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Semantics, Pragmatics and Discourse Analysis as Relatated Fields of Study

Updated on January 15, 2017

Semantics, Pragmatics and Discourse Analysis as related fields of study


Semantics, Pragmatics and Discourse Analysis are related aspects of semiotic studies. They all aim at establishing meaning of statements communicated through language; this means that they are properties of our social relationship. The meaning of every statement is examined at different levels so that one statement may produce several messages to different hearers at different times in different situations. Linguists pick interest in how people use language and how meaning is communicated to achieve different results, and in the effort to study this linguistic phenomenon, they come up with these semiotic related terms: Semantics, Pragmatics and Discourse Analysis to describe the different levels of studying meanings. These terms semantics and pragmatics) denote related and complimentary fields of study, both concerning the transmission of meaning through language. Drawing the line between the two fields is difficult and controversial (Sneed: 2006). Discourse analysis equally falls in the same category of studying meaning.


Semantics springs out of the Greek word ‘Semanticos’ or ‘sema’ which means meaning. It is defined as the study of meaning in a communicative human language. Griffiths says “Semantics is the study of the “toolkit” for meaning: knowledge encoded in the vocabulary of the language and in its patterns for building more elaborate meanings, up to the level of sentence meanings” (Pg 1).

It is difficult to establish in a very clear term what ‘meaning’ as a word means. This is because one uses language to teach language. While one uses some words to explain the meaning of another words, there may be need to also give the meanings of the words used in the definitions. For example, Biology is the study of living things and their environment. There may be a need to go on defining living, environment, study and others.

Object language and metalanguage

These are concepts in semantics that are employed to solve the problem of meaning. Object language is the language that is being studied. Meta language is the language used in the study as language of instruction. For instance Hausa can be used to teach English, in which case Hausa is the meta language while English is the object language.

Types and tokens

Semantics examines the concept of types and tokens introduced by C. S. Peirce. The relationship between the two is that of instantiation where it can be said that tokens instantiate their types.

For instance

  1. There are nine letters in the word reference.
  2. There are five (different) letters in the word reference.

Sentence a. refers to tokens, and sentence b. refers to types. The two sentences are true. Tokens are unique physical entities located at a particular place in space or time. Tokens of the same types are identified by their sheared physical entities.

Semantics can be observed in both sign and sound language. That is to say that language analysis should also include the language of the deaf.

If the expression “He is awake” is used, the hearer should understand what ‘he’ means (a male entity) and who the he’ is. In this case, knowing that the reference is a male entity is of semantic knowledge, and working out who the ‘he’ is, is from pragmatic competence. Semantic knowledge and pragmatic competence are required by hearers to understand utterances they hear in a discourse.

Presupposition as a property of Semantics

To propose something means to assume it. As below, except she is married, she won’t have a dead husband. A implies B


A. Her husband is dead

B. She is married

Semantics, as the study of meaning of expressions through language is concerned with how people respond to statements made by other people around them, or with whom they engage in communication. In discoursing semantics as a theory of language, we may try to answer the question, “Why has this person reacted this way after the other said this. A statement could mean different things to two different people; what is responsible for that? Why doesn’t every person respond equality to a statement made to them? Such questions are what semanticists are out to answer. However, semantics tend to restrict meaning within the content of expression.

“I saw two boys sitting under the mango tree.”

Whatever the situation may be, the above statement is expected to be perceived equally by every hearer based on the collection of lexical items in the sentence. The imagery should be the same and whatever reaction the speaker expects from the hearer should not be changed if the two share the same linguistic competence – if they speak the same language and understand the dictionary meaning of every word they use.

“I saw my mother just now”

In the above statement, why would anyone expect that the person been referred to is a woman? This means that semantics analyzers must involve other aspects of language use like phonology and syntax. There must be sheared knowledge on this two between speakers which also mean that in a way, they speak the same language, and speaking the same language would mean having the same linguistic repertoire. A person who understands Hausa but not Yoruba will not understand words said to him in Yoruba, but he will understand those said in Hausa and will respond accordingly. This means that in discussing semantics, we have to include the place of phonology and syntax. Phonology is the study of the sounds of a language and how the sounds combine to form a meaning word. Syntax involves the study of how words are used together to form sentences used in communication. With the speakers understanding of the definition of the words he uses, he puts the words together guided by grammatical rules of the language.


