (in 1662) introduced this distinction, whereas the usage involving the terms denotation and connotation probably derives from John Stuart Mill (cf. Garza Cuarón 1987; 57ff, 69ff).
Intension and extension are sometimes identified with what Frege termed "Sinn" and "Bedeutung", which means that various intensions may correspond to a single extension: for instance, "the Morning Star" and "the Evening Star", "equilateral triangle" and "equiangular triangle", "the vanquisher of Austerlitz" and "the vanquished of Waterloo", etc., have the same extensions but different intensions. If the intension is taken to contain all properties common to the objects in the extension, then, as Kubczak (1975:73) rightly observes, all terms having the same extension will also have the same intension. For instance, both the Morning Star and the Evening Star could be described as "a particular star, which can be seen shortly before the rising and shortly before the setting of the sun". If this is indeed the content of both terms, it is difficult to explain the fact that, in many contexts, one of the terms cannot be exchanged for the other. Kubczak concludes that, in linguistic signs, intensions do not contain full information about the objects referred to. An alternative explanation was long ago suggested by Edmund Husserl, and spelled aut in further detail by Aron Gurwitsch (1957: 145ff): according to this analysis, the conceptual noema, i.e. the intension, does in fact contain all elements found in the object, but each time organised into a particular thematic hierarchy. If this is so, then it might be argued that terms lacking substitutability in "opaque contexts" contain the same features, but differently arranged (Sonesson 1978). Thus, to use Humboldt’s classical example, quoted by Kubzcak (p140), the Elephant may be conceived of as "der zweimal Trinkende", "der Zweizahnige", or "der mit einer Hand Versehene", each time giving pre-eminence to one of the proper parts or attributes of the whole.
The stylistic distinction
The stylistic distinction also takes it origin in the Port Royal Logic, where connotation, in this sense, is termed "idées accessoires"; it was, however, the German grammarian Karl Otto Erdmann, who in 1900 distinguished between "Hauptbedeutung", "Nebensinn", and "Gefühlswert", and Urban, Firth, and Ogden & Richards, seem to be among those principally responsible for circulating these notions in the English-speaking world, translating the first term by "denotation", and conflating the latter two terms under the denomination "connotation" (cf. Garza Cuarón 1978: 62ff; Rössler 1979:1f). Erdmann apparently thought that the core meaning, which he believed to be conceptual in nature, could be distinguished from subsidiary meaning aspects, on one hand, and from emotional values and ambience, on the other, but as the distinction is nowadays stated, the latter two notions are amalgamated. According to this conception, a demarcated portion of the content domain corresponds point by point to an object in the perceptual world, such as it would appear in a completely "objective" account; whereas the other part, the residue, has no equivalent in the real-world object, but is added to the content by the sign and/or the sign user. The features of the first part are supposed to be cognitive or conceptual, thus permitting the identification of the real-world object; the features of the other part are said to be emotive, or emotional, and it is never made clear whether they are part of the intersubjective content of the sign, are contributed by the sign producer, or result form the reaction of the sign receiver. Moreover, the cognitive meaning is taken to be more important than the rest, perhaps because cognition is postulated to carry more importance than emotion.
It is not obvious that all these properties must necessarily co-occur. For instance, the most important features of the meaning of such as word as "darling", and those which permit an identification, are emotional, in the sense that they describe the emotional relationship between the speaker and the object referred to, the emotion being codified as a part of the intersubjective content of the language sign (Cf. Sonesson 1978). Although this variety of the terminological distinction is thus the most difficult to uphold, it remains the most popular one, and is often confused with the other ones, even in semiotical texts (thus for instance by Barthes).
