The triangle of meaning (or triangle of reference) illustrates the three components of how a word could mean something. The triangle consists of one or more referents, the reference, and a corresponding symbol.

The referent is a mental or physical object in the world that someone can talk about – in this case, a watch. The symbol might be the spoken or written word "watch."

Now, the English word "watch" does not stand for a single specific watch but watches in general. Just like the German translation, "Uhr," does not stand for any specific watch. How do we know that "watch" and "Uhr" have the same meaning?

Because "watch" and "Uhr" represent the same mental image, or concept – the watch.

Semiotics scholars call this mental image the "reference." A reference (mental image) refers to real world objects, the referents, while the word symbolizes the reference.

Question: Could references be symbolized by something else other than words?

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  • Ogden, Charles Kay, and Richards, Ivor Armstrong. The Meaning of Meaning: A Study of the Influence of Language upon Thought and of the Science of Symbolism. Vol. 29, Harcourt, Brace, 1925.