We may say that understanding the meaning of a proposition begins at the semantic level, where semantic analysis fails; Pragmatics and Discuss Analysis come in. This is because Pragmatics and discuss analysis fetch meaning below the surface. Pragmatics is concerned with meaning within context of use which can be user or situation related. For instance if a person says, “I will give you a job.” The hearer will examine the truth of the statement by finding out if the speaker is capable of carrying out he has said.

Semantics is the Study of the “toolkit” for meaning: knowledge encoded in the vocabulary of the language and in its patterns for building more elaborate meanings, up to the level of sentence meanings. Pragmatics is concerned with the use of these tools in meaningful communication. Pragmatics is about the interaction of semantic knowledge with our knowledge of the world, taking into account contexts of use.

“You are not crying today”

Semantically, we may stop at the person is simply not crying today, but other questions could come out of that when pragmatically we can infer that the person has cried on other days. And that question could be why has the person cried on other days and would not cry today. What has changed about the person or the activity or the environment?

“Henry murdered his bank manager”

This statement entails that Henri’s bank manager is dead.

Henry has a record of murder.

Henry is a dangerous person and we probably should beware of him.

In semantics, we have to consider a speaker’s semantic knowledge which is not an easy task however we can start by stating that the individual would know the definition of the word-definitions theory.

The meaning of the word must exist in the minds of the speaker and hearer of the language. In the same way there is need also to know what particular words mean in context.

For instance, ‘it’s getting late’ will be different if said to a friend at a party. It would probably meaning, ‘let’s leave’. In any way we talk about pragmatics and discuss analysis, we are talking about semantics.

Among the things pragmatics study addresses are:

  • Speech act theory
  • Felicity conditions
  • Conversational implicature
  • The cooperative principle
  • Conversational maxims
  • Relevance
  • Politeness
  • Phatic tokens
  • Deixis


This is an aspect of linguistic study proposed by J.L. Austin (1911-1960), which is examined in pragmatics study. However, the manner by which it is realized is of importance in Semantic and Discourse Analysis. This is because the three areas of study have interwoven relationship and task as far as meaning in conversation is concerned.

Speech act suggests that the act of speech in itself is an act performed by interlocutors, and it could influence other actions. When there is an utterance, what result it is likely to be achieved.

Saying “I now pronounce you man and wife” can make marriage to take place if the situation meets the felicity conditions required.

Speech act theory is in three parts: locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary acts.

Locutionary acts refer to the action of speaking.

Illocutionary acts are the actions which are performed by the utterance, such as betting, advising, welcoming and warning.

Perlocutionary acts refer to the effects of the utterance on the listener. That is if an utterance is made, what follows from the person to which the utterance is addressed.

Pragmatics is a special area concerned with the study of the special process of getting meanings and the role it plays in the study of context.

If in an investigation, explicit reference is made to the users of a language, then we assign it to either the field of pragmatics or discourse analysis. If we abstract from the user of the language and analyze only the expression and their designata, we are in the field of semantics.

Semantics, pragmatics and discourse analysis have semiotic relationship. Another way of saying it is distinguishing between sentence and speaker meaning. That is, words and sentences have a meaning independently of any particular use. So, semantics is concerned with sentence meaning, pragmatics is concerned with speaker meaning and discourse analysis is concerned with discourse.


The term Discuss Analysis first came into general use in 1952, following publication activities in the media environment. There was the need for establishing coherence in discourse and explicitness in sentence transformation to put texts in canonical forms. Works need to be related in terms of their point of discourse are placed together in columns.

Discourse is made up of sentences used by interlocutors, and through linguistic analysis we have a better understanding of how discussants get along. Novels, histories, arguments and other type of discourse are activities with their own character and convectional structures. Discussants draw on discourse knowledge to construct interpretations. They always share knowledge of previous activities surrounding their subject of discussion if the discourse must be a success. Discuss analysis is also a linguistic phenomenon that deals with meaning analysis but from above phonological and syntax level. Meaning is analyzed based on background knowledge of the subject under discussion share between the interlocutors. Now, a third party can only analyze the discussion.

Modes of discourse include narrative, descriptive, report, information and argument among others. They provide data for the discourse analyst.

There are linguistic correlates to the features of discourse. Knowledge of ones language includes knowledge of forms and knowledge. It is a human activity with language at the centre. It is concerned with writing, conversation, communicative event and turns at talk.

