Semantics (linguistics) (2023)


semantics [Gr.,=significant] in general, the study of the relationship between words and meanings. The empirical study of word meanings and sentence meanings in existing languages is a branch of linguistics; the abstract study of meaning in relation to language or symbolic logic systems is a branch of philosophy. Both are called semantics. The field of semantics has three basic concerns: the relations of words to the objects denoted by them, the relations of words to the interpreters of them, and, in symbolic logic, the formal relations of signs to one another (syntax).

In linguistics, semantics has its beginnings in France and Germany in the 1820s when the meanings of words as significant features in the growth of language was recognized. Among the foremost linguistic semanticists of the 20th cent. are Gustaf Stern, Jost Trier, B. L. Whorf, Uriel Weinreich, Stephen Ullmann, Thomas Sebeok, Noam Chomsky, Jerrold Katz, and Charles Osgood. In the linguistics of recent years an offshoot of transformational grammar theory has reemphasized the role of meaning in linguistic analysis. This new theory, developed largely by George Lakoff and James McCawley, is termed generative semantics. In anthropology a new theoretical orientation related to linguistic semantics has been developed. Its leading proponents include W. H. Goodenough, F. G. Lounsbury, and Claude Lévi-Strauss.

In philosophy, semantics has generally followed the lead of symbolic logic, and many philosophers do not make a distinction between logic and semantics. In this context, semantics is concerned with such issues as meaning and truth, meaning and thought, and the relation between signs and what they mean. The leading practitioners have been Gottlob Frege, Lady Welby, Bertrand Russell, Otto Neurath, Rudolf Carnap, Alonzo Church, Alfred Tarski, C. I. Lewis, Ludwig Wittgenstein, J. L. Austin, W. V. Quine, P. F. Strawson, Steven Schiffer, John Searle, H. P. Grice, Saul Kripke, Donald Davidson, and Gilbert Harman.

Since the publication of the influential The Meaning of Meaning (1925) by C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards, semantics has also become important to literary criticism and stylistics, in which the way that metaphors evoke feelings is investigated and differences between ordinary and literary language are studied. A related discipline, general semantics (so called to distinguish it from semantics in linguistics or philosophy), studies the ways in which meanings of words influence human behavior. General semantics was developed by Alfred Korzybski. The key term in Korzybski's system is evaluation, the mental act that is performed by the hearer when a word is spoken. Among the most prominent followers of Korzybski are Stuart Chase, S. I. Hayakawa, and H. L. Weinberg.


A useful introduction to general semantics is H. L. Weinberg, Levels of Knowing and Existence (1959) and F. R. Palmer, Semantics (1981). For semantics in linguistics, see S. Ullman, Semantics (1962) and The Principles of Semantics (1957, repr. 1967); N. Chomsky, Studies on Semantics in Generative Grammar (1972); G. Leach, Semantics (1974); and J. Lyons, Language, Meaning, and Context (1981). For semantics in philosophy, see R. Carnap, Meaning and Necessity (2d ed. 1956); K. and A. Lehrer, The Theory of Meaning (1970); J. F. Rosenberg and C. Travis, ed., Readings in the Philosophy of Language (1971); and D. Davidson and G. Harman, ed., Semantics of Natural Language (2d ed. 1973). For semantics in literary criticism, see K. Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives (1950) and A Grammar of Motives (1955) and the works of W. Empson and P. Wheelwright.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2022, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.


the subdivision of LINGUISTICS concerned with meaning. Semantics attempts the systematic study of the assignment of meanings to minimal meaning-bearing elements and the combination of these in the production of more complex meaningful expressions. A variety of theories seek to account for semantic relations, ranging from behaviourist psychology, COMPONENTIAL ANALYSIS and theories based in modern logics, to sociological accounts taking meaning to be unavoidably a local achievement of interactive negotiation. Currently in logical semantics the search is on for an integrated SYNTAX and semantics. In this, syntax is framed as a structural vehicle for meanings, which moves from ‘possible worlds’ to ‘truth values’. The project amounts to a technical reworking of the VERIFICATION PRINCIPLE that meaning is to be equated with a set of truth conditions. If the programme were to be successful it would possess important implications for sociology.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000

(Video) Semantics: Crash Course Linguistics #5

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.


the branch of linguistics that studies the meanings of linguistic units. Semantics can also be defined as an aspect of the study of signs in semiotics or as the meaning of linguistic units. [This article will discuss linguistic semantics, that is, semantics as first defined above.] The term “semasiology” is historically a synonym for “semantics.”

