Semantics (from Ancient Greek: σημαντικός sēmantikos, "significant") is primarily the linguistic, and also philosophical study of meaning—in language, programming languages, formal logics, and semiotics. It focuses on the relationship between signifiers—like words, phrases, signs, and symbols—and what they stand for, their denotation.
In international scientific vocabulary semantics is also called semasiology. The word semantics was first used by Michel Bréal, a French philologist. It denotes a range of ideas—from the popular to the highly technical. It is often used in ordinary language for denoting a problem of understanding that comes down to word selection or connotation. This problem of understanding has been the subject of many formal enquiries, over a long period of time, especially in the field of formal semantics. In linguistics, it is the study of the interpretation of signs or symbols used in agents or communities within particular circumstances and contexts. Within this view, sounds, facial expressions, body language, and proxemics have semantic (meaningful) content, and each comprises several branches of study. In written language, things like paragraph structure and punctuation bear semantic content; other forms of language bear other semantic content.
The formal study of semantics intersects with many other fields of inquiry, including lexicology, syntax, pragmatics, etymology and others. Independently, semantics is also a well-defined field in its own right, often with synthetic properties. In the philosophy of language, semantics and reference are closely connected. Further related fields include philology, communication, and semiotics. The formal study of semantics can therefore be manifold and complex.
Semantics contrasts with syntax, the study of the combinatorics of units of a language (without reference to their meaning), and pragmatics, the study of the relationships between the symbols of a language, their meaning, and the users of the language. Semantics as a field of study also has significant ties to various representational theories of meaning including truth theories of meaning, coherence theories of meaning, and correspondence theories of meaning. Each of these is related to the general philosophical study of reality and the representation of meaning.
In linguistics, semantics is the subfield that is devoted to the study of meaning, as inherent at the levels of words, phrases, sentences, and larger units of discourse (termed texts, or narratives). The study of semantics is also closely linked to the subjects of representation, reference and denotation. The basic study of semantics is oriented to the examination of the meaning of signs, and the study of relations between different linguistic units and compounds: homonymy, synonymy, antonymy, hypernymy, hyponymy, meronymy, metonymy, holonymy, paronyms. A key concern is how meaning attaches to larger chunks of text, possibly as a result of the composition from smaller units of meaning. Traditionally, semantics has included the study of sense and denotative reference, truth conditions, argument structure, thematic roles, discourse analysis, and the linkage of all of these to syntax.
In the late 1960s, Richard Montague proposed a system for defining semantic entries in the lexicon in terms of the lambda calculus. In these terms, the syntactic parse of the sentence John ate every bagel would consist of a subject (John) and a predicate (ate every bagel); Montague demonstrated that the meaning of the sentence altogether could be decomposed into the meanings of its parts and in relatively few rules of combination. The logical predicate thus obtained would be elaborated further, e.g. using truth theory models, which ultimately relate meanings to a set of Tarskiian universals, which may lie outside the logic. The notion of such meaning atoms or primitives is basic to the language of thought hypothesis from the 1970s.
Despite its elegance, Montague grammar was limited by the context-dependent variability in word sense, and led to several attempts at incorporating context, such as:
- Situation semantics (1980s): truth-values are incomplete, they get assigned based on context
- Generative lexicon (1990s): categories (types) are incomplete, and get assigned based on context
Dynamic turn in semantics
|Applied and experimental|
In Chomskyan linguistics there was no mechanism for the learning of semantic relations, and the nativist view considered all semantic notions as inborn. Thus, even novel concepts were proposed to have been dormant in some sense. This view was also thought unable to address many issues such as metaphor or associative meanings, and semantic change, where meanings within a linguistic community change over time, and qualia or subjective experience. Another issue not addressed by the nativist model was how perceptual cues are combined in thought, e.g. in mental rotation.
This view of semantics, as an innate finite meaning inherent in a lexical unit that can be composed to generate meanings for larger chunks of discourse, is now being fiercely debated in the emerging domain of cognitive linguistics and also in the non-Fodorian camp in philosophy of language. The challenge is motivated by:
- factors internal to language, such as the problem of resolving indexical or anaphora (e.g. this x, him, last week). In these situations context serves as the input, but the interpreted utterance also modifies the context, so it is also the output. Thus, the interpretation is necessarily dynamic and the meaning of sentences is viewed as contexts changing potentials instead of propositions.
- factors external to language, i.e. language is not a set of labels stuck on things, but "a toolbox, the importance of whose elements lie in the way they function rather than their attachments to things." This view reflects the position of the later Wittgenstein and his famous game example, and is related to the positions of Quine, Davidson, and others.
