Semantics covers a very broad list of topics dealing mainly with meaning of and the relationships between words. Most introductory linguistics courses focus on three basic areas: lexical semantics (word meaning and relatedness), phrasal or sentential semantics (sentential meaning and relatedness), and pragmatics (meaning in the context of discourse).
Lexical semantics is the study of individual words and their relationships to each another. List of words can share semantic properties; for example, shark, sturgeon, cichlid, holacanthus ciliaris, and tuna, all share the properties of ‘live in the water,’ ‘have fins,’ and ‘eat fish.’ Binary values for semantic features [+, -] are used to denote word meaning. Consider the set below.
lady hen aunt maiden
doe mare widow girl
ewe vixen woman tigress
Each of these words bears the features [+animate], [+female], (as well as others which we will not discuss here). If we add the feature [-animal], the set is now reduced to only those words that are [+animate] [+female] [-animal].
lady widow aunt
woman maiden girl
By adding the feature [-youth], we are left with an even more reduced set:
Semantic features can also show relationships in word pairs.
Synonyms are two words that are semantically similar enough that they may, in certain contexts, be interchanged, one for the other such as ‘happy’ and ‘content’.
Mary is content with Mark’s decision.
Mary is happy with Mark’s decision.
Absolute synonymy does not exist due to the fact that if two words were to bear identical semantic features and could be exchanged with no difference in meaning or register, then one would become less used than the other until one would bear a distinguishing feature.
Although the two sentences fundamentally read the same, there is a nuanced difference depending on which adjective is used. ‘Content’ relates a more stable emotional state, where as ‘happy’ bears a nuance of transiency.
A similar example would be the synonyms ‘little’ and ‘small’. Although it is acceptable to introduce someone as ‘my little brother’, stating ‘my small brother’ would sound strange to most speakers of Standard English.
On the other side of the coin are antonyms. Although most conceive antonyms to have opposite meanings, they are actually words that share most semantic features, e.g., ‘happy’ and ‘content’, with one word bearing negative values for all/most features and the other bearing positive.
[+emotional state] [+emotional state]
There are three types of antonyms that you will come across in most textbooks.
Complementary pairs are words whose meanings exclude the possibility of co-existence and are not context-dependent. They are sometimes referred to as ‘either-or.’ For instance an animate object is either dead or alive. It cannot be ‘sort of dead’ or ‘kind of’ alive.
Gradable pairs are words holding an opposite relationship to one another to varying degrees based on context. An elephant is ‘large’ compared to a rabbit, ‘small’; however, a rabbit is ‘large’ compared to a field mouse, ‘small’.
Converse/reverse/relational opposite pairs are words that are defined in reference to each other. For example if X is the husband of Y, then Y has to be the wife of X. Reverse pairs refer to movement or opposite directions, such as ‘left/right’, ‘up/down’, and ‘east/west’.
The relationship between words can also be described in terms of reference, categorization, phonological form, and past meaning.
Hypernyms and hyponyms are such that the latter is a type of the former. For example, dachshund (hyponym) is a type of canine (hypernym). Daisy (hyponym) is a type of flower (hypernym).
Metonyms are words in which one object replaces another with an attribute associated with it. For instance, Take the ‘wheel’ actually means Drive the ‘car’. In this example ‘wheel’ is used to represent ‘car’.
A retronym is a word that was once redundant. When all televisions were black and white they were referred to as ‘televisions’. When color TV came into existence, a distinction needed to be made thus the noun phrase ‘color television appeared’. ‘Black and white TV’ became a retronym.
The Principle of Compositionality states that the meaning of a sentence is the sum of its parts. In other words, we can judge the truth of the sentence based on the existence of its referents in the world. In (6), if there is a person named George Washington who belongs to the group of people in the world that never told a lie, then (6) is true.
(6) George Washington never told a lie.
Entailment describes a situation in which the truth of one sentence assures the truth of another. For example, sentence (7) entails sentence (8).