In linguistic semantics, the elementary object of study consists of the three elements of the linguistic sign—especially the word—considered in their unity: the signifier, the denotatum, and the signified. The signifier is the external element, the sequence of sounds or graphic signs. It is linked with the denotatum (a signified object or phenomenon of reality) and with the referent (an object or phenomenon signified by a given linguistic unit within an utterance or by an utterance as a whole). It is also linked with the signified, which is the reflection of that object or phenomenon in human consciousness. The signified is the result of the social understanding of reality and is usually identical to a concept or mental representation. The three-way link of signifier-denotatum-signified constitutes the category of meaning and the basic unit of semantics.

These tripartite units enter into regular and systemic relationships with one another. One unit may be compared to another on the basis of one of the three elements: the signified (in the case of synonyms), the signifier (in the case of homonyms), and the denotatum and referent (in the case of a special form of synonymy known as transformation or periphrasis). Synonymy, homonymy, periphrasis (transformation), and polysemy form the basis of the systemic quality in semantics. The systemic quality is manifested most clearly in relatively small groups of words that are similar in one respect (in which they are synonyms) and opposed in another (in which they are antonyms). Such groupings, which differ depending on the language, constitute structural oppositions. For example, the Russian words ekhat (“to go [by vehicle]”), idti (“to go [on foot]”) plyt’ (“to swim,” “to go [by boat]”), and letet’ (“to fly”) have a common feature of “human locomotion” but are opposed as regards the feature of “means of locomotion.” Such features within groups are studied and described as components of meaning or semantic factors.

Elementary word groups may be combined in a relationship of content, forming thematic groups and semantic and lexical “fields.” For example, all the means of expressing the concept of joy in a given language constitute the lexical-semantic field “joy.” Linguistic semantics seeks to provide a complete description of the semantic system of a given language in the form of a thesaurus. The thesaurus vividly demonstrates that semantics preserves what results from the reflection and comprehension of the objective world in human social practice. For example, the concepts “to be,” “to have,” “time,” “form,” and “content,” which were developed in European culture, may be represented differently or not at all in other cultures. In the language of the Hopi Indians, there are no nouns of the type “spring,” “winter,” “present,” and “future”; corresponding—but not identical—concepts are expressed adverbially (for example, “when warm”). “Rain” is named as an object (substance) in Indo-European languages but as a process (feature) in the American Indian language of the Hupa (literally, “it comes down”). On the other hand, the opposition of substance (“object”) and feature (“process,” “action,” and so forth) is objective and universal: every language maintains the opposition through its own means and within the framework of its own system as an opposition between noun and verb. Semantics seeks to discover and study these universal semantic categories.

The polysemant is a most important object of semantic study and one of the key points in the interrelationships between system and speech (or text). It represents a complex of lexical-semantic variants, related to one another in the system as specific lexical meanings and behaving in speech as the concrete realization of these meanings.

(Video) SEMANTICS-1: What is Semantics?

In speech or text, words also enter into elementary relationships of another type. The relationships are determined by the ability of words to combine with one another. The combinations permitted by the system of a language determine the distribution of each word relative to others. For example, the distribution will vary for the Russian words krichat’ (vo vsiu moch’) (“to shout [with all one’s might]”), bezhat’(vo vse lopatki) (“to run [as fast as one can]”), pozdravliat’ (ot vsego serdtsa) (“to congratulate [with all one’s heart]”), and naedat’sia (do otvala) (“to eat [until one can eat no more]”). The distributive analysis of meanings is a special task of semantics.

The word combinations vo vsiu moch’, vo vse lopatki, ot vsego serdtsa, and do otvala have the common meaning of “to the highest degree,” but the specific form used to express this meaning depends on the combining word; thus, vo vsiu moch’ is combined with krichat’, vo vse lopatki with bezhat’, and so forth. The form of expression is therefore a function of the combination. Semantics seeks to discover and study such functions—known as lexical parameters—which allow extensive groups of words, word combinations, and sentences to be represented as systemic periphrases (transformations) of one another. The creation of a thesaurus of functions is a long-range task of semantics.

When transformations are studied, the distinction between lexical semantics (the meaning of root morphemes, words, and word combinations) and grammatical semantics (the study of the meanings of grammatical forms) recedes into the background, and traditional semasiology becomes simply a part of semantics. On the other hand, the distinction between the denotatum and the referent becomes essential. Thought correspondence to the denotatum is called meaning, and thought correspondence to the referent and the reflection in consciousness of a whole situation is often called sense. Thus, the content of the term “semantics” expands and semantics acquires a new task: to study the system of such “senses.” The study is known as syntactic semantics.