According to Hjelmslev (1943:101ff), connotation is a particular configuration of languages, opposed, in this respect, not only to denotation, but also to metalanguage. According to his definitions, a connotational language is a la nguage, i.e. a system of signs, the expression plane of which is another language, which means it is the inversion of a metalanguage, the content plane of which is another language. Contrary to both of the latter, denotational language is a language, none of whose planes form another language. Thus, denotation is a relation which serves to connect the expression and the content of a sign, whereas connotation and metalanguage both relate two separate signs, each with its own expression and content. Apart from the definitions, Hjelmslev also gives various examples of connotations, such as different styles, genres, dialects, national languages, voices, etc. As a particularly pregnant example, he suggests that, all the while that he is speaking Danish, denoting different contents, he goes on connoting the Danish language. In a parallel fashion, a person speaking in a foreign tongue will all the time be connoting "I am a foreigner". In many languages, the use of an /r/ produced with the tip of the tongue, or with the uvula, indicates, and thus connotes, different geographical origin. When analysing these and other examples, we will realise that it is in the choice of a particular expression to stand for a given content, chosen among a set of alternatives, or of a particular variant to realise the expression invariant, that the semiotic connotations reside (Cf. Sonesson 1989, 122ff, 179ff). Hjelmslev’s connotations have often been compared to some of those mentioned by Bloomfield, which depend on the social and geographical origin of the speaker, or are associated with improper or intensified versions of more normal signs (Cf. Rössler 1979:31, 39ff; Garza Cuarón 1978, 168ff, 180). There is certainly a similarity in the kind of contents invoked, but it should be noted that what is important to connotation, according to Hjelmslev himself, is not the particular contents, or kinds of contents, conveyed, but the formal relationships which they presuppose (p.105). The study of the "social and sacral" values usually conveyed by the languages of connotation are assigned by Hjelmslev (p.105) to the theory of "substance". This explains why Hjelmslev’s list form "un inventaire, approximatif et allusif", as Greimas (1970:96) observes, which means Greimas’ own essay would have to be a contribution to this theory of "substance". Even if some particular kinds of content are really associated with connotational language, there is certainly nothing in Hjelmslev’s text to suggest that these should have something to do with emotion, contrary to what has been taken for granted by those who identify Hjelmslev’s connotation with the stylistic one. Spang-Hansen (1954:61), himself a close collaborator of Hjelmslev, observes that neither do only emotive signs contain connotations, nor do all emotive signs contain them. Indeed, four-letter words certainly connote their being "four-letter words", but this effect is produced quite independently of the reactions of the auditory, and of the degree of emotion with which the words are used.
As a close scrutiny of the few pages in which Hjelmslev introduces the notion of connotation will show, the formal theory of connotation is much more complex than most commentators have realised. Thus it can be demonstrated, for instance, that Hjelmslev (1943: 103) distinguished connotations stemming from the form of denotational language, in which the units of connotation and denotation are identical, and those derived from its substance, where the matter serving as the vehicle of the two signs is differently segmented. As soon as we delve deeper into the text, we will also discover that Hjelmslev’s examples embody a theory which is narrower, if not simply different, from the one conveyed by his definitions, and we will encounter reasons to doubt that connotational language, interpreted in this way, can really be considered a mirror image of metalanguage, as ordinarily understood (Cf. Sonesson 1989,179ff).
