Semantics is the branch of linguistics that deals with studying meaning in language. It examines the meaning of words, phrases, sentences, and language.
Semantics concerns how meaning is constructed and conveyed through signs, words, phrases, or sentences.
It acknowledges that word choice matters, and so too does context. If I were to say “Oh lord, have mercy!” it might mean something entirely different if I’m in Church versus saying it as part of a comedy skit. In one context, it might be very serious, and in another, very lighthearted. But, it’s the exact same sentence.
Overall, semantics is concerned with understanding how language speakers produce meaning using linguistic structures and how listeners and readers understand and interpret that meaning within contexts.
Definition of Semantics
In linguistics, semantics is defined as the study of meaning in language, including the study of meaning in individual words, phrases, sentences, and larger discourse units (Riemer, 2010).
It is concerned with examining the relationship between words and their meanings and how these meanings are constructed, understood, and communicated within particular contexts.
From a cognitive psychology perspective, semantics involves understanding how we create meaning from a language using mental processes.
This includes processes such as categorization, inference, and mental representation (Clark & Toribio, 2012).
For example, when we hear the word “dog,” our brain automatically categorizes it as an animal. Then, it connects this meaning to other dog-related concepts, such as barking, wagging tails, or being man’s best friend (we do this because we create cognitive schema, a key concept from Piaget’s cognitive development theory).
This automatic categorizing of a word can affect our interpretation of entire sentences, paragraphs, or conversations.
Research in semantics aims to identify the underlying mental processes that govern language meaning, such as perception, memory, and thought.
It can help us understand how we use language to communicate, how differing interpretations can arise, and how language can convey different meanings in different contexts.
Bagha (2011) believes that semantics:
“…is the most abstract level of linguistic analysis since we cannot see or observe meaning as we can observe and record sounds” (p. 1411).
By analyzing the meaning of individual words or phrases and their relationships within larger discourse units, linguists and cognitive scientists can better understand the cognitive mechanisms of human communication.
Simply, semantics is a branch of linguistics that studies how people understand language.
Examples of Semantics
The following examples demonstrate how we can use semantics alongside pragmatics (reading words in context) to develop meaning of communication:
- Slang: Slang is a form of creative and informal language that includes words, phrases, and acronyms used in a particular context. It often has multiple meanings and can carry underlying connotations based on the context in which it is being used. For example, the slang term “lit” can be used to describe something as exciting or engaging (e.g., “That party was lit!”). However, it can also describe someone who might have drank too much (e.g., “He was so lit last night!”).
- Idioms: Idioms are expressions whose literal meaning diverges from what they mean when used in common speech. For example, an idiom like ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’ does not actually refer to cats and dogs falling from the sky but instead signifies that it is raining heavily outside.
- Metaphors: Metaphors are figures of speech that compare two things without using comparison terms such as like or as. A common metaphor example would be ‘the world is my oyster,’ which communicates the speaker’s ambition or readiness to take on any challenge before them in life.
- Irony: Irony refers to when someone says one thing but means another, often conveying implied criticism or sarcasm towards someone or something else. For example, if someone says, “What a great day!” while standing in pouring rain, this would be ironic because it implies disappointment with the current situation despite saying otherwise through their words.
- Jargon: Jargon refers to specific terminology used within a particular field or profession that may not be easily understood by people outside. An example could be medical jargon, where professional medical terminology. It is used among doctors and nurses to communicate more quickly and accurately about illnesses or treatments rather than explaining every concept from scratch each time.
- Everyday expressions: Everyday expressions are some of the most common forms of semantics across all cultures. They consist primarily of short set phrases that convey shared thoughts between people, such as “howdy” for hello or “good luck” for wishing someone success on something they have attempted or plan to attempt shortly.
- Hyperbole: Hyperbole is a figure of speech that deliberately exaggerates something beyond reality for effect. It is typically used to emphasize a point or make an impression upon listeners/readers while generally remaining true despite exaggeration. So, some people prefer saying they’ve been waiting forever when really it’s just been several minutes waiting for someone/something.
