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What is semantics?
Semantics is the study of meaning. It is a wide subject within the general study of language. An understanding of semantics is essential to the study of language acquisition (how language users acquire a sense of meaning, as speakers and writers, listeners and readers) and of language change (how meanings alter over time). It is important for understanding language in social contexts, as these are likely to affect meaning, and for understanding varieties of English and effects of style. It is thus one of the most fundamental concepts in linguistics. The study of semantics includes the study of how meaning is constructed, interpreted, clarified, obscured, illustrated, simplified negotiated, contradicted and paraphrased.
Some important areas of semantic theory or related subjects include these:
* Symbol and referent
* Conceptions of meaning
* Words and lexemes
* Denotation, connotation, implication
* Metaphor, simile and symbol
* Semantic fields
* Synonym, antonym and hyponym
* Collocation, fixed expression and idiom
* Semantic change and etymology
* Homonymy, homophones and homographs
* Lexicology and lexicography
* Thesauruses, libraries and Web portals
You will find explanations below of how each of these relates to the theoretical study of semantics.
Symbol and referent
These terms may clarify the subject. A symbol is something which we use to represent another thing - it might be a picture, a letter, a spoken or written word - anything we use conventionally for the purpose. The thing that the symbol identifies is the referent. This may sometimes be an object in the physical world (the word Rover is the symbol; a real dog is the referent). But it may be something which is not at all, or not obviously, present - like freedom, unicorns or Hamlet.
Conceptions of meaning
Words → things: This view is found in the Cratylus of Plato (427-347 BC). Words “name” or “refer to” things. It works well for proper nouns like London, Everton FC and Ford Fiesta. It is less clear when applied to abstractions, to verbs and to adjectives - indeed wherever there is no immediately existing referent (thing) in the physical world, to correspond to the symbol (word).
Words → concepts → things: This theory was classically expressed by C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards, in The Meaning of Meaning (1923). It states that there is no direct connection of symbol and referent, but an indirect connection in our minds. For each word there is a related concept.
The difficulty is in explaining what this concept is, and how it can exist apart from the word. In Nineteen Eighty-Four George Orwell imagines a society whose rulers remove disapproved thoughts by removing (from print and broadcasting) the corresponding words. However there are many real-world examples of concepts which came before the words which described or named them (hovercraft, Internet) or where the symbols have changed, but not the concepts they refer to (radio for wireless, Hoover for vacuum cleaner). This suggests that the concept is independent of particular language symbols.
Stimuli → words → responses: Leonard Bloomfield outlines this theory in Language (1933). A stimulus (S) leads someone to a response (r), which is a speech act. To the hearer the speech act is also a stimulus (s), which leads to a response (R), which may be an action or understanding.
S → r.................s → R
Jill is hungry, sees an apple (S) and asks Jack to bring it her (r). This new language stimulus, Jack's hearing her (s) leads to his action (R) of bringing her the apple. Bloomfield's behaviourist model leads to obvious problems - Jack doesn't bring Jill the apple because of a quarrel years before, or he brings several apples and a glass of beer.
Words and lexemes
As a lexical unit may contain more than one word, David Crystal has coined the term lexeme. This is usually a single word, but may be a phrase in which the meaning belongs to the whole rather than its parts, as in verb phrases tune in, turn on, drop out or noun phrase (a) cock up.
This is the core or central meaning of a word or lexeme, as far as it can be described in a dictionary. It is therefore sometimes known as the cognitive or referential meaning. It is possible to think of lexical items that have a more or less fixed denotation (sun, denoting the nearest star, perhaps) but this is rare. Most are subject to change over time. The denotation of silly is not today what it was in the 16th century, or even the 18th, when Coleridge referred to the silly buckets on the deck. Denotation is thus related to connotation, which leads to semantic change.
Theories of denotation and connotation are themselves subject to problems of definition. Connotation is connected with psychology and culture, as it means the personal or emotional associations aroused by words. When these associations are widespread and become established by common usage, a new denotation is recorded in dictionaries. A possible example of such change would be vicious. Originally derived from vice, it meant “extremely wicked”. In modern British usage it is commonly used to mean “fierce”, as in the brown rat is a vicious animal.
This is meaning which a speaker or writer intends but does not communicate directly. Where a listener is able to deduce or infer the intended meaning from what has been uttered, this is known as (conversational) implicature. David Crystal gives this example:
Utterance: “A bus!” → Implicature (implicit meaning): “We must run.”
According to Professor Crystal, pragmatics is not a coherent field of study. It refers to the study of those factors which govern our choices of language - such as our social awareness, our culture and our sense of etiquette. How do we know how to address different people like the queen? How do we know how to express gratitude for a gift or hospitality?