(7) Ruth is a wealthy psychiatrist.
(8) Ruth is a psychiatrist.
The truth conditions of a sentence are determined according to what exists in the world.
A tautology is a sentence that is always true. Thus (9) is always true, since a queen is the title for a female monarch. It can never not be true.
(9) All princesses are female.
A sentence that is always false is referred to as a contradiction. (10) could never be true since the title for a male monarch is king.
(10) All kings are female.
Lastly, we have paradoxes to which no truth can be ascribed. Consider (11).
(11) I am not speaking the truth.
The truth-value of this sentence is impossible to ascertain.
There also exist sentences in which the parts do not equal the whole. In (12), no truth can be understood because the meanings of the parts are nonsensical.
(12) The flowers stole the pie and ran home.
This is the stuff that many nursery rhymes are made of. This is called an anomaly.
Metaphors are similar to anomalies, although with a little imagination, some type of sense can be made of the part. This is because the two objects being compared actually do share semantic properties at some level. We can imagine what (13) might mean since both clouds and cotton balls are white and puffy.
(13) Large, puffy cotton balls floated across the blue summer sky.
Idioms are phrases in which the parts do not equal the whole. In fact, idioms are stored in the lexicon as one word.
“The cat got your tongue,” means “You cannot speak,” and has nothing to do cats getting tongues.
Semantic Rules show how the truth conditions of a sentence are based on the syntactic and semantic relationship between words.
For example, verbs require certain ‘arguments’, or noun phrases in order to be used grammatically. Verbs assign their arguments thematic roles which show the relationship between the two. This is the reason a sentence such as (12) is an anomaly. In order for (12) to make sense, the subject argument of the verb ‘stole’ must be animate and capable of stealing of which flowers are not. Below is a basic list of types of arguments a verb may select.
Agent – the argument that carries out the action of a verb
Jack kissed Jill.
Experiencer – the argument that undergoes an emotion or perception with the senses
Jill was tired of being kissed.
Theme – the argument that undergoes the action of a verb
Jill pushed Jack down the hill.
Benefactive/recipient – the argument that receives anything as a result of the action of the verb
Jack sent flowers to Jill as an apology.
Goal – the direction towards which the action of a verb moves
Then he decided to go to Hawaii for a break.
Source – the direction from which the action of a verb moves
He checked out some books from the library to take on vacation.
Instrument – the object with which action of a verb is carried out
Jill called Jack with her cell phone.
Location – the place in which the action of a verb is carried out
They decided to meet at the airport.
Time – a delineation of time during which the action of the verb occurs
They met two hours before Jack’s departure.
Measure – the argument that expresses amount
Jill bought a ticket for Hawaii that cost ten dollars.
Pragmatics is the study of meaning in discourse. In most discourse a context is required for comprehension.
Diectic expressions are words that can only be understood within a context such that they need a point of reference. Pronouns such as ‘I’ or ‘you’ only have a referent in the specific situation in which they are uttered. The meaning changes based on who is speaking and who is being spoken to. Similarly, ‘here’ and ‘there’ need a spatial reference point relative to the speaker.
Pronouns also require a referent or antecedent. A sentence such as ‘She just handed me a million dollars’ will elicit the emphatic question, ‘Who?’
Maxims of Conversation, also referred to as Gricean Maxims after the British philosopher H. Paul Grice, give norms for meaningful discourse.
Maxim of Quantity: Say no more or no less than is needed
Maxim of Relevance: Be relevant to the subject at hand
Maxim of Manner: Be brief and orderly, avoid ambiguity and obscurity
Maxim of Quality: Do not lie or make unsupported claims
As you study semantics in more detail you will discover how your own daily interactions are founded on and guided by relationships between words, sentences, and the role that context plays in comprehension. You will come to appreciate the expression “it’s just a matter of semantics,” in a whole new way.