A concrete example of the latter phenomenon is semantic underspecification – meanings are not complete without some elements of context. To take an example of one word, red, its meaning in a phrase such as red book is similar to many other usages, and can be viewed as compositional. However, the colours implied in phrases such as red wine (very dark), and red hair (coppery), or red soil, or red skin are very different. Indeed, these colours by themselves would not be called red by native speakers. These instances are contrastive, so red wine is so called only in comparison with the other kind of wine (which also is not white for the same reasons). This view goes back to de Saussure:
Each of a set of synonyms like redouter ('to dread'), craindre ('to fear'), avoir peur ('to be afraid') has its particular value only because they stand in contrast with one another. No word has a value that can be identified independently of what else is in its vicinity.
An attempt to defend a system based on propositional meaning for semantic underspecification can be found in the generative lexicon model of James Pustejovsky, who extends contextual operations (based on type shifting) into the lexicon. Thus meanings are generated "on the fly" (as you go), based on finite context.
Another set of concepts related to fuzziness in semantics is based on prototypes. The work of Eleanor Rosch in the 1970s led to a view that natural categories are not characterizable in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, but are graded (fuzzy at their boundaries) and inconsistent as to the status of their constituent members. One may compare it with Jung's archetype, though the concept of archetype sticks to static concept. Some post-structuralists are against the fixed or static meaning of the words. Derrida, following Nietzsche, talked about slippages in fixed meanings.
Systems of categories are not objectively out there in the world but are rooted in people's experience. These categories evolve as learned concepts of the world – meaning is not an objective truth, but a subjective construct, learned from experience, and language arises out of the "grounding of our conceptual systems in shared embodiment and bodily experience". A corollary of this is that the conceptual categories (i.e. the lexicon) will not be identical for different cultures, or indeed, for every individual in the same culture. This leads to another debate (see the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis or Eskimo words for snow).
Theories in semantics
Model theoretic semantics
Originates from Montague's work (see above). A highly formalized theory of natural language semantics in which expressions are assigned denotations (meanings) such as individuals, truth values, or functions from one of these to another. The truth of a sentence, and more interestingly, its logical relation to other sentences, is then evaluated relative to a model.
Formal (or truth-conditional) semantics
Pioneered by the philosopher Donald Davidson, another formalized theory, which aims to associate each natural language sentence with a meta-language description of the conditions under which it is true, for example: 'Snow is white' is true if and only if snow is white. The challenge is to arrive at the truth conditions for any sentences from fixed meanings assigned to the individual words and fixed rules for how to combine them. In practice, truth-conditional semantics is similar to model-theoretic semantics; conceptually, however, they differ in that truth-conditional semantics seeks to connect language with statements about the real world (in the form of meta-language statements), rather than with abstract models.
Lexical and conceptual semantics
This theory is an effort to explain properties of argument structure. The assumption behind this theory is that syntactic properties of phrases reflect the meanings of the words that head them. With this theory, linguists can better deal with the fact that subtle differences in word meaning correlate with other differences in the syntactic structure that the word appears in. The way this is gone about is by looking at the internal structure of words. These small parts that make up the internal structure of words are termed semantic primitives.
A linguistic theory that investigates word meaning. This theory understands that the meaning of a word is fully reflected by its context. Here, the meaning of a word is constituted by its contextual relations. Therefore, a distinction between degrees of participation as well as modes of participation are made. In order to accomplish this distinction any part of a sentence that bears a meaning and combines with the meanings of other constituents is labeled as a semantic constituent. Semantic constituents that cannot be broken down into more elementary constituents are labeled minimal semantic constituents.
Computational semantics is focused on the processing of linguistic meaning. In order to do this concrete algorithms and architectures are described. Within this framework the algorithms and architectures are also analyzed in terms of decidability, time/space complexity, data structures they require and communication protocols.
In computer science, the term semantics refers to the meaning of languages, as opposed to their form (syntax). According to Euzenat, semantics "provides the rules for interpreting the syntax which do not provide the meaning directly but constrains the possible interpretations of what is declared." In other words, semantics is about interpretation of an expression. Additionally, the term is applied to certain types of data structures specifically designed and used for representing information content.
For instance, the following statements use different syntaxes, but cause the same instructions to be executed:
||Ada, ALGOL, ALGOL 68, BCPL, Dylan, Eiffel, Modula-2, Oberon, OCaml, Object Pascal (Delphi), Pascal, SETL, Simula, Smalltalk, Standard ML, VHDL, etc.|
||Assembly languages: Intel 8086|
||BASIC: most dialects; Fortran, MATLAB, Lua|
Generally these operations would all perform an arithmetical addition of 'y' to 'x' and store the result in a variable called 'x'.