Pragmatics can be illustrated by jokes or irony which rely on the contrast between expected and subsequently revealed meaning. Consider this example from a 1999 episode of Barry Levinson's TV police drama, Homicide: Life on the Streets. (The TV audience is assumed to know police procedure for arresting suspects.) An arresting officer says to a suspect (whose hands are raised, so he is not resisting arrest): “You have the right to remain silent”. Instead of continuing with the reading of rights, the officer shoots the suspect. The audience enjoys the wordplay and the dramatic revelation of the officer's real meaning, because pragmatics tells us what You have the right to remain silent normally leads to - more words and no bullets.
Ambiguity occurs when a language element has more than one meaning. If the ambiguity is in a single word it is lexical ambiguity. If in a sentence or clause, it is grammatical or structural ambiguity.
We can illustrate lexical ambiguity with an example from Sue Townsend's Secret Diary of Adrian Mole. Adrian displays a notice in school, advertising a gay society. When a teacher rebukes him, Adrian asks what is wrong with a club for people who want to be jolly or happy.
Structural ambiguity can often be seen in punning headlines, like the wartime example CHURCHILL FLIES BACK TO FRONT. The late polar explorer, Dr. Vivian Fuchs, was the subject of a similar headline: DR. FUCHS OFF TO ANTARCTIC. In this case, the structural ambiguity is not present to a reader who knows standard spelling, but might confuse a hearer, if the headline is spoken aloud. The absence of linking grammatical words (articles, conjunctions, prepositions) in headlines makes such ambiguity likely.
Consider this example (from The Guardian's sports supplement, Saturday November 20, 1999): Christie back under ban threat. Is back a noun (anatomy or position in rugby) or adverb? Is ban a verb, noun or attributive adjective? Is threat verb or noun? The reader's prior knowledge gives the answer. Christie is the UK athlete, Linford Christie, who has been threatened with a ban previously. So back is short for is back and ban threat is a noun phrase, leading to the structural meaning: (Linford) Christie (is) back (=again) under (=subject to) (the) threat (of a) ban.
A real-life forensic example comes from a cause célebre of the 1960s. Derek Bentley was hanged for murder after his accomplice, Christopher Craig (too young to hang) shot a policeman. Bentley allegedly shouted to Craig: “Let him have it”. Did this mean (as the prosecution claimed and the jury believed) “shoot him” (the victim) or (as the defence argued) “give it [= the gun] to him [= the policeman]”.
Another example that combines lexical and structural ambiguity is in a joke. Two men are looking at televisions in a shop-window. One says: “That's the one I'd get!” Around the corner comes a Cyclops, who thumps him. The lexical ambiguity works best in speech - if we read it we must “hear” the speech to get the point. If you don't understand the joke, tell it to some people who may see the point. If you still are puzzled, you may lack awareness of the denotation of Cyclops. They have only one eye. Get (like git) is an insult in some regional varieties of spoken English (especially in north-west England).
Metaphor, simile and symbol
Metaphors are well known as a stylistic feature of literature, but in fact are found in almost all language use, other than simple explanations of physical events in the material world. All abstract vocabulary is metaphorical, but in most cases the original language hides the metaphor from us. Depends means “hanging from” (in Latin), pornography means “writing of prostitutes” (in Greek) and even the hippopotamus has a metaphor in its name, which is Greek for “river horse”. A metaphor compares things, but does not show this with forms such as as, like, or more [+qualifier] than. These appear in similes: fat as a pig, like two peas in a pod.
Everyday speech is marked by frequent use of metaphor. Consider the humble preposition on. Its primary meaning can be found in such phrases as on the roof, on the toilet, on top. But what relationship does it express in such phrases as on the fiddle, on call, on demand, on the phone, on the game, on telly, on fire, on heat, on purpose? Why not in? Launch denotes the naming of a ship and its entering service, but what does it mean to launch an attack, launch a new product, launch a new share-issue or even launch oneself at the ball in the penalty area?
Personal computing abounds in metaphor, to suggest a semantic relationship with the real world - thus a user interface has a desktop, wallpaper and Windows, while a suite of useful programs is called Office. Bundles of data are files. Once they went in directories but now are grouped in folders. The Windows interface is an environment. The ideas of waste-disposal and environmental responsibility are both suggested by the recycle bin - the current metaphor for the program which organizes files after the user has deleted them temporarily.
A metaphor established by usage and convention becomes a symbol. Thus crown suggests the power of the state, press = the print news media and chair = the control (or controller) of a meeting.
