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What is Semantics in Linguistics?

Updated on September 20, 2015
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Muhammad Rafiq is a freelance writer, blogger, and translator with a Master's degree in English literature from the University of Malakand.

What is Semantics?
What is Semantics? | Source

Definition of Semantics

Semantics is a branch of linguistics which deals with the meaning of words and sentences. It is concerned with the aspect of meanings in language. It generally deals with the description of word and sentence meaning. According to Webster Dictionary, “The historical and psychological study and the classification of changes in the signification of words or forms viewed as factors in linguistic development.” Now let’s discuss the question, “What is meaning?”:

Explanation of Semantics

Inspite of such a long debate over the question, “What is meaning?”, philosophers have not yet produced a satisfactory definition of meaning. One reason of this failure is that this question is unanswerable. This question leads to two other presuppositions, which are problematic. The first is that what we call meaning in English has some kind of existence or reality and the second presupposition is that everything referred to as meaning is similar, if not identical, in nature. The first of these presuppositions is called the presupposition of existence and the second is called the presupposition of homogeneity. Both these presuppositions are philosophically controversial.

We should avoid saying that sound and meaning are different things, as it encourages us to say that meaning, like sound, exists independently of language and is homogeneous in nature. It is traditional to think of meaning in this way. According to the most widely accepted theory of semantics, meanings are ideas or concepts which can be transferred from the mind of the speaker to that of the listener by embodying them in the form of language. But the identification of meaning with concept still does not help us to answer the question, “What is meaning?” unless the term concept is clearly defined. In some cases, we can say that the concept is a visual image of some kind. But we cannot say so in other cases, e.g., in case of words like “The”, “for” etc. Mental images of the words like “school” are mostly variable. The very word concept in this theory is also vague. Instead of asking ‘What is meaning?”, we should ask, “ What is the meaning of meaning?”. Semantics is the study of meaning and of what is covered by the term meaning. The word meaning like many other common words hasn’t a single, clearcut meaning or a set of meanings. Some linguists like John Lions broadens the field of semantics and some make it narrower. Certain uses of the term meaning are of more central concern in linguistic semantics than the other are, e.g., “What is the meaning of “life”? illustrates a more central use of meaning than “What is the meaning of life? John Lions refuses to define meaning as he treats it as nontechnical word of everyday English.

Kinds of Semantics

Formal Semantics

The term Formal Semantics is a kind of semantics, wherein linguistic meaning is understood by applying mathematical rules constructed for the purpose. According to Stephen Schiffer, “Formal semantics originally signified semantics for formal languages devised for the mathematical study of formal systems of logic, but the expression now has a meaning akin to ‘analytical philosophy’ and signifies the Montague-inspired approach to the semantical study of natural languages.” Mark Aronoff and Janie Rees-Miller in their book, The Handbook of Linguistics, define formal semantics as, “In linguistics, formal semantics seeks to understand linguistic meaning by constructing precise mathematical models of the principles that speakers use to define relations between expressions in a natural language and the world which supports meaningful discourse.”

Formal semantics accepts the principle that to know the meaning of a sentence to know its truth conditions. Formal semantics defines the meaning of lexemes in terms of their contribution to the truth conditions of sentences and provides procedures for the computation of the truth conditions of an arbitrary sentence on the basis of the meaning of constituent lexemes and grammatical structures. Thus, it is associated with Generative Grammar.

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Truth-Conditional Semantics

Truth Conditional Semantics is a kind of semantics wherein the meaning of a sentence is specified by applying certain condition. If the sentence falls within the conditions, then it is true, otherwise it would be false. Hence, we can say that the sentence, “He is ill.” would be true if he is really ill. Rick Nouwen has explained the Truth Conditional Semantics in the following words:

To know semantically what a sentence means is to be able to distinguish a situation in which the sentence is true from one in which the sentence is false.

Look at the following example:

She has got twenty dollars in her wallet.

To know exactly the meaning of this sentence, you would have to search out her wallet for the dollars. If you find the dollars over there, then the meaning conveyed by the sentence is true, otherwise it is false.

Lexical Semantics

Lexical semantics is a kind of semantics, which is concerned with the meaning and relationship of words. According to Timothy Baldwin, “Lexical semantics is the study of what individual lexical items mean, why they mean what they do, how we can represent all of this, and where the combined interpretation for an utterance comes from.” Every language contains a vocabulary of lexicon, which is complementary to the grammar because vocabulary not only lists the lexemes of the language, but also associates with every lexeme all the information that is required by the rules of the grammar. This grammatical information is of two kinds: Syntactic and Morphological. For example, the word, go in the dictionary will show the type of verb it belongs to the different forms this stem form of the word which are made of it.

All of the lexemes are not word lexemes. Many of them are phrasal lexemes e.g., put up with, putt off, beef up, etc. Phrasal lexemes tend to be either grammatically or semantically idiomatic or both. When a semantically idiomatic phrasal lexeme is put into correspondence with a non-idiomatic phrasal expression, it is said that the latter has a literal meaning in contrast to the former which has a metaphorical or figurative meaning.

Different Forms of Meaning in Semantics

One obvious distinction in different forms of meaning is between the meaning of words and the meaning of sentences. They are called lexical meaning and sentence meaning. Linguists have given a greater importance to lexical meaning instead of sentence meaning. But it is no longer so as the meaning of the sentence depends upon that of words. As the grammatical structure is also important, so we must also keep in view grammatical meaning, which is a further component of sentence meaning. As linguistics is primarily concerned with language system, so lexical meaning, sentence meaning and grammatical meaning fall within the scope of semantics.

Sentence and utterance are different things. The meaning of utterance includes, but it is not exhausted by the meaning of the sentence that is uttered. The rest of the meaning is contributed by various factors that are contextual. So, sentence meaning is different from utterance meaning. In another set of meaning, we have a descriptive meaning of a statement which is distinct from non-descriptive meaning of other kinds of speech acts. It relates to everything that falls within the scope of self-expression and can be subdivided in various ways. One kind of expressive meaning is emotive or affective meaning. Somewhat different from expressive meaning is social meaning, which has to do with the use of language to establish and maintain social roles and social relations, e.g., sentences conveying greetings, apologies, praises etc. Languages vary in degree in which social meaning can and must be conveyed in sentences of various kinds.

© 2014 Muhammad Rafiq

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