Although Umberto Eco (1976:111; 1984: 32) claims to take over his notion of connotation from Hjelmslev, he has turned it into something rather different. The first time he employs the term, Eco (1968: 98ff) produces are very heterogeneous list of phenomena, which would seem to include logical connotation, stylistic connotation, and much else, which he then describes as the sum total of cultural entities brought up before the receiver’s mind. In a later text, however, Eco (1976: 111) defines connotation as "a signification conveyed by a precedent signification", which would rather suggest something similar to what logicians call a contextual implication – the context being offered by some or other "meaning postulate" defined in a particular sign system. More recently, Eco (1984:33) himself observes that what he calls the second level of the connotational system is based on "inference". To illustrate his idea of connotation, Eco asks us to imagine a dike provided with an alarm system in which, for instance, the sign AB denotes danger, the sign AD insufficiency, etc. In the context of the dike, danger is known to result from the rise of the water above a determinate level, whereas insufficiency means that the water-level is too low. We are also acquainted with the fact that, in the first case, it will be necessary to let some portion of the water out, and that in the latter case, some amount of water must be allowed to enter the system. Eco would say that the sign AB denotes danger and connotes evacuation (and then no doubt also high water-level), and that the sign AD denotes insufficiency while connoting the entering of the water into the system (and low water-level). Given the stock of knowledge accessible to the guardian, all these facts could be said to imply each other, in the context of the dike. In spite of its multiple meaning layers, this case does not confirm Hjelmslev’s model, as Kerbrat-Orecchioni (1977: 81f) rightly observes, since it is only the content of denotation, not the whole sign, which is transformed into the expression of connotation. But there is really no reason at all to expect that Eco’s example should confirm Hjelmslev’s model, since, in spite of using the same term, they are concerned with different phenomena. Indeed, as a close reading of Hjelmslev’s text will show (Hjelmslev 1943:105; Sonesson 1989: 185f), Eco’s connotations would be "symbols" to Hjelmslev, and could, in some cases, be indirectly conveyed by connotational languages. No doubt, we could look upon Hjelmslevian connotation as a particular case of implication, viz. an implication resulting from the peculiar relation between the expression and content of a sign. It is, however, an implication involving signs, not mere content parts, and that is what is essential to Hjelmslev.
Diction, an element of style, refers to the words writers use to express ideas. Words convey more than exact, literal meanings, in which case they "connote" or suggest additional meanings and values not expressed in general dictionary definitions. Words that "denote" a core meaning are those that are generally used and understood by the users and the audience to represent an object or class of objects, an act, a quality, or an idea. However, because of usage over time, words that denote approximately the same thing may acquire additional meanings, or connotations, that are either positive (meliorative ) or negative (pejorative ). Consider the changes undergone by these words in the 20th century: liberal, diversity, team player, right wing, follower, gay, minority,feminist, left wing, abuse, conservative, motherhood, extremist, rights, relationship, harassment, family, propaganda, peacekeeper, and comrade.
drug addict . . . druggie, drug fiend, substance abuser
handicapped . . . crippled, disabled, differently abled
horse . . . . . . steed, nag, plug
house . . . . . . home, abode, domicile, residence
thin . . . . . . thin, slender, slim, skinny, lean, beanpole
attractive . . . pretty, beautiful, handsome, fair
reporter . . . . journalist, broadcaster, newshound
unattractive . . plain, dull, ugly
Words have both denotations (literal meanings) and connotations (suggestive meanings). Fungus is a scientific term denoting a certain kind of natural growth, but the word also has certain connotations of disease and ugliness. Connotations can be both positive and negative; for example, lady carries a hint of both elegance and subservience. The influence of connotative meaning can also change the denotative meaning, one example being the thoroughly transformed word gay.
Within today's society, connotation branches into a mixture of different meanings. These could include the contrast of a word or phrase with its primary, literal meaning (known as a denotation), with what that word or phrase specifically denotes. The connotation essentially relates to how anything may be associated with a word or phrase, for example, an implied value judgment or feelings.
It is often useful to avoid words with strong connotations (especially pejorative or disparaging ones) when striving to achieve a neutral point of view. A desire for more positive connotations, or fewer negative ones, is one of the 200 main reasons for using euphemisms.
'Denotation' tends to be described as the definitional, 'literal', 'obvious' or 'commonsense' meaning of a sign. In the case of linguistic signs, the denotative meaning is what the dictionary attempts to provide. For the art historian Erwin Panofsky, the denotation of a representational visual image is what all viewers from any culture and at any time would recognize the image as depicting (Panofsky 1970a, 51-3).
The term 'connotation' is used to refer to the socio-cultural and 'personal' associations (ideological, emotional etc.) of the sign. These are typically related to the interpreter's class, age, gender, ethnicity and so on. Signs are more 'polysemic' - more open to interpretation - in their connotations than their denotations. Denotation is sometimes regarded as a digital code and connotation as an analogue code (Wilden 1987, 224).
