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What is Semantics?

Updated on April 9, 2012

Semantics is the study of the relationship between words and the things or ideas to which they refer. Semantics involves such varied subjects as linguistics, philosophy, psychology, sociology, and mathematics. Often, semantics clarifies rather than solves problems of language. It may not be able to explain exactly what is meant by the word "beauty," but it shows how dictionary definitions are often inadequate and how words must be used carefully and precisely.

Perhaps the main problem in semantics is that words have no necessary connection with what they refer to. The meaning of a word depends on the general agreement of a culture, and in many cases there is only vague agreement. In addition, there are many words, like "appropriate", that have different meanings, depending on the context of the sentence.

The meaning of words also depends on the situation in which the words are read or spoken. Other important factors include the intention of the speaker, the state of mind of the listener, and the difference in background, experience, taste, and knowledge between speaker and listener. Such factors are especially important with relative words such as "small" and "near" and abstract words such as "beauty" and "goodness."

The study of the ways in which words affect human behavior is known as General Semantics. The founder of General Semantics was Alfred Korzybski (1879-1950). In his book Science and Sanity, Korzybski insisted that language was a map of reality and must never be mistaken for reality itself. Therefore, language must always be checked against the real world to ensure a truthful representation and prevent distortions, stereotypes, and cliches.

Since the early 20th century, semantics has become one of the most important branches of philosophy. Under the inspiration of the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and the school known as logical positivism, many modern philosophers have attempted to apply the precise and analytical methods of mathematics and physics to language. The Meaning of Meaning by C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards applies the careful verbal distinctions of modern philosophy to literary criticism.

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