- Emojis: Emojis are small symbols used to replace words inside digital conversations. These symbols tend to take on different interpretations depending on how they’re viewed from person to person. Still, they generally convey emotions being felt at the time rather than explicit written language describing what those feelings might contain.
- Sarcasm: Sarcasm is a type of irony where the speaker intends to convey the opposite meaning of what is said. It is often used to mock or criticize someone by suggesting the opposite of what is being said. For instance, if someone says “Great job” angrily, it is likely sarcasm.
- Euphemisms: A euphemism is a more polite or indirect expression used in place of a word or phrase considered harsh or unpleasant. This is often done to avoid offending someone or make a statement seem more palatable. For example, saying “passed away” instead of “died” is a common euphemism.
- Colloquialisms: These are words or phrases used in informal conversation but not typically found in formal, written text. An example might be “y’all” in Southern U.S. English, which stands for “you all” and is used to address a group of people.
- Synonyms: These are different words with the same or similar meanings. For instance, “happy,” “joyful,” and “content” are all synonyms that convey a similar emotional state.
- Antonyms: These are words that have opposite meanings. Examples include “hot” and “cold,” “up” and “down,” or “light” and “dark.”
- Homonyms: These are words that are spelled and pronounced the same way but have different meanings. For instance, “bat” could refer to the animal, a piece of sports equipment, or the action of batting.
- Homophones: These are words that sound the same when pronounced but have different meanings and may have different spellings. Examples include “two,” “too,” and “to” or “there,” “their,” and “they’re.”
- Polysemy: This refers to words that have multiple related meanings. For instance, “head” can refer to the top part of a body, the person in charge, or the front of a line.
- Analogy: Analogies make a comparison between two things for the purpose of explanation or clarification. An example is “Just as a sword is the weapon of a warrior, a pen is the weapon of a writer.”
- Puns: Puns are a form of word play that exploit multiple meanings of a term, or of similar-sounding words, for an intended humorous or rhetorical effect. An example would be “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.”
- Taboo Language: These are words and phrases that are generally considered inappropriate or offensive in certain contexts. The specifics of what constitutes taboo language can vary widely between cultures, regions, and individuals.
- Connotation: This refers to the emotional or cultural associations that a word carries with it, beyond its dictionary definition. For example, “home” might be associated with warmth, comfort, and family, even though its dictionary definition is simply “a place where one lives.”
Types of Semantics
When studying the meaning of language, several different branches of semantics exist to consider. These include formal semantics, lexical semantics, and conceptual semantics.
1. Formal Semantics
Formal semantics is a branch of semantics that uses mathematical and logical tools to study the meaning of language (Maienborn et al., 2019).
It is concerned with developing precise, formal representations of the meaning of language to understand how sentences are truth-conditionally related.
Formal semantics focuses on the precise meaning of words and phrases within a context and how they combine to produce meaning.
Take, for example, the phrase “for every girl, there are two boys.” We can turn this into a logical formula using formal semantics, in the form “1y = 2x”, where y is girl and x is boy.
We see formal semantics as an underpinning concept in computer coding languages, like Microsoft’s Visual Basic language, where language is used as a way for coders to produce clear and logical text.
2. Lexical Semantics
Lexical semantics is the branch of semantics that is concerned with the meanings of words and phrases.
It involves analyzing the different senses of words and how they relate to one another (Maienborn et al., 2019).
Lexical semantics is concerned with understanding how individual words and phrases contribute to the overall meaning of a sentence or discourse.
For example, the word “bank” has different senses depending on the context. In a financial context, “bank” refers to a financial institution. In contrast, “bank” refers to the water’s edge in a river context.
Lexical semantics can help us to identify the correct word use by contextualizing it in surrounding language and context. For example, a scholar of the bible might take ambiguous words in the bible and try to identify its most likely meaning by examining it in the context of the era in which it was written.