Semantics also studies characteristic changes in meaning that occur in the history of a language and seeks to discover semantic laws. The conceptual fund of a language is divided into that which is the common property of all members of a given society and that which is the property of science. The former includes the everyday, “naïve,” or linguistic, concepts (the “immediate” meanings of words), whereas the latter includes scientific concepts and terms (the “more distant” meanings of words). An example of the difference is seen in the colloquial use of the Russian word kapital to mean a large sum of money and the specialized use of the term in political economy to mean capital. One general semantic law is that everyday words having features in common with scientific concepts constantly strive to merge their parameters of content with those of the scientific terms. Key cultural terms, which differ for each era, occupy a special place between everyday and scientific concepts. Such key terms include “civilization,” “revolution,” “democracy,” “science,” “technology,” “individual,” “love,” and “machine.” The meanings of a language’s everyday words and the dominant ideas of society are combined in the semantic content of these terms. In studying the development of key cultural terms and concepts of different types, the tasks of semantics coincide with those of cultural history and semiotics.

Semantics emerged in the late 19th century, simultaneously in Russia (M. M. Pokrovskii) and France (M. Bréal), as a historical discipline studying semantic laws. According to the aspect of the semantics of language that is taken as the basis for the discipline, various directions are distinguished. These directions include analysis of lexical-semantic variation (V. V. Vinogradov, A. I. Smirnitskii, N. N. Amosova, A. A. Ufimtseva, and D. N. Shmelev of the USSR); oppositive (componential) analysis, or semantic factoring (L. Hjelmslev of Denmark, A. Kroeber and W. Goodenough of the USA, and O. N. Seliverstova of the USSR); and the method of fields and thesauri (R. Hailing and W. Wartburg of the Federal Republic of Germany and Iu. N. Karaulov of the USSR). Among other directions are distributive analysis (R. Langacker of the USA and V. A. Zvegintsev and Iu. D. Apresian of the USSR); logical-transformational analysis based on the category of lexical parameter, or function (I. A. Mel’chuk and Iu. D. Apresian of the USSR and A. Wierzbicka of Poland); and analysis of key cultural terms (G. Matoré and E. Benveniste of France and Iu. S. Sorokin and R. A. Budagov of the USSR).


Vinogradov, V. V. “O formakh slova.” Izv. Otd. lit-ry i iazyka AN SSSR, 1944, vol. 3, issue 1.
Zvegintsev, V. A. Semasiologiia. Moscow, 1957.
Pokrovskii, M. M. Izbrannye raboty po iazykoznaniiu. Moscow, 1959.
Hjelmslev, L. “Mozhno li schitat’, chto znacheniia slov obrazuiut strukturu?” In Novoe v lingvistike, fasc. 2. Moscow, 1962.
Ufimtseva, A. A. Slovo v leksiko-semanticheskoi sisteme iazyka. Moscow, 1968.
Budagov, R. A. Istoriia slov v istorii obshchestva. Moscow, 1971.
Shmelev, D. N. Problemy semanticheskogo analiza leksiki. Moscow, 1973.
Shcherba, L. V. “Opyt obshchei teorii leksikografii.” In his book Iazykovaia sistema i rechevaia deiatel’nost’. Leningrad, 1974.
Benveniste, E. Obshchaia lingvistika. Moscow, 1974. (Translated from French.)
Apresian, Iu. D. Leksicheskaia semantika: Sinonimicheskie sredstvaiazyka. Moscow, 1974.
Seliverstova, O. N. Komponentnyi analiz mnogoznachnykh slov. Moscow, 1975.
Stepanov, Iu. S. Osnovy obshchego iazykoznaniia, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1975.
Bréal, M. Essai de sémantique, 7th ed. Paris, 1924.
Matoré, G. La Méthode en lexicologie. Paris, 1953.
Goodenough, W. H. “Componential Analysis and the Study of Meaning.” Language, 1956, vol. 32, no. 1.
Wierzbicka, A. Semantic Primitives. Frankfurt am Main, 1972.


(Video) What is semantics?

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.




The branch of semiotics that deals with the relations between symbols and what they stand for, and defines the meaning that is prescribed for a statement by its originator.

McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


1.the study of the relationships between signs and symbols and what they represent


(Video) Semantics: Intro to Linguistics [video 8]

a.the study of interpretations of a formal theory

b.the study of the relationship between the structure of a theory and its subject matter

c.(of a formal theory) the principles that determine the truth or falsehood of sentences within the theory, and the references of its terms

Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005



The meaning of a string in some language, as opposedto syntax which describes how symbols may be combinedindependent of their meaning.

The semantics of a programming language is a function fromprograms to answers. A program is a closed term and, inpractical languages, an answer is a member of the syntacticcategory of values. The two main kinds are denotational semantics and operational semantics.