In studying the lexicon of English (or any language) we may group together lexemes which inter-relate, in the sense that we need them to define or describe each other. For example we can see how such lexemes as cat, feline, moggy, puss, kitten, tom, queen and miaow occupy the same semantic field. We can also see that some lexemes will occupy many fields: noise will appear in semantic fields for acoustics, pain or discomfort and electronics (noise = “interference”). Although such fields are not clear-cut and coherent, they are akin to the kind of groupings children make for themselves in learning a language. An entertaining way to see how we organize the lexicon for ourselves is to play word-association games.
Synonym, antonym and hyponym
Synonym and antonym are forms of Greek nouns which mean, respectively, “same name” and “opposed (or different) name”. We may find synonyms which have an identical reference meaning, but since they have differing connotations, they can never be truly synonymous. This is particularly the case when words acquire strong connotations of approval (amelioration) or disapproval (pejoration). We can see this by comparing terrorist with freedom fighter or agnostic (Greek) with ignoramus (Latin). Both of the latter terms express the meaning of a person who does not know (something). A pair which remains more truly synonymous (but might alter) would be sympathy (Greek) and compassion (Latin). Both mean “with [= having or showing] feeling”, as in the English equivalent, fellow feeling.
Some speakers will not be aware of synonyms, so cannot make a choice. But those with a wide lexicon will often choose between two, or among many, possible synonyms. This is an area of interest to semanticists. What are the differences of meaning in toilet, lavatory, WC, closet, privy, bog, dunny and so on?
Intelligent reflection on the lexicon will show that most words do not have antonyms. When Baldric, in BBC TV's Blackadder, attempts to write a dictionary he defines cat as “not a dog” - but the two are not antonyms. A cat is not a fish, banana, rainbow or planet, either - it is not anything, but a cat! We can contrast simple pairs like fat/thin but realize that both are relative to an assumed norm. Such lexeme pairs (for example: big/little, clever/stupid, brave/cowardly, hot/cold and beautiful/ugly) are gradable antonyms . True and false may show a clearer contrast. Clear either/or conditions are expressed by complementary antonyms: open/closed, dead/alive, on/off. Another kind (not really opposites at all) are pairs which go together, and represent two sides of a relation: these are converses or relational antonyms. Examples would be husband/wife, borrow/lend, murderer/victim, plaintiff/defendant.
Hyponymy is an inclusive relationship where some lexemes are co-hyponyms of another that includes them. As cutlery includes knife, fork, spoon (but not teacup) these are co-hyponyms of the parent or superordinating term. This traditional term denotes a grouping similar to a semantic field. So cod, guppy, salmon and trout are hyponyms for fish, while fleet has the hyponyms battleship, aircraft carrier, cruiser, destroyer and frigate.
David Crystal points out (Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language; page 105) that this is a linguistic, not a real-world, relationship - so it varies from one language to another. In English potato is a hyponym of vegetable but in German the lexeme Gemüse does not include Kartoffel (=potato).
Collocation, fixed expression and idiom
Some words are most commonly found paired with other words, to create a semantic unit or lexeme. Thus false is often found together with passport, teeth or promise. These pairs are known as collocations. They are very helpful in establishing the meanings of the words in the pair. Porn is likely to be followed by film, mag, star or video. It may be collocated with actor, director or merchant but is less likely to be followed by customer, operative or minister. After estate you expect agent. How often have you seen whole new (whole new ball-game) as a collocation (here whole is redundant)? Think of collocations including these words: American, British, coffee, dirty, first, mad, millennium, native, Ninja, prime, police, rotten, speed, surf.
When words become grouped in almost predictable ways these are fixed expressions. Examples include jewel in the crown, desirable residence, criminal mastermind, world of work, address the issues, I put it to you.
Sometimes the group is so well rooted in the language that the meanings of the component words are ignored, or metaphorical meanings (in dead metaphors) are never visualised. Such a group has a meaning that is not to be found in analysis of its parts, and is an idiom. Examples include: keep your nose clean, stick your nose/oar in, beneath your station, bed of roses, load of crap, not my cup of tea, a piece of cake, get on your high horse, off your own bat (frequent substitution of back shows the speaker is unaware of the original meaning) or skin of your teeth, get stuffed (what did this originally mean?).
Semantic change and etymology
Over time lexemes may change their meaning. This kind of change is semantic change. Perhaps a connotation will take the place of the original denotation. More often a second (or third) meaning will develop side by side with the original. In time, this may come to be the primary reference meaning. Gay has both the sense of “happy” and “homosexual”. In spoken British English today the primary meaning is more likely to be the second of these. Queer has the sense of both “odd” and “homosexual”, but in contemporary spoken British English is more likely to have the first meaning. For both, however, the context of the lexeme may suggest the meaning.
