An Introduction to Semantics

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The field of linguistics is concerned with the study of meaning in language. Linguistic semantics has been defined as the study of how languages organize and express meanings. The term semantics (from the Greek word for sign) was coined by French linguist Michel Bréal (1832-1915), who is commonly regarded as a founder of modern semantics.

"Oddly," says R.L. Trask in Key Concepts in Language and Linguistics, "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," (Trask 1999).

Linguistic Semantics and Grammar

Linguistic semantics looks not only at grammar and meaning but at language use and language acquisition as a whole. "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 parts," (Charles W. Kreidler, Introducing English Semantics. Routledge, 1998).

Semantics vs. Language Manipulation

As David Crystal explains in the following excerpt, there is a difference between semantics as linguistics describe it and semantics as the general public describes it. "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. Overlook, 2006).

Categories of Semantics

Nick Rimer, author of Introducing Semantics, goes into detail about the two categories of semantics. "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 put,"
(Nick Riemer, Introducing Semantics. Cambridge University Press, 2010).

The Scope of Semantics

Semantics is a broad topic with many layers and not all people that study it study these layers in the same way. "[S]emantics is the study of the meanings of words and sentences. ... 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 semantics," (John I. Saeed, Semantics, 2nd ed. Blackwell, 2003).

Unfortunately, when countless scholars attempt to describe what they're studying, this results in confusion that Stephen G. Pulman describes in more detail. "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," Survey of the State of the Art in Human Language Technology. Cambridge University Press, 1997).

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Nordquist, Richard. "An Introduction to Semantics." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). An Introduction to Semantics. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "An Introduction to Semantics." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).