Semantics – The Study of Meanings That Are Unconsciously Understood
Semantics is the study of meaning in terms of what speakers unconsciously know prescriptively (what language critics invoke during disagreements over word meaning and sentence interpretation) and descriptively (the way in which word and sentence meaning are encoded in a native language as part of mental grammar). Meaning is examined at the word, phrase, and discourse levels through the analysis of semantic features, expressions, and propositions.
Basic Concepts in Semantics
Human language is a type of semiotic system, which shows the relationships between signs and their representations, or the entities to which they refer. There are three types of signs: the icon, the index, and the symbol.
- The icon is a visual representation that resembles its referent physically, such as a picture of a deer on a road sign meaning that these animals roam freely in large numbers and are likely to run into your car.
- An index is any entity (A) that correlates and points to its referent, or that which gives meaning (B), such as the reflexive pronoun himself in “Harry loves himself” receives its meaning from its referent Harry. For example “Harry loves himself”
- A symbol is an arbitrary sign, i.e. one whose form is randomly assigned to its meaning. In other words, the form of a word is its sound structure or visual shape. Its meaning is that to which it refers or represents.
Theories of Meaning
Many philosophers and linguists have sought to define the concept of meaning thus several theories or models have been proposed over time. Here are a few.
- Theory of Meaning in semantics can be defined as the assignment of semantic content to various linguistic expressions, i.e., words, phrases, or discourse. This relates more to the denotation of an expression rather than connotation.
- Prototype Theory sets forth meaning as based on prototypes since semantic categories are gradient and fuzzy at their boundaries due to the fact that the meaning of any given entity is based on a person’s experience with it.
- Theory of Reference reduces meaning to simply a reference to facts or entities in the world (or universe). This theory is can be used to explain knowledge about linguistic meaning, but cannot account for how linguistic expressions acquire their meaning. It is important to understand the difference between sense (Intension): how we refer to something and reference (Extension): who/what specific instances in reality we are referring to in terms of the relation between expressions and the external world.
Lexical semantics is the study of word relationships and semantic features. Lexical items (words) are analyzed and understood in terms of their meaning, how meaning is given, and how to represent and interpret this meaning.
Words are related to each other based on share semantic features. Just as phonemes can be decomposed (broken down) into individual features (often binary), so, too, can word meanings, e.g.:
Figure 1 Binary semantic properties of words
This is why, when a speaker attempts to utter a sentence such as “I forgot to pick up milk at the store,” may replace ‘milk’ with eggs, or cheese, but rarely if never with elephant or Cadillac. This is due to the fact that milk, egg, and cheese are semantically related by features such as +edible, +purchasable, etc. whereas the other options are not.
Pairs of words can be categorized in terms of how one word is semantically related to the other.
Homonyms are spelled and pronounced the same, but have different unrelated meanings, i.e., bank: a financial institution and the edge of a river.
Homophones sound alike but are spelled differently and have different meanings, i.e., to, too, two
Synonyms sound and are spelled differently but have very similar meanings, i.e., couch and sofa
Polysemes/polysemous words sound and spelled alike and have different but related meanings, i.e., bank as a financial institution and bank on understood as to be able to count on
Antonyms are generally understood as some type of opposite. Note that although they are described as opposite in meaning these pairs of words are actually identical in all features but one.
Complementary/contradictory: If not X, then Y. Must be one OR the other. Ex. alive/dead, pass/fail, believe/doubt
Relational: If A X B, then B Y A. One entity must exist to perceive the other. Ex. taller/shorter, parent/child, give/receive
Scalar/gradable: if not X then not necessarily Y. Context dependent. Ex tall/short, communist/fascist, happy/sad
Metonyms are words that are a type of figure of speech in which an entity is referred to by a represented object, i.e., the Crown referring to royalty
Hyponyms are subcategories of more general terms hypernyms, red, blue, and yellow are colors
Heteronyms are words that are spelled the same but have different pronunciations and meanings, i.e., dove, the bird and dove the past tense of ‘to dive.’
It is very important to note that the term ‘homophone’ in its broad sense refers to any set of words that sound alike regardless of orthography such as, homonyms, homophones and polysemes.
