A Short Introduction to Semantics
is the study of meaning in language. Although it can be conceived as concerned
with meaning in general, it is often confined to those aspects which are
relatively stable and context-free, in contrast to pragmatics, which is
concerned with meaning variation with context. Semantics is sometimes described
as concerned with the relation of linguistic forms to states of the world; more
sensibly, it may be seen as concerned with the relation of linguistic forms to
non-linguistic concepts and mental representations, as well as with
relationship, of meaning between linguistic forms, such as synonymy, antonymy
and hyponymy. Semantic theories have influenced approaches to describing word
meaning, and are thus particularly relevant to Lexicography and vocabulary
Semantics studies meanings. It is intimately connected with logic, the study of reasoning. To see whether we
have the correct meaning it is sometimes illuminating to check whether the purported meaning carries the correct logical consequences.
Linguistic Semantics has been defined as the study of how languages organize
and express meanings.
“Oddly,” says R.L. Trask, “some of the most important
work in semantics was being done from the late 19th century onwards by
philosophers rather than by linguists.”
Over the past 50 years, however, “approaches to semantics have
proliferated, and the subject is now one of the liveliest areas in
linguistics” (Language and Linguistics: The
Key Concepts, 2007).
The term semantics (from
the Greek for “sign”) was coined by French linguist Michel Bréal
(1832-1915), who is commonly regarded as a founder of modern semantics.
“The technical term for the study of meaning in language is semantics.
But as soon as this term is used, a word of warning is in order.
“Any scientific approach to semantics has to be clearly
distinguished from a pejorative sense of the term that has developed
in popular use, when people talk about the way that language can be manipulated
in order to mislead the public. A newspaper headline might read. ‘Tax increases
reduced to semantics’–referring to the way a government was trying to hide a
proposed increase behind some carefully chosen words. Or someone might say in
an argument, ‘That’s just semantics,’ implying that the point is purely a
verbal quibble, bearing no relationship to anything in the real world. This
kind of nuance is absent when we talk about semantics from the objective point
of linguistic research. The linguistic approach studies the properties of
meaning in a systematic and objective way, with reference to as wide a range of
utterances and languages as possible.”
(David Crystal, How Language Works.
“Based on the distinction between the
meanings of words and the meanings of sentences, we can recognize two main
divisions in the study of semantics: lexical
semantics and phrasal semantics. Lexical semantics is
the study of word meaning, whereas phrasal semantics is the study of the
principles which govern the construction of the meaning of phrases and of
sentence meaning out of compositional combinations of individual lexemes.
. . .
“The job of semantics is to study the basic, literal meanings of
words as considered principally as parts of a language system,
whereas pragmatics concentrates on the ways in which these basic meanings
are used in practice, including such topics as the ways in which different
expressions are assigned referents in different contexts, and
the differing (ironic, metaphorical, etc.) uses to which language is
(Nick Riemer, Introducing Semantics.
Cambridge University Press, 2010)
“As our original definition of semantics suggests, it is a very broad
field of inquiry, and we find scholars writing on very different topics and
using quite different methods, though sharing the general aim of describing
semantic knowledge. As a result, semantics is the most diverse field within
linguistics. In addition, semanticists have to have at least a nodding
acquaintance with other disciplines, like philosophy and psychology, which also
investigate the creation and transmission of meaning. Some of the questions
raised in these neighboring disciplines have important effects on the way linguists do
(John I. Saeed, Semantics, 2nd ed.
Linguistic Semantics and Grammar
“The study of meaning can be undertaken in various ways. Linguistic
semantics is an attempt to explicate the knowledge of
any speaker of a language which allows that speaker to communicate
facts, feelings, intentions and products of the imagination to other speakers
and to understand what they communicate to him or her. . ..
Early in life every human acquires the essentials of a
language–a vocabulary and the pronunciation, use and meaning of
each item in it. The speaker’s knowledge is largely implicit. The linguist
attempts to construct a grammar, an explicit description of the language,
the categories of the language and the rules by which they interact.
Semantics is one part of
grammar; phonology, syntax and morphology are other
(Charles W. Kreidler, Introducing English
Semantics. Routledge, 1998)
of the text and Analysis
The part of linguistics that deals mainly with the question
of what is meant by saying something is called semantics. Meaning is not just
some aspect of the form in which expressions are put by the language.
For example, Jetta drank at least two glasses of wine on
New Year’s Eve;
That concludes that Jetta
drank more than two glasses of wine; that follows not by virtue of the form the
words /two/ and /more/ have, but in virtue of what these words mean.
We introduce some bits of terminology. First, a statement
is a sentence which
can be said to be either true or false. In distinction to
a statement, a question is not
true or false; it is a request for information. Likewise,
a command is a request on
the part of the speaker that he wants something done. We
shall be concerned here
exclusively with statements.