This article is provided by FOLDOC - Free Online Dictionary of Computing (

(Video) Lexical Semantics


The study of the meaning of words. A semantic vocabulary is a formal description of the data used in a specific domain such as advertising, physics, real estate, telecom, etc. Contrast with syntax, which governs the structure of a language and the rules pertaining to the actual data. For example, a semantic tag for temperature may be Fahrenheit, but the syntactic values for Fahrenheit may be numeric -60 to +120. The statement a = b may be syntactically correct, but if there is no "a" or no "b" defined elsewhere, the code is semantically invalid. See Semantic Web, semantic error and Systemantics.

A Note from the Author

Obviously, a dictionary of terminology is all about semantics, and researching countless articles to be able to define an IT topic is an exploration in semantics. In this field, people love to use different words for the same subject (for extreme examples, look up USB drives and digital media hub terminology). But even in the field of semantic data (Semantic Web, linked data, ontological vocabularies, etc.), the terminology is just as bad, if not worse. This is one area where people might think about uniform semantics while they're writing about it. It has been a bit of a "semantic nightmare" researching articles about the Semantic Web.

Copyright © 1981-2023 by The Computer Language Company Inc. All Rights reserved. THIS DEFINITION IS FOR PERSONAL USE ONLY. All other reproduction is strictly prohibited without permission from the publisher.


What is good enough processing in linguistics? ›

Good-enough language processing emphasizes the tendency of the comprehension system to perform superficial analyses of linguistic input, which sometimes result in inaccurate interpretations.

What are the 7 types of semantics in linguistics? ›

Types of Meaning

Linguistic meaning can be broken into seven types: conceptual, connotative, collocative, social, affective, reflected and thematic.

Is semantics concerned only with complete sentences? ›

Is semantics concerned only with complete sentences? No, it also looks at non-sentences and incomplete sentences. Although, it looks at complete sentences first when looking for meaning.

What are the three basic concern of semantics? ›

semantic meaning, we have to bring together three main components: the context in which a sentence is used, the meanings of the words in the sentence, and its morphological and syntactic structure.

What is the good enough approach? ›

The principle of good enough or "good enough" principle is a rule in software and systems design. It indicates that consumers will use products that are good enough for their requirements, despite the availability of more advanced technology.

What are the 5 language processing requirements? ›

1.1 Understand the (5) language processing requirements of proficient reading and writing: phonological, orthographic, semantic, syntactic, discourse.

What are the 3 kinds of semantics? ›

Semantics can be broken down into the following three subcategories:
  • Formal semantics is the study of grammatical meaning in natural language. ...
  • Conceptual semantics is the study of words at their core. ...
  • Lexical semantics is the study of word meaning.
May 16, 2022

What are the two main areas of semantics? ›

The two main areas are logical semantics, concerned with matters such as sense and reference and presupposition and implication, and lexical semantics, concerned with the analysis of word meanings and relations between them."

What are semantic rules in linguistics? ›

Semantic rules govern the meaning of words and how to interpret them (Martinich, 1996). Semantics is the study of meaning in language. It considers what words mean, or are intended to mean, as opposed to their sound, spelling, grammatical function, and so on.

Why is semantics difficult? ›

A child who has difficulty with semantics might find it difficult to understand instructions or conversations with words that have a double meaning. As they may only know one meaning or find it difficult to understand that some words have more than one meaning.

What is an example of incorrect semantics? ›

Semantically correct: “The pizza was too hot to eat.” Semantically wrong: “The pizza was too hot to drink.” Semantically wrong: “The pizza was too hot to cry.” In such experiments the ERP evoked by the correct sentence is considered to show the ordinary sentence processing.

What does enough with the semantics mean? ›

"'It's just semantics' is a common retort people use when arguing their point. What they mean is that their argument or opinion is more valid than the other person's.

What are the 2 semantic barriers? ›

There are two types of semantic barriers that exist in communication: denotative barriers and connotative barriers. A denotative barrier is a difference in the definition or meaning of a word used by the sender and receiver.

What are basic semantic errors? ›

A semantic error is text which is grammatically correct but doesn't make any sense. An example in the context of the C# language will be “int x = 12.3;” - 12.3 is not an integer literal and there is no implicit conversion from 12.3 to int, so this statement does not make sense.

What is a sentence from good enough? ›

This hotel's good enough for me. I don't have to stay in a luxury hotel.

What is the difference between good enough and well enough? ›

The rule of thumb is that good is an adjective and well is an adverb. Good modifies a noun; something can be or seem good. Well modifies a verb; an action can be done well.