As Roland Barthes noted, Saussure's model of the sign focused on denotation at the expense of connotation and it was left to subsequent theorists (notably Barthes himself) to offer an account of this important dimension of meaning (Barthes 1967, 89ff). In 'The Photographic Message' (1961) and 'The Rhetoric of the Image' (1964), Barthes argued that in photography connotation can be (analytically) distinguished from denotation (Barthes 1977, 15-31, 32-51). As Fiske puts it 'denotation is what is photographed, connotation is how it is photographed' (Fiske 1982, 91). However, in photography, denotation is foregrounded at the expense of connotation. The photographic signifier seems to be virtually identical with its signified, and the photograph appears to be a 'natural sign' produced without the intervention of a code (Hall 1980, 132). Barthes initially argued that only at a level higher than the 'literal' level of denotation, could a code be identified - that of connotation (we will return to this issue when we discuss codes). By 1973 Barthes had shifted his ground on this issue. In analysing the realist literary text Barthes came to the conclusion that 'denotation is not the first meaning, but pretends to be so; under this illusion, it is ultimately no more than the last of the connotations (the one which seems both to establish and close the reading), the superior myth by which the text pretends to return to the nature of language, to language as nature' (Barthes 1974, 9). Connotation, in short, produces the illusion of denotation, the illusion of language as transparent and of the signifier and the signified as being identical. Thus denotation is just another connotation. From such a perspective denotation can be seen as no more of a 'natural' meaning than is connotation but rather as a process of naturalization. Such a process leads to the powerful illusion that denotation is a purely literal and universal meaning which is not at all ideological, and indeed that those connotations which seem most obvious to individual interpreters are just as 'natural'. According to an Althusserian reading, when we first learn denotations, we are also being positioned within ideology by learning dominant connotations at the same time (Silverman 1983, 30).
Consequently, whilst theorists may find it analytically useful to distinguish connotation from denotation, in practice such meanings cannot be neatly separated. Most semioticians argue that no sign is purely denotative - lacking connotation. Valentin Voloshinov insisted that no strict division can be made between denotation and connotation because 'referential meaning is moulded by evaluation... meaning is always permeated with value judgement' (Voloshinov 1973, 105). There can be no neutral, objective description which is free of an evaluative element. David Mick and Laura Politi note that choosing not to differentiate denotation and connotation is allied to regarding comprehension and interpretation as similarly inseparable (Mick & Politi 1989, 85).
For most semioticians both denotation and connotation involve the use of codes. Structural semioticians who emphasise the relative arbitrariness of signifiers and social semioticians who emphasize diversity of interpretation and the importance of cultural and historical contexts are hardly likely to accept the notion of a 'literal' meaning. Denotation simply involves a broader consensus. The denotational meaning of a sign would be broadly agreed upon by members of the same culture, whereas 'nobody is ever taken to task because their connotations are incorrect', so no inventory of the connotational meanings generated by any sign could ever be complete (Barnard 1996, 83). However, there is a danger here of stressing the 'individual subjectivity' of connotation: 'intersubjective' responses are shared to some degree by members of a culture; with any individual example only a limited range of connotations would make any sense. Connotations are not purely 'personal' meanings - they are determined by the codes to which the interpreter has access. Cultural codes provide a connotational framework since they are 'organized around key oppositions and equations', each term being 'aligned with a cluster of symbolic attributes' (Silverman 1983, 36). Certain connotations would be widely recognized within a culture. Most adults in Western cultures would know that a car can connote virility or freedom.
In the following extract from his essay 'Rhetoric of the Image', Roland Barthes demonstrates the subtlety and power of connotation in the context of advertising.
Here we have a Panzani advertisement: some packets of pasta, a tin, a sachet, some tomatoes, onions, peppers, a mushroom, all emerging from a half-open string bag, in yellows and greens on a red background. Let us try to 'skim off' the different messages it contains.
