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What Is the Triangle of Reference?

The Triangle of Reference is a model that illustrates the relationship between words, thoughts, and things. It shows how language symbolizes objects through a shared understanding. By connecting a word to an idea, which in turn relates to the actual object, it clarifies how we communicate about the world around us. How does this shape our daily conversations? Explore with us.
Emily Daw
Emily Daw

In linguistics, the triangle of reference is a model for explaining how words convey meaning. It is also sometimes called the Ogden-Richards triangle for meaning or the semiotic triangle. In layman's terms, the triangle of reference says that a word suggests an idea in the mind of the hearer. The idea connects to a real-world object.

The triangle of reference was first proposed by C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards in their 1923 book The Meaning of Meaning. This book was a pioneering work in the field of semiotics, which is the study of signs, including words, and the relationship between signs and their meanings. It is related to pragmatics, which deals with the relationship between sentences and their real-world meanings.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

According to Ogden and Richards, there are three parts to the meaning-making process: the symbol, the thought or reference, and the referent. The symbol is the word itself, such as the letters "c-h-a-i-r." When a person sees or hears the symbol "chair," he or she has a mental image or collection of logical ideas related to the idea of a chair: a piece of furniture usually with four legs designed to be sat on. This is the thought or reference. If the reference is adequate, the hearer is able to connect it to the referent — a chair that exists in the real world.

The triangle of reference, though it continues to be used as a model for semiotic relationships into the 21st century, has a few potential flaws that limit its applicability. Most notably, the triangle deals only with the relationship between word and meaning in the mind of a single person. It does not take into account any variances, for instance, in two different people's ideas relating to the word "chair."

Ogden and Richards, along with other theorists known as structuralists, often assumed a one-to-one relationship between symbols and referents which may not, in fact, actually exist. These difficulties, among others, formed the basis for later work in semiotics, such as that done by Jacques Derrida in the mid- to late-1900s. Derrida proposed a "post-structuralist" theory of semiotics, which denies the simple relationships of earlier semiotic theories.

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Discussion Comments


Imagine a triangle. Each of its sides are solid, representing direct connections, but the base of the triangle is faded, representing an indirect connection via the sides of the triangle. The left corner of the triangle does not connect to the right corner by the base of the triangle, but up from the left and back down to the right.

The left corner of the triangle is marked 'symbol,' or 'word,' etc. The top of the triangle is marked 'mental/psychological process of referencing,' and the right corner of the triangle is marked 'thing that is symbolised,' or 'referent.' 'Referent' is a term adopted to mean that which is being referred to.

The diagram shows that there is no direct connection between the symbol and the thing being symbolised by the base of the spine, but, rather, an indirect connection is made by the person using the symbol. They use the symbol, or word (left corner of triangle,) to refer to (top of triangle) what it is they are trying to communicate. (right corner.)

A simple example: the word dog. The word 'dog' is a word, not an animal. Therefore, the use of the word is only connected to what you might call reality by what someone is using the word to refer to. In a casual context, someone might be using the word 'dog' to refer to someone they don't like, in which case, the process of referencing is different than if they were referring to an animal. The word is not the thing.

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      Woman standing behind a stack of books