What is the difference between good and good enough? ›

Typically, “that's good enough” means it's not great, it's kind of good, not completely good, but it has enough good that we can move on, stop worrying and get to the next thing. “Good enough for government work” is a cliche with an obviously negative slant.

What are the 7 criteria of language? ›

147–57) has listed seven criteria that may be useful in discussing different kinds of languages. According to Bell, these criteria (standardization, vitality, historicity, autonomy, reduction, mixture, and de facto norms) may be used to distinguish certain languages from others.

What are the 4 prescribed language skills? ›

Learning a language means developing four skills- Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing. As teachers of English we must know what each of these skills mean and how to teach them effectively. This unit focuses on the four skills and the methods/techniques that can be followed to help learners develop the four skills.

What are the 7 elements of language? ›

Language courses include 7 language components that aim at developing learners' language competency. These are vocabulary, grammar, functions, reading, listening, speaking, and writing.

What are semantics key words? ›

Semantically related keywords are terms that are conceptually linked to one another. If my article focuses on the primary phrase “marketing science”, some semantically related terms would include “scientific content writing” and “selling to scientists”. These are not secondary keywords or intent modifiers.

What are semantic words? ›

Semantics is a branch of linguistics concerned with deriving meaning from words. Semantically related keywords are simply words or phrases that are in a related to each other conceptually. For example, for a keyword like “search volume,” some semantically related keywords could be: keyword research. paid search.

What are semantic skills examples? ›

Semantic language skills include the ability to: understand and state labels, recognize and name categorical labels, understand and use descriptive words (including adjectives and smaller parts of whole items), comprehend and state functions, and recognize words by their definition and define words.

What are the semantic barriers? ›

Semantic barriers: The barriers, which are concerned with problems and obstructions in the process of encoding and decoding of a message into words or impressions are called semantic barriers. Such barriers resut in faulty translations, different interpretations, etc.

What is the difference between semantics and rhetoric? ›

Rhetoric is the rationale of persuasive discourse. Semantics is the rationale of meaningful discourse.

What is the difference between pragmatics and semantics? ›

While semantics is concerned with the inherent meaning of words and sentences as linguistic expressions, in and of themselves, pragmatics is concerned with those aspects of meaning that depend on or derive from the way in which the words and sentences are used.

What type of grammar is semantic? ›

Put simply, syntax refers to grammar, while semantics refers to meaning. Syntax is the set of rules needed to ensure a sentence is grammatically correct; semantics is how one's lexicon, grammatical structure, tone, and other elements of a sentence coalesce to communicate its meaning.

What is the purpose of semantics in linguistics? ›

In linguistics, semantics is the subfield that studies meaning. Semantics can address meaning at the levels of words, phrases, sentences, or larger units of discourse.

What are the characteristics of semantics in linguistics? ›

Basic semantic properties include being meaningful or meaningless – for example, whether a given word is part of a language's lexicon with a generally understood meaning; polysemy, having multiple, typically related, meanings; ambiguity, having meanings which aren't necessarily related; and anomaly, where the elements ...

How can I improve my semantic skills? ›

How To Build Your Learner's Ability To Understand Semantic Structures
  1. understand signifiers.
  2. recognize and name categories or semantic fields.
  3. understand and use descriptive words (including adjectives and other lexical items)
  4. understand the function of objects.
  5. recognize words from their definition.
  6. classify words.
Nov 27, 2015

How can I improve my semantic processing? ›

Techniques For Improving Semantic Memory

By practicing the recall of facts, you actively improve memory, forcing your mind to encode that information and putting it in your long-term storage. Repetition of the information is the most efficient way to create strong memories for recalling them later.

What is the problem with language semantics? ›

What is the semantic problem? The semantic problem is a problem of linguistic processing. It relates to the issue of how spoken utterances are understood and, in particular, how we derive meaning from combinations of speech sounds (words).

What is processing in linguistics? ›

Language processing is an intricate cognitive function that appears to be sensitive to different sorts of information, some linguistic, some not. It interacts with other cognitive functions, such as attention and memory, and on some accounts these cognitive functions are embedded into language processing itself.

What is linguistic processing capacity? ›

It is the ability to detect and discern language aspects and qualities like phonemes, the building blocks of language) and the syntax of speech.

What is word processing in linguistics? ›

Word processing means the textual formatting, correcting, editing, and rearranging of language elements, designed to convey full messages in English syntax, through manipulation of electronic or magnetic impulses.

What are the 3 main processing levels of spoken language production? ›

The production of spoken language involves three major levels of processing: conceptualization, formulation, and articulation.


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