3. Conceptual Semantics
Conceptual semantics is a theoretical framework that explores the relationship between language and thought.
It proposes that language and thought are closely related and that our conceptual systems shape our linguistic systems.
Conceptual semantics looks at the underlying conceptual structures that give rise to language and how words and phrases are used to express these conceptual structures (Maienborn et al., 2019).
For example, the word “happiness” expresses a positive emotion linked to an underlying cognitive structure that includes joy, pleasure, and contentment.
Conceptual semantics can also be linked to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, where it is believed that language determines thought processes, and each language structure also shapes how people think about, conceptualize, and act in the world.
Semantics in Everyday Life
Semantics plays a crucial role in our everyday lives as we constantly use and interpret language to communicate meaning.
Here are some examples of how semantics is applied in everyday life:
A pun is a form of wordplay that takes advantage of the various semantic meanings of words to create humor.
“Why did the tomato turn red? Because it saw the salad dressing!” (Raskin, 2012).
Here, the word “dressing” has two semantic meanings: as a type of sauce and as the act of getting dressed. The pun is created when the second meaning is used to create a play on words.
Companies use semantics to create brand names, slogans, and advertising messages that convey a positive message and evoke certain emotions (Schutte, 1969).
For instance, a perfume ad that uses words like “sensual” and “luxurious” to describe the fragrance uses semantics to make the product more appealing to customers.
3. Language Translation
Translating from one language to another requires careful consideration of semantics, as certain words may not have an exact translation in the target language.
Translators must analyze the semantic meaning of a word or phrase and find ways to convey that meaning in the target language (Maienborn et al., 2011).
4. Social Interactions
Semantics are often used in everyday social interactions to convey meaning beyond the literal meaning of spoken words.
For example, if someone asks, “How are you?” the response may be, “I’m fine,” even if the person is not really feeling fine.
The conversation is guided by the semantic meaning of the words rather than their literal meaning. The terms are used as formalities, not as genuine questions expecting a genuine response.
5. Legal Interpretation
Semantics play an important role in legal interpretation, where the precise meaning of words and phrases can significantly impact legal outcomes.
Lawyers must understand the semantic meaning of the words used in contracts and legal documents to interpret and argue their various points (Skoczeń, 2016).
In fact, there is significant semantic debate within the United States between the “constitutional originalism” vs “living constitution” schools of thought:
- Originalists interpret the words in the constitution literally
- Living constitutionalists interpret the words as requiring interpretation in the context of contemporary times.
For example, the term “men” in the constitution may once have mean only men and not women, whereas today, judges tend to interpret it as adults, since today, men and women are seen as equal participants in society.
Linguistics has a particular area called semantics which studies how meanings are conveyed through words and phrases in a given context.
It examines how different words, phrases, and concepts combine to create the complete meaning of a sentence or conversation.
Today, researchers identify three main types of semantics: formal, lexical, and conceptual. Each of these looks at language from a slightly different perspective and helps us understand how meaning is created through language.
Understanding semantics is important in our daily lives because it improves communication and enables us to grasp the implied meanings of words and phrases.
From puns to legal interpretation, semantics is a core part of human language that cannot be ignored.
Bagha, K. N. (2011). A short introduction to semantics. Journal of Language Teaching and Research, 2(6), 1411–1419. https://doi.org/10.4304/jltr.2.6.1411-1419
Clark, A., & Toribio, J. (2012). Language and meaning in cognitive science. London: Routledge.
Maienborn, C., Heusinger, K., & Portner, P. (2019). Semantics – theories. Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co KG.
Raskin, V. (2011). Semantic mechanisms of humor. New York: Springer.
Riemer, N. (2010). Introducing semantics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Schutte, T. F. (1969). The semantics of branding. Journal of Marketing, 33(2), 5. https://doi.org/10.2307/1249395
Skoczeń, I. (2016). Minimal semantics and legal interpretation. International Journal for the Semiotics of Law, 29(3), 615–633. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11196-015-9448-3