Like pragmatics, it studies language beyond the sentence boundary. It aims at revealing socio-psychological characteristics of a person rather than text structure. Its study covers, sounds, gestures, syntax, style, rhetoric meanings, speech acts, turns and other aspects of interaction.

It may contain features such as non-standard forms, hesitations, slips, repetitions etc. frame analysis is a type of discourse analysis that asks what activities speakers are engaged in when they make an utterance.


Turn-taking in Discourse Analysis refers to a conservational situation where one person speaks, and another listens. It notes that speakers have a way of knowing when ones turn in a discussion is over and it’s someone else’s turn to speak. This exchange of turns is indicated by certain actions or linguistic means like pausing, intonation and phrasing. Through eye contact, nodding of the head, feedback such as ‘hmm’, yeah etc. the speaker can tell whether or not a listener is paying attention, and the type of listener response a speaker gets can affect how the person speaks or the person’s level of willingness to continue.

Politeness principle

This is aspect of discuss analysis accounts for the effect of the face threatening act. ‘Face’ and ‘face-threatening acts’ are an aspect of discourse analysis that captures consequential expressions in discourse aided by the sociolinguistic variables which interact in an ongoing discussion.

Politeness is the expression of the speaker’s intention to mitigate face threats carried by certain face threatening acts toward another person. To save face has to do with showing politeness.

Positive face is the consistent want of an individual to put up an acceptable personality. It seeks to minimize the threat to the hearer’s positive face. This act is threatened when the speaker does not consider the feelings and mood of his hearer. The use of insults and impolite rebuke can threaten positive face. They are used to make the hearer feel comfortable.

Negative face refers to the speaker’s total freedom to act, not necessarily considering the reaction that may follow from the hearer. Threat to the hearer’s positive face is not minimized.

Bald on-record strategy does not try to minimize the threat to the hearer’s face,

Discourse markers

These are the short words use like oh, well, but, and, ‘and’ that break our speech into parts and show how the parts relate.

‘Oh’ would prepare the hearer for a surprise.

‘But’ would prepare the hearer for a contrary conclusion to the earlier part of a discourse. These words are used not necessarily according to their dictionary meanings.

Genres of discourse

Genres of discourse include political discourse, media discourse, science, business, education etc.

Political discourse analysis is a field of discourse analysis which focuses on discourse in political forums such as debates, speeches, and hearings. It involves exchange of reasoned views that may aim at resolving handling societal problems.

Media discourse is carried out in media platforms. It could be through the print or electronic means. It includes interaction between media practitioners and the audience they address. It could also be an aired interaction between two or more people provided for audience hearing and viewing participation.

Discourse makers

These are the short words like oh, well, but, and, ‘and’ that break our speech into parts and show how the parts relate.

‘Oh’ would prepare the hearer for a surprise, ‘but’ would prepare the hearer for a contrary conclusion to the earlier part of a discourse. This words are insect not necessary according to their dictionary meanings.

Discuss analysis helps to cement cross-cultural understanding by analyzing discuss as used in different cultural settings. For instance, complimenting in India is a way of saying that one wants to be given the item. In Nigeria, it is not so. A Nigerian may say to an Indian woman, “I love your hat, you shoes are beautiful, and your wrist watch too.” The Indian may wonder why the Nigerian would want her to give all that out; the Nigerian must be very covetous. The knowledge of discourse analysis will enable resolve of this possible misinterpretation.


Establishing meaning is a complex process. The study of meaning is multifaceted in the sense that utterances can be given several meanings depending on various situations affecting their use. This gives rise to the need to have different approaches to the study of meaning resulting to the introduction of Semantics, Pragmatics and Discourse Analysis. Obviously, the three areas of linguistic study have a lot in common even as they retain their areas of focus that distinguishes them. It can be said that a successful conclusion on the issue of meaning cannot be reach without bringing the three into play.

Works Cited

Griffiths, Patrick. An Introduction to English Semantics and Pragmatics: Edinburgh University Press. Edinburgh. 2006

Mey, Jacob L. Pragmatics: An introduction. Second Edition . Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2001.

Saeed, John I. Semantics: second edition. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2003.

Smith. CarlotaMode of Discourse, the Local Structure of Texts. Cambridge University press: Cambridge. 2003.

DISCOURSE & SOCIETY. SAGE. London. Newbury Park and New Delhi, vol. 4(2): 249-283. 1993.

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