In semiology connotation is the idea that a linguistic or vocal sign contains more than mere descriptive value (called the denotative value). This idea isn’t only known to semiologists. Poets and fiction writers have known about the importance of connotation for centuries. And in the social sciences, the French historian Fernand Braudel wrote in 1963:
[The definition of] most expressions, far from being fixed for ever, vary from one author to another, and continually evolve before our eyes.¹
What many semiologists do stress, however, is the importance not only of the writer but also the reader in the creation of multiple meanings.
Along these lines, Jacques Derrida believes that signs contain an infinite number of possible connotations. So communication is a potentially endless chain of connotative signification, with connotations playing off one another in a discontinuous matrix of linguistically constructed meaning. One of Derrida’s interesting claims here is that denotation plays next to no role in the process. In other words, everything is connotation.
The discussion about the absolute essence of a thing vs. its communal meaning(s) is many layered and goes back at least to the Scholastics of the Middle Ages. And as far back as Aristotle, the distinction between literal and figurative meaning has been discussed. More recent trends are summarized here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Connotation_%28semiotics%29
¹ Fernand Braudel, A History of Civilizations, trans. Richard Mayne, Penguin, 1993 , p. 3.
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