The image immediately yields a first message, whose substance is linguistic; its supports are the caption, which is marginal, and the labels, these being inserted into the natural disposition of the scene, 'en abyme'. The code from which this message has been taken is none other than that of the French language; the only knowledge required to decipher it is a knowledge of writing and of French. In fact, this message can itself be further broken down, for the sign Panzani gives not simply the name of the firm but also, by its assonance, a additional signified, that of 'Italianicity'. The linguistic message is therefore twofold (at least in this particular image): denotational and connotational. Since, however, we have here only a single typical sign, namely that of articulated (written) language, it will be counted as one message.
Putting aside the linguistic message, we are left with the pure image (even if the labels are part of it, anecdotally). This image straightaway provides a series of discontinuous signs. First (the order is unimportant as these signs are not linear), the idea that what we have in the scene represented is a return from the market. A signified which itself implies two euphoric values: that of the freshness of the products and that of the essentially domestic preparation for which they are destined. Its signifier is the half-open bag which lets the provisions spill out over the table, 'unpacked'. To read this first sign requires only a knowledge which is in some sort implanted as part of the habits of a very widespread culture where 'shopping around for oneself' is opposed to the hasty stocking up (preserves, refrigerators) of a more 'mechanical' civilization. A second sign is more or less equally evident; its signifier is the bringing together of the tomato, the pepper and the tricoloured hues (yellow, green, red) of the poster; its signified is Italy, or rather Italianicity. This sign stands in a relation of redundancy with the connoted sign of the linguistic message (the Italian assonance of the name Panzani) and the knowledge it draws upon is already more particular; it is a specifically 'French' knowledge (an Italian would barely perceive the connotation of the name, no more probably than he would the Italianicity of tomato and pepper), based on a familiarity with certain tourist stereotypes. Continuing to explore the image (which is not to say that it is not entirely clear at the first glance), there is no difficulty in discovering at least two other signs: in the first, the serried collection of different objects transmits the idea of a total culinary service, on the one hand as though Panzani furnished everything necessary for a carefully balanced dish and on the other as though the concentrate in the tin were equivalent to the natural produce surrounding it; in the other sign, the composition of the image, evoking the memory of innumerable alimentary paintings, sends us to an aesthetic signified: the 'nature morte' or, as it is better expressed in other languages, the 'still life'; the knowledge on which this sign depends is heavily cultural. (Barthes 1977, 33)
Connotation and denotation are often described in terms of levels of representation or levels of meaning. Roland Barthes adopted from Louis Hjelmslev the notion that there are different orders of signification (Barthes 1957; Hjelmslev 1961, 114ff).
The first order of signification is that of denotation: at this level there is a sign consisting of a signifier and a signified. Connotation is a second-order of signification which uses the denotative sign (signifier and signified) as its signifier and attaches to it an additional signified. In this framework connotation is a sign which derives from the signifier of a denotative sign (so denotation leads to a chain of connotations). This tends to suggest that denotation is an underlying and primary meaning - a notion which many other commentators have challenged. Barthes himself later gave priority to connotation, and in 1971 noted that it was no longer easy to separate the signifier from the signified, the ideological from the 'literal' (Barthes 1977, 166). In passing, we may note that this formulation underlines the point that 'what is a signifier or a signified depends entirely on the level at which the analysis operates: a signified on one level can become a signifier on another level' (Willemen 1994, 105). This is the mechanism by which signs may seem to signify one thing but are loaded with multiple meanings.
Changing the form of the signifier while keeping the same signified can generate different connotations. Changes of style or tone may involve different connotations, such as when using different typefaces for exactly the same text, or changing from sharp focus to soft focus when taking a photograph. The choice of words often involves connotations, as in references to 'strikes' vs. 'disputes', 'union demands' vs. 'management offers', and so on. Tropes such as metaphor generate connotations.
In conclusion we can say that connotation and denotation are not two separate things/signs. They are two aspects/ elements of a sign, and the connotative meanings of a word exist together with the denotative meanings.