Compositional Semantics: phrase and sentence meaning
Semantics and Syntax
Compositional semantics is the study of meaning in the context of phrasal or syntactic structure. The concept of compositionality is based on the idea that the parts equal the whole. A sentence is meaningful when its parts, or components are related syntactically and semantically.
Although the syntactic and semantic components of a phrase are highly interfaced, it is important to understand which type of linguistic information each accounts for.
Structurally, a sentence consists of a subject and a predicate. Predicates may contain object(s).
(1) Mary subject / kissed Harry predicate with direct object
Semantically, a sentence expresses a proposition, made up of a predicate & argument(s), the latter being a referring-expression, which usually takes the form of a noun phrase.
The subject expresses a special type of argument that usually contains previously known information and whose existence/truth is assumed as a given, while the predicate, typically a verb phrase, asserts something about the subject, or predicates something of it (i.e. adds new information about it). Each argument (noun phrase) of a verb/predicate is assigned a thematic role that shows its relationship to the predicate.
So back to ‘Mary kissed Harry.’ In order for the verb to kiss to be uttered grammatically, not only does it require a subject and an object, but the subject must also be a referring-expression that is able to kiss, and the direct object must be a referring-expression that is kissable.
Compositionality and Meaning
Meaning and truth are not necessarily one and the same. Meaning is linked to comprehension whereas truth conditions are related to referents in the universe and their relationships to each other. Thus sentence meaning is more than just truth values (as with a noun phrase’s reference), but also a sentence’s truth conditions (like the sense of a noun phrase); since some sentences have no truth value, yet do have meaning, for example: a sentence with a non-referential subject has no truth value. For example, the sentence “Martians (non-referential truth value) love to vacation in the Sahara” has no truth value as Martians have not been proven to exist. However, the sentence still is understandable.
Sentence meaning is more than just truth value (as with a noun phrase’s reference), but also a sentence’s truth conditions (like the sense of a noun phrase). Truth conditions are based on the presupposition that the subparts of a sentence have existing referents such that meanings of phrases and sentences function of the meanings of their subparts.In other words, the subject must belong to the group of all entities that have undergone the action or state of the verb/predicate. Thus the sentence “Henry reads books,” is true if Henry is a subpart of all individuals who read books.
Some sentences have meaning however the truth value cannot be determined. This is the case with a sentence containing a non-referential subject (a type of pronoun), when the referent is not known. Thus a sentence such as ‘She loves puppies’ has meaning but has no truth value since the noun that she refers to is unknown.
The truth conditions of certain types of sentences render the utterance either always true (tautology) are always false (contradiciton). And then there are those whose truth value can never be known (paradox). Below are examples.
Tautology: The king is a male.
Contradiction: The rock is human.
Paradox: This sentence is not true.
When Compositionality Breaks Down
Exception to principles of compositional semantics include metaphors, anomalies, and idioms.
A metaphor is a sentence in which one word or phrase is used to refer to another which is so closely related semantically, that meaning can be determined. In the sentence, “Harry is fishing for compliments,” the verb fishing does not refer to the act of catching fish with some type of instrument, but searching for. An anomaly is a sentence that obeys language-specific constraints, however its parts are not semantically related. The classic example in linguistics is “Colorless ideas sleep furiously. “ Although syntactically sound, its meaning is questionable due to the fact that the semantic features of the words cancel out each other. An item that is green cannot be colorless. Ideas cannot be green. Ideas don’t sleep. And furiously is not an adverb that can modify the verb to sleep. Another exception to principles of compositional semantics is found in idioms, which are lexicalized (i.e. memorized) phrases with non-compositional meaning. In other words, the meaning of the whole expression is not a function of the meanings of all of its subparts. The parts do not equal the whole.
In an idiom such as ‘the cat is out of the bag’ there is neither a bag nor a cat. The hearer will have had to have learned the meaning of the entire phrase as a single concept in order for the phrase to have meaning.
Pragmatics is the study of language use in context. The term context refers to the setting in which the discourse takes place, whether physical, social, linguistic or epistemic (context of knowledge).
Units of pragmatic analysis are not always complete sentences, but nonetheless complete utterances that perform a communicative function, e.g. “Yo Jerry!” or “Yes” or “Fascinating, what she said about Arizona” or “Pathetic creatures, dogs.”