Etymology is the systematic study and classification of word origins, especially as regards forms and meanings - it is therefore an important concept both for semantics and the study of language change. The etymology of a given lexeme denotes an account of its historical-linguistic origin.
We can illustrate semantic change through the etymology of gentle. In the 14th century gentil had the meaning of “noble”, referring both to social class and to character. Because a noble person was supposed to be kind and considerate, the adjective today has the sense of “tender”, “careful” or “delicate”. The older meaning is preserved in gentleman, genteel and gentility. Until recently public toilets in the UK were designated Gentlemen or Ladies - where now we usually see a male or female picture representation. But these meanings live on in spoken English, as when someone says, perhaps in a public house, that she is off to the ladies’ or he is going to the gents’.
Villain has come to mean a wicked person, especially in drama or literature. Originally, it meant a person who farmed land under the feudal system. It is thus a class insult when used of the noble Romeo by Tybalt (“Thou art a villain”), or of the common Iago by Othello (“Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore”). We may see how this leads to the modern meaning.
The Old English and (related) Scandinavian words for a town give us modern forms such as by, burgh, borough and brough. From the German Hamburg came Hamburger, either a person of the town or a kind of sausage. This name was later used in the USA for a slice of the sausage in a bread cake. A mistaken belief that the initial ham refers to pig-meat has led to variants, such as beefburger, cheeseburger and veggieburger. Now burger alone denotes the food. Its earlier meaning of “resident of a town” is fading.
Holocaust has a fascinating etymology. It is a compound of two elements from classical Greek - holos (meaning “whole”, as in holistic, hologram) and kaustos (meaning “burnt”, as in caustic, hypocaust). It was first coined in writing by the translators of the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures made in Alexandria for King Ptolemy II in the third century BC. In its original context, the noun appears over two hundred times to translate Hebrew ’olâ (meaning literally “that which goes up”, that is, a sacrificial burnt offering). In modern times it has been used to denote the massive destruction, especially of people, in the world wars of the 20th century. Since the 1950s, it has been used more narrowly to denote the Nazis' murder of European Jews between 1941 and 1945.
As English contains hundreds of thousands of lexemes, etymology is a vast field of study, of which any examples will be pitifully few and probably not very representative. Many dictionaries will give etymological information. You should though be aware of false etymologies - interesting and plausible stories about word origins: I was told as a child that a bloke was originally a pregnant goldfish and a git a pregnant camel - but both accounts are false. There are similar stories told about quiz, of which the etymology is really unknown. On the other hand, there are some lexemes for which we have an exact etymology. Robot for example first appeared in 1921, in Karel Capek's play Rossom's Universal Robots, as the name of a mechanical servant. And Lewis Caroll made up many words in Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, some of which, like chortled, have become established in the language. Use a good dictionary to check etymologies.
Polysemy (or polysemia) is an intimidating compound noun for a basic language feature. The name comes from Greek poly (many) and semy (to do with meaning, as in semantics). Polysemy is also called radiation or multiplication. This happens when a lexeme acquires a wider range of meanings.
For example, paper comes from Greek papyrus. Originally it referred to writing material made from the papyrus reeds of the Nile, later to other writing materials, and now to things such as government documents, scientific reports, family archives or newspapers.
Homonymy, homophones and homographs
Homonyms are different lexemes with the same form (written, spoken or both). For example, bank is both an elevated area of ground and a place or business where money is kept. You may think these are the same words, but this is not so, since the meaning is an essential feature of a word. In some cases, the same form (as with paper) has the same origin but this will not always be the case. The etymology of a lexeme will tell us where it comes from and how it acquired a given meaning.
Identity of form may apply to speech or writing only. David Crystal calls these forms “half” identical. They are:
* Homophones - where the pronunciation is the same (or close, allowing for such phonological variation as comes from accent) but standard spelling differs, as in flew (from fly), flu (“influenza”) and flue (of a chimney).
* Homographs - where the standard spelling is the same, but the pronunciation differs, as in wind (air movement or bend) or refuse (“rubbish” or “disallow”, stress falls on first and second syllable, respectively).
Lexicology and lexicography
Lexicology is the systematic historical (diachronic) and contemporary (synchronic) study of the lexicon or vocabulary of a language. Lexicologists study semantics on a mass scale. Lexicography is the art and science of dictionary making. Lexicography also has a history. Although dictionary compilers today, as in the past, wish to create an authoritative reference work, their knowledge and understanding of language has changed radically. Different dictionaries serve very different purposes - some only give information about semantics (word meanings, descriptions or definitions) and orthography (standard spellings). Others give information about etymology, variants and change of meaning over time.
