Reference (linguistics)

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Reference (from the Latin referre, to carry back) is an ambiguous expression in the philosophy of language and semantics (whereby the different meanings are closely related to one another):

  • Main meaning: the relationship of a linguistic expression (e.g. a sign ) to what is designated by the expression.
Instead, one also speaks of (object) reference or object relation,
  • In addition, reference also stands for the act (the "act", the act of speaking) of referring to something.
  • Sometimes (but not in linguistics) reference is also equated with what is referred to and is then synonymous with extension .

The individual referred to is called the referent (of an expression).

The relationship between the term reference and the ambiguous term denotation depends on the definition of the term denotation used in each case.

Reference means

The concept of reference means addresses the how of the specific reference. Linguistically, this is discussed under the term deixis (indication).

Reference objects

The reference object can be anything ("something"): sensually perceptible objects, ideas, numbers, etc. The reference object can also be linguistic, which is examined linguistically in the discourse deixis . For example, the term “reference object” in this sentence refers to the term “reference object” in the previous one, which in turn refers to the first word in this paragraph.

As an object relationship (in the broadest sense), the reference is thematized in three ways:

In a narrower sense, reference is only used for singular terms .

The reference for singular terms

The reference of singular terms ( proper names , labels ) are individual objects.


  • The place name "Hamburg" denotes the "City of Hamburg".
  • The designation "the smallest natural positive number greater than 0" denotes the '1'.

Singular terms can, but do not have to, refer to existing objects.


  • The proper name "Sherlock Holmes" does not designate a real, but only a fictional person.
  • The designation “the current Kaiser of Germany” does not designate anyone.

The reference for general terms (predicate (s))

According to the prevailing opinion, reference objects in general terms are the quantities of the objects covered by them, i. H. the set of objects to which a general term (predicator) applies. This set is sometimes referred to as an extension .

  • Example: The predictor "black" refers to the number of black objects (in the respective speech area).

In the case of two-digit predicative expressions (relational predicates), the general term does not refer to individual objects, but to ordered pairs of objects ( tuples ).

  • Example: The expression “(is) richer than” refers to the set of all ordered pairs <y, z> (here: people or similar) with the property that y is richer than z.

Generally speaking, an n -place predictive expression denotes a set of ordered n -tuples.

The reference in a statement

A propositional sentence (here: sentence) does not refer to objects (in the narrower sense) nor to n -tuples.

Whether and what a sentence refers to is controversial.

According to Gottlob Frege , a sentence relates to a truth value , i.e. H. on the true or on the false. In Frege's view, however, not all sentences denote a truth value. For example, the sentence “Odysseus is king of Ithaca” is, in his opinion, untruthful (i.e. neither true nor false), since Odysseus does not and did not exist. However, Frege does not speak of reference or reference, but of meaning. Note that his use of the word meaning is uncommon today.

According to Wittgenstein (in the Tractatus logico-philosophicus ) a sentence refers to a state of affairs which - if the sentence is true - is a fact.


  • Piroska Kocsány: Basic Linguistics Course: a workbook for beginners. Wilhelm Fink Verlag, Paderborn 2010, pp. 152–154.
  • Heinz Vater: Reference Linguistics . Wilhelm Fink Verlag, Paderborn 2005.

Individual evidence

  1. Jüssen: Philosophy of Language. In: Honnefelder / Krieger: Philosophische Propädeutik I. 1994, ISBN 3-8252-1822-8 , p. 183 (197); Bussmann: Lexicon of Linguistics. 3rd edition 2002 - reference : "the speaker's reference to the extra-linguistic with linguistic and non-linguistic means"
  2. z. B. Arno Anzenbacher: Introduction to Philosophy. 8th edition. Herder, Freiburg a. a. 2002, p. 186
  3. See Markus Willaschek: Reference. In: Peter Prechtl (ed.): Basic concepts of analytical philosophy. Metzler, Stuttgart 2004, ISBN 3-4761-0345-5
  4. So (almost literally) Martin Gessmann: Philosophical dictionary. 23rd edition. Kröner, Stuttgart 2009: Reference.