For example, to me, the verb "to turn" has a literal meaning along the lines of "to change physical orientation along some particular axis". You can also say "X turned [adj.]", "X turned up (as in to appear)", etc. but these feel non-literal to me.

How do native speakers of a language determine this distinction? My guess is literal meanings are usually directly describe physical movement or action, whereas the secondary meanings are more abstract or indirect. It also seems a little peculiar that such a distinction exists, after all, word meaning for native speakers is determined solely by usage. Why then do I feel that words have an innate literal meaning?

  • The easiest was to find the basic meaning of a word is consulting an etymological dictionary as etymononline.
    – rogermue
    Dec 31, 2015 at 6:51
  • @rogermue Don't do that, you'll just fall in to the etymological fallacy!
    – curiousdannii
    Jan 1, 2016 at 9:05

2 Answers 2


I don't think speakers do determine this, or need to. A word has (usually) a number of meanings, and we learn these in context (and sometimes a new meaning appears). It is only lexicographers and other analysts who have any need to identify which of the meanings are literal or basic and which are not.

  • Why then do I feel that words have an innate literal meaning? Or is it just me? Dec 29, 2015 at 11:10
  • No, it's not just you. People with an introspective turn of mind think about this, and I think to decide it in the ways you suggest. I was answering in relation to speakers in general.
    – Colin Fine
    Dec 29, 2015 at 15:59
  • 1
    I would think this has more to do with believing that 'literal' means 'physical'. Dec 29, 2015 at 17:55
  • Do people believe that, @JeremyNeedle? I would agree with Senjougahara Hitagi's original suggestion, for those who introspect.
    – Colin Fine
    Dec 29, 2015 at 20:00
  • 1
    To the extent that I can understand it, the question seems to be defining literal as physical, then asking why physical word senses feel literal. As far as I know, this is the common meaning of literal. This is not introspection. Dec 29, 2015 at 20:10

Your use of the word "innate" at the end of the question itself looks to me like an example. When speaking literally, "innate" means that is something that a person is born with, and not something that they learn. Linguists are pretty familiar with the term thanks to Chomsky's proposal that humans are genetically endowed, prior to experience, with specific knowledge of the nature of languages. I assume that you recognise that your use of "innate" in saying that "words have an innate literal meaning" would mean that humans already know words and meanings for (all) human languages at birth. Since you surely don't believe that, then you would be using the word "innate" with a different meaning. Some people occasionally use "innate" to mean simply "deep-seated; automatic". It is not hard to see how such figurative usage arises: if some cognitive faculty is actually innate, then it will probably be deep-seated and automatic.

At some point in the historical development of a language, a word such as "innate" which is frequently used figuratively in a particular way becomes polysemous. An example of that change is the word "cow", which historically refers to female Bos taurus, but is now applied to female camels, bison, alligators, komodo dragons, dolphins, eland, elephants among others. Another more recent example is the word "virus", which used to refer only to a specific tiny kind of pathogen, but a few years ago was figuratively extended to a kind of computer program. This extension has been so thorough that I'm betting that in 20 more years, almost nobody will know that the term used to refer just to biological viruses.

It is extremely difficult to know whether the meanings associated with a particular word are literal or figurative, because "meaning" is understood to be both a social construct and a fact of individual psychology. You learn social facts about meaning the same way you learn any other social facts -- you observe it as used by others, and you decide (somehow, the how being a big mystery) what the essential defining characteristic of that fact is.

I disagree with Colin Fine's apparent assessment of the importance of literal meaning as being useful to just a select few people. Any person who enters into a legally binding agreement, or is subject to any laws, will need to be able to discern literal meanings, if in that society laws and agreements are interpreted according to meaning. These days, that is pretty much everybody.

  • I don't fully agree with the last part, for two reasons. First, most people don't read or interpret contracts (even the ones they sign). It may well matter to them that somebody takes an analytical approach to the language, but that is why they employ lawyers. Secondly, I am dubious that lawyers are particularly interested in literal meanings (though they may say they are).Generally, lawyers are interested in any interpretation which advantages their clients, and it makes no difference whether that is a literal or a metaphorical interpretation.
    – Colin Fine
    Jan 1, 2016 at 12:02

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