An unfortunate by-product of English teaching in the UK is a preoccupation with standard spelling forms to the exclusion of much else. Children are encouraged to use dictionaries for spell checking and not to learn about the language more generally. You should, with any dictionary, read the introduction to discover which principles have been used in compiling it, what models of language the compilers works from.
Is it, for example, broadly prescriptive or descriptive? Is it encyclopaedic, or does it exclude proper nouns? What variety or varieties of English does it include?
In checking an etymology cited above (git) I used three dictionaries - Funk and Wagnall's New Practical Standard (US, 1946) the Pocket Oxford (1969) and the complete (1979) Oxford English Dictionary. None of these listed git. Modern dictionaries may well give a range of world Englishes. Dictionary functions built into computer software give the user a choice of different varieties - UK, US, Australia/New Zealand or International English.
Thesauruses, libraries and Web portals
Students of semantics attempt to categorize and explain meaning in language. But there are other people who face a similar task. A thesaurus is a reference work in which words are arranged under general, then more specific semantic fields. As with much of language study there is a problem in making a linear representation of a complex model.
Libraries organize books under categories and sub-categories, the most popular model by far being the Dewey system named after its inventor. And portal sites on the World Wide Web organize information and links by (usually) a hierarchy of categories. These may all be helpful to you, in understanding semantic fields.
This is the traditional name for the division of philosophy otherwise known as theory of knowledge. Epistemology underlies semantics in a fundamental way. Historically, it has had a profound influence on how we understand language. For example, a modern language scientist, looking at the class of words we think of as nouns, might wish to subdivide them further. But there is no very good reason to split them into those that denote physical and material realities and those that denote feelings and concepts - that is concrete and abstract nouns. This division comes from Plato, who divided things absolutely into the categories of mind (nous) and matter (physis). It breaks down when we apply it to modern phenomena, such as artificial intelligence.
Plato also divided things into universals and particulars. Some names represent a massive category of things, in which countless individual examples are included - boy, dog, car and cloud. Others are unique to one individual thing - Elvis Presley, Lassie, New York. In English and other European languages the word classes of common and proper nouns mark this distinction. In written English we signal that a word is a proper noun usually with initial capital letters. In written and spoken English, we also show it by omitting articles or determiners in many (not all) contexts, where a common noun would have these.
But the distinction does not bear close scrutiny - many nouns which we capitalize stand for a wide category, not just a single individual, as with VW Beetle or Hoover. And what of eponyms - words named for a single individual, but now applied widely, as with sandwich, Wellington, boycott and quisling (look it up)?
At a more fundamental level, epistemology may help us decide whether the concepts of language are coherent and objective - as with word classes: are the notions of noun, verb, pronoun, adjective and so on logical as regards their referents?
David Crystal (Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, p. 106) draws attention to the way the semantic field of colour shows “patterns of lexical use in English”, because the visible spectrum is a continuum. Crystal points out some interesting features of languages other than English, in identifying colour, such as the absence in Latin of lexemes for “brown” and “grey”. He suggests that modern English has eleven basic colour lexemes - white, black, red, green, yellow, blue, brown, purple, pink, orange and grey. You may not agree with this - for example, you may think of orange and purple as secondary, being mixtures of or intermediate between others. Our sense of primary colours may come from the world around us - blue for the sky, green for grass and red for blood, for example.
The lexicon of colour is interesting when we study it historically (what colours are most frequent in the writings of Chaucer or Shakespeare) or in a special context. What names do manufacturers of paint or cosmetics favour? For parts of the body (especially hair) we have a special lexicon - hair is not yellow but blonde (the word indicates both hair colour or, as a noun, people with this colour of hair), brunette (although brown is also standard for males) and redhead (where red has a special colour denotation - not the scarlet or crimson it usually suggests). Another special lexicon (which may preserve historical differences) applies to horse colours - bay, grey (which denotes a horse more or less white) and chestnut.
Studying semantics: sources of information
For helpful introductions to the subject see the following:
* Crystal, D. (1987) The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, pp. 100 - 107; Cambridge; ISBN 0-521-42443-7
* Crystal, D. (1995) The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, pp. 138, 156 - 170; Cambridge; ISBN 0-521-59655-6
* Potter, S. (1950) Our Language, pp. 104 - 116; Penguin; ISBN 0-14-02-0227-7
* Aitchison, J. (1997) The Language Web, pp. 61 - 78; Cambridge; ISBN 0-521-57475-7