Statements express propositions. We think of propositions
as existing independently
of the language. A sentence is a faithful translation of
if both express the same proposition (if speaking about
So, the Albanian sentence
Marku e ka vizituar
nenen e tije.
Is translated into English by
Marc has visited his
Just because they express the same preposition.
Logical Reasonings between sentences is a principal tool
of semantics in order to establish their meanings. For example:
Peter gets married.
Sue gets married.
Peter and Sue get
This seems to be true, until we change the wording
Peter gets married.
Sue gets married
Peter marries Sue.
This reasoning doesn’t go through, because if we suppose
that Peter marries Jetta, and Sue marries Justin, the first two sentences are
true, but the conclusion fails.
It is the task of semantics to explain this.
Another case is the following. Often, we use a seemingly
weaker sentence to
express a stronger one. For example, we say
Peter and Sue got married., when we
want to say that Peter married Sue.
There is nothing wrong in doing so, as it is true on that occasion, too.
But in fact, what we intended to convey was that Peter married Sue, and we expect our
interlocutor to understand that.
Semantics does not deal with the latter problem; it does
not investigate what we
actually intend to say by saying something. This is left to pragmatics.
Here is another case:
companies sent three representatives to the trade fare.
How many representatives
got sent? Three or fifteen?
Or the other case:
students visited two universities.
It might be the total ten
students visited in total two universities, of five students have visited one
university and five another one.
So, as seen above, one
sentence can tell different ideas.
There are two ways of
making clear what one wants to say.
The first one is to use a
sentence that is clearer on the point. For example:
companies send in total three representatives to the trade fare.
The other one is to use
formal language that has well-defined meanings and in which propositions are
The thesis of compositionality says, roughly, that what
is in the meaning
of a sentence is all in the meaning of its parts and the
were put together.
In order to understand the meaning of a complex
expression we should not need to
know how exactly it has been phrased, if the two
expressions are synonymous. In
fact, we have made compositionality a design criterion of
our representations. We
said that when two constituents are merged together, the
meaning of the complex
expression is arrived at by applying a function to the
meaning of its parts. Rather
than study this in its abstract form, we shall see how it
works in practice.
For example, suppose I order a book at the bookstore and
they say to me
If the book arrives next week, we shall
Then if the book indeed arrives and they do not notify me
they have issued a false
promise. On the other hand, if it does not arrive and
still they notify me (saying
that it hasn’t arrived yet), that is still alright. To
give another example: in mathematics
there are lots of theorems which say: ‘if the Riemann hypothesis is true
then…’. The point is that nobody really knows if Riemann’s
hypothesis is actually
true. But the theorems will remain true no matter which
way the hypothesis is eventually decided.
Basic Elements of Interpretation
The things that exist come in different
forms. There are objects, time
points, events, truth values, and so on. These properties
A truth value can never be a number regardless of the
that we use numbers (or letters) to stand in for them.
Language is supposed to be able to talk about everything
that exists. This is, of
course, impossible. However, language comes very close in
doing that. Such a
task creates its own challenges. We notice, namely, that
things we speak about
are of different kinds: there are physical objects,
people, places, times, properties,
events and so on. Languages reflect this categorization
of things in different ways.
To the extent that the classification of things is
relevant to language, it is going
to be reflected in the basic semantic types.
Different analyses of sentences give rise to different
between constituents. These in turn determine different
of sentences. Thus, one of the reasons why sentences can
mean different things is that
they can have different
“A perennial problem in semantics is
the delineation of its subject matter. The term meaning can
be used in a variety of ways, and only some of these correspond to the usual
understanding of the scope of linguistic or computational semantics. We shall
take the scope of semantics to be restricted to the literal interpretations
of sentences in a context, ignoring phenomena like irony, metaphor,
or conversational implicature.”
(Stephen G. Pulman,
“Basic Notions of Semantics.” SRI International, Cambridge, England)
“Semantics is the study of the meanings
of words and sentences….”
There is an important distinction in the study of noun
count nouns and mass nouns. An equally important
is between processes and accomplishments/achievements.
It is possible
to show that the division inside the class of nouns and
class of verbs is quite similar.
(Language and Linguistics: The Key Concepts, 2007).
(David Crystal, How Language Works. Overlook, 2006)
(Nick Riemer, Introducing Semantics. Cambridge University
(Stephen G. Pulman, “Basic Notions of
Semantics.” SRI International, Cambridge, England)
(John I. Saeed, Semantics, 2nd ed. Blackwell, 2003)
(Charles W. Kreidler, Introducing English Semantics.