Fig. 1. Modern Japanese version of the Semantic Differential. The Kanji characters in background stand for "God" and "Wind" respectively, with the compound reading "Kamikaze". (Adapted from Dimensions of Meaning. Visual Statistics Illustrated at VisualStatistics.net.)
semantic differential is a type of a rating scale designed to measure the connotative meaning of objects, events, and concepts. The connotations are used to derive the attitude towards the given object, event or concept.
Osgood's semantic differential was an application of his more general attempt to measure the semantics or meaning of words, particularly adjectives, and their referent concepts. The respondent is asked to choose where his or her position lies, on a scale between two bipolar adjectives (for example: "Adequate-Inadequate", "Good-Evil" or "Valuable-Worthless"). Semantic differentials can be used to measure opinions, attitudes and values on a psychometrically controlled scale.
Nominalists and realists
Theoretical underpinnings of Charles E. Osgood's semantic differential have roots in the medieval controversy between the nominalists and realists. Nominalists asserted that only real things are entities and that abstractions from these entities, called universals, are mere words. The realists held that universals have an independent objective existence either in a realm of their own or in the mind of God. Osgood’s theoretical work also bears affinity to linguistics and general semantics and relates to Korzybski's structural differential.
Use of adjectives
The development of this instrument provides an interesting insight into the broader area between linguistics and psychology. People have been describing each other since they developed the ability to speak. Most adjectives can also be used as personality descriptors. The occurrence of thousands of adjectives in English is an attestation of the subtleties in descriptions of persons and their behavior available to speakers of English. Roget's Thesaurus is an early attempt to classify most adjectives into categories and was used within this context to reduce the number of adjectives to manageable subsets, suitable for factor analysis.
Evaluation, potency, and activity
Osgood and his colleagues performed a factor analysis of large collections of semantic differential scales and found three recurring attitudes that people use to evaluate words and phrases: evaluation, potency, and activity. Evaluation loads highest on the adjective pair 'good-bad'. The 'strong-weak' adjective pair defines the potency factor. Adjective pair 'active-passive' defines the activity factor. These three dimensions of affective meaning were found to be cross-cultural universals in a study of dozens of cultures.
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