sememe (word meanings)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Two morphemes which have the same morph but different sememes are called homonyms. (Getty Images)


In English grammar, morphology, and semiotics, a sememe is a unit of meaning conveyed by a morpheme (i.e., a word or word element). As shown below, not all linguists interpret the concept of sememe in just the same way.

The term sememe was coined by Swedish linguist Adolf Noreen in Vårt Språk (Our Language), his unfinished grammar of the Swedish language (1904-1924). John McKay notes that Noreen described a sememe as "'a definite idea-content expressed in some linguistic form,' e.g., triangle and three-sided straight-lined figure are the same sememe" (Guide to Germanic Reference Grammars, 1984).

The term was introduced into American linguistics in 1926 by Leonard Bloomfield.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:


Examples and Observations:

  • "As a rough approximation, one may think of a sememe as an element of meaning.

    "[W]e can say that a lexeme may be connected to more than one sememe; the lexeme table is an example. This relationship is often referred to by the term polysemy, which means 'multiple meaning.'"
    (Sydney Lamb, "Lexicology and Semantics." Language and Reality: Selected Writings of Sydney Lamb, ed. by Jonathan J. Webster. Continuum, 2004)

  • Semes and Sememes
    - "[T]he basic or minimal unit of meaning, not further subdividable, is the seme, and . . . two or more semes existing together in a more complex unit of meaning comprise a sememe."
    (Louise Schleiner, Cultural Semiotics, Spenser, and the Captive Woman. Associated University Presses, 1995)

     - "A sememe is the totality of semes that are actualized by a term within a given context. In [William] Blake's poetry the following sememe could be attached to the term 'city': industrial, black, crowded, poverty, pain, evil, filth, noise."
    (Bronwen Martin and Felizitas Ringham, Key Terms in Semiotics. Continuum, 2006)

  • Bloomfield on Sememes
    - "According to [Leonard] Bloomfield (1933: 161 f.), a morpheme was composed of phonemes and had a meaning, the sememe. The sememe was a constant and definite unit of meaning which differed from all other meanings, including all other sememes. Thus, in Bloomfield's view, the identification of a morpheme was based on the identification of a sequence of phonemes which could be assigned a meaning that was constant and different from all other meanings."
    (Gisa Rauh, Syntactic Categories: Their Identification and Description in Linguistic Theories. Oxford University Press, 2010)

    - "In customary stratificationalist parlance . . ., one refers to the sememe as the realizate of a lexeme, or that piece of fragment of a network of man's cognitive knowledge that the given lexeme happens to realize. For technical and working purposes such a definition of the sememe is quite satisfactory and one need take no further issue with it. The evolution of the concept is fairly straight as well: in [Leonard] Bloomfield's Language (1933) the term sememe refers to the meaning of a morpheme. Bloomfield offered no clear distinction between morpheme and lexeme, however, and this lack of clarification . . . meant foregoing the benefit of a powerful generalization. . . .

    "The reason for this neglect of a most useful principle in linguistics arises from the fact that it is difficult to explain to linguists of other persuasions, to students, etc., just what it is that the stratificationalist means by the term sememe."
    (Adam Makkai, "How Does a Sememe Mean?" Essays in Honor of Charles F. Hockett, ed. by Frederick Browning Agard. Brill, 1983)

  • The Meaning of a Simple Word
    "What laity calls a 'simple word' is probably a monomorphemic lexeme identifiable rather obviously with a major part of speech, as one is taught in traditional pedagogic grammars. What laity calls 'the meaning of a simple word' is the semantically always-complex sememe that stands behind or 'sponsors' a given lexeme. If such a lexeme is a common one—e.g., the meaning of father, mother, milk or sun, native speakers are not consciously aware of the definitional meaning of such a form, but they can, nevertheless, immediately 'translate' such a form into another language they know, say German, and come up with Vater, Mutter, Milch or Sonne. If the word needed to express a fairly clear notion does not come to mind or is actually unknown, laity says, 'how shall I put it' (the person has the notion but cannot find the word for it)."
    (Adam Makkai, "Luminous Loci in Lex-Eco-Memory: Toward a Pragmo-Ecological Resolution of the Metaphysical Debate Concerning the Reality or Fictitiousness of Words." Functional Approaches to Language, Culture and Cognition, ed. by David G. Lockwood. John Benjamins, 2000)
  • Sememes and Lexical Units
    "[T]he introduction of the concept lexical unit (although within the restricted technical language of linguistics) is itself an illustration of the concept-forming power of the word. Many linguists . . . make a clear distinction between the seme (or semantic feature) and the sememe, defined as a complex or configuration of semes, which corresponds to a single sense of a lexeme. Sometimes the complete meaning of a lexeme is called a semanteme. However, up to [D. Alan] Cruse (1986) a precise term was missing in lexicology and lexical semantics for the combination of a specific form with a single sense, i.e. a full linguistic sign in Saussure's sense. . . . Obviously, the introduction of the notion lexical unit has serious consequences for the distinction between homonymy and polysemy. It must be recognized, however, that paradigmatic as well as syntagmatic relations between words are a matter of lexical units, not lexemes."
    (Leonhard Lipka, English Lexicology: Lexical Structure, Word Semantics and Word-Formation. Gunter Narr Verlag, 2002)