There are 3 major categories of speech acts:
assertion (usually expressed by declarative sentence forms – normal sentence type) “I love semantics!”
question (usually expressed by interrogative sentence forms – typically identifiable by a question word, special syntax, and/or special intonation) “Are you going to finish reading this article?”
order/request (usually expressed by imperative sentences – usually missing subject you) “Don’t stop reading!”
However, these categories can be broken down into many individual subtypes, often corresponding to performative verbs: threats, warnings, bets, advice, promises, etc.
Direct vs. Indirect Speech Acts
Direct assertions, questions and orders, and requests are expressed with declarative, interrogative, and imperative sentences, respectively.
Sentences that contain performative verbs with 1st person subjects in the present tense (1st person pronouns refer to the speaker: I or we) are also direct speech acts, assuming they meet the speech act’s felicity conditions: the conditions under which a speech act may be used appropriately.
An indirect speech act often, but not always, has the sentence form associated with another speech act. Rather than performing the speech act itself, it evokes one of the speech act’s felicity conditions.
The locution (or literal meaning) and the illocution (or intended meaning) of the utterance are not the same. These speech acts are often in the form of a yes/no quesiton, which requests a direct response as ‘yes’ or ‘no.’
Here, the locution and illocution are the same.
However, in an indirect speech act such as “Can you reach the salt?” the speaker is not soliciting information as to whether or not the hearer actually can reach the salt, but indirectly requesting that the hearer pass the salt.
Hints, insinuations, metaphors, and irony are also forms of indirect speech acts assuming that the speaker and hearer share sufficient knowledge about the setting of the discourse.
In order for meaningful speech interactions to take place, phrases/sentences must be related in meaning either by context, rules of conversation, or shared world knowledge.
Drawing Conclusions: Entailment, Implicature, and Presuppositions
Entailment describes the relationship between two sentences in that the truth of one sentence entails the truth of the other.
(3) X entails Y if whenever X is true, Y must also be true.
For example, Superman flew to Spain (X) entails Superman flies (Y). If X is true, then Y must be true. Furthermore, if Y is false, then X must be false.
This is different from an implicature in which X implies Y if whenever X is true, Y is also presumed likely to be true. For example, Batman invited several friends to the party (X) implies the fact that Batman did not invite all his friends to the party (Y).
Presuppositions are related to felicity conditions, entailment & implicature such that the meaning of X presumes Y. The question “Have you stopped dressing up like Superman?” presupposes the addressee was dressing up like Superman in the past. Either a “yes” or a “no” answer to the question logically entails that the answerer used to dress up like Superman.
Rules of Conversation: Gricean Maxims
In conversation, people normally follow Grice’s Cooperative Principle. Grice’s Maxims are specific rules that together enforce the Cooperative Principle:
Maxims of Quality: Don’t lie; Be able to back up your claim
Maxims of Relevance: Be relevant (i.e., what you say must be related to the pragmatic context)
Maxims of Quantity: Say neither more nor less than necessary: give enough info, not TMI
Maxims of Manner: Be brief, orderly; avoid ambiguity; don’t use unnecessarily obscure terms
Humor and advertising often exploit loopholes in Gricean Maxims
Discourse analysis occurs when structures larger than the sentence are studied, such as narratives and conversations. In this case the comprehension of sentences depends on context, particularly the relationship between a non-referential entity and its referent.
A pronoun must be linked to its antecedent. The question “What does she do for a living?” does not have meaning unless the referent, or antecedent of the pronoun she is understood.
The 1st person: refers to speaker(s): whoever is speaking (I, me, we, us)
The 2nd person: refers to addressee(s) or hearer(s): whoever the speaker is speaking to (you)
The 3rd person: anything or anyone other than speaker or hearer (he/him, she/her, it, them)
A deictic expression is one whose referent in reality is never fixed by definition, but instead must be inferred from the pragmatic context in which it is used. Some common types of deictic expressions include:
time: yesterday, last year
place: behind the building, in the suburbs
person: 3rd person pronouns,
demonstratives: this/these, that/those
The study of semantics involves many aspects of meaning than can be covered here. For more resources, refer to our scholarly articles link.