- Operational semantics: The meaning of a construct is specified by the computation it induces when it is executed on a machine. In particular, it is of interest how the effect of a computation is produced.
- Denotational semantics: Meanings are modelled by mathematical objects that represent the effect of executing the constructs. Thus only the effect is of interest, not how it is obtained.
- Axiomatic semantics: Specific properties of the effect of executing the constructs are expressed as assertions. Thus there may be aspects of the executions that are ignored.
Terms such as semantic network and semantic data model are used to describe particular types of data model characterized by the use of directed graphs in which the vertices denote concepts or entities in the world, and the arcs denote relationships between them.
The Semantic Web refers to the extension of the World Wide Web via embedding added semantic metadata, using semantic data modelling techniques such as Resource Description Framework (RDF) and Web Ontology Language (OWL).
In psychology, semantic memory is memory for meaning – in other words, the aspect of memory that preserves only the gist, the general significance, of remembered experience – while episodic memory is memory for the ephemeral details – the individual features, or the unique particulars of experience. The term 'episodic memory' was introduced by Tulving and Schacter in the context of 'declarative memory' which involved simple association of factual or objective information concerning its object. Word meaning is measured by the company they keep, i.e. the relationships among words themselves in a semantic network. The memories may be transferred intergenerationally or isolated in one generation due to a cultural disruption. Different generations may have different experiences at similar points in their own time-lines. This may then create a vertically heterogeneous semantic net for certain words in an otherwise homogeneous culture. In a network created by people analyzing their understanding of the word (such as Wordnet) the links and decomposition structures of the network are few in number and kind, and include part of, kind of, and similar links. In automated ontologies the links are computed vectors without explicit meaning. Various automated technologies are being developed to compute the meaning of words: latent semantic indexing and support vector machines as well as natural language processing, neural networks and predicate calculus techniques.
Ideasthesia is a psychological phenomenon in which activation of concepts evokes sensory experiences. For example, in synesthesia, activation of a concept of a letter (e.g., that of the letter A) evokes sensory-like experiences (e.g., of red color).
Linguistics and semiotics
- Asemic writing
- Cognitive semantics
- Colorless green ideas sleep furiously
- Computational semantics
- Discourse representation theory
- General semantics
- Generative semantics
- Natural semantic metalanguage
- Phono-semantic matching
- Pragmatic maxim
- Problem of universals
- Semantic change or progression
- Semantic class
- Semantic feature
- Semantic field
- Semantic lexicon
- Semantic primes
- Semantic property
- SPL notation
Logic and mathematics
- Formal semantics of programming languages
- Knowledge representation
- Semantic networks
- Semantic transversal
- Semantic analysis
- Semantic compression
- Semantic HTML
- Semantic integration
- Semantic interpretation
- Semantic link
- Semantic reasoner
- Semantic service oriented architecture
- Semantic spectrum
- Semantic unification
- Semantic Web
- σημαντικός. Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; A Greek–English Lexicon at the Perseus Project
- The word is derived from the Ancient Greek word σημαντικός (semantikos), "related to meaning, significant", from σημαίνω semaino, "to signify, to indicate", which is from σῆμα sema, "sign, mark, token". The plural is used in analogy with words similar to physics, which was in the neuter plural in Ancient Greek and meant "things relating to nature".
- Chambers Biographical Dictionary,5e.1990,p.202
- Neurath, Otto; Carnap, Rudolf; Morris, Charles F. W. (Editors) (1955). International Encyclopedia of Unified Science. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
- Cruse, Alan; Meaning and Language: An introduction to Semantics and Pragmatics, Chapter 1, Oxford Textbooks in Linguistics, 2004; Kearns, Kate; Semantics, Palgrave MacMillan 2000; Cruse, D. A.; Lexical Semantics, Cambridge, MA, 1986.
- Kitcher, Philip; Salmon, Wesley C. (1989). Scientific Explanation. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. p. 35.
- Barsalou, L.; Perceptual Symbol Systems, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 22(4), 1999
- Langacker, Ronald W. (1999). Grammar and Conceptualization. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyer. ISBN 3-11-016603-8.
- Peregrin, Jaroslav (2003). Meaning: The Dynamic Turn. Current Research in the Semantics/Pragmatics Interface. London: Elsevier.
- Gärdenfors, Peter (2000). Conceptual Spaces: The Geometry of Thought. MIT Press/Bradford Books. ISBN 978-0-585-22837-2.
- de Saussure, Ferdinand (1916). The Course of General Linguistics (Cours de linguistique générale).
- Matilal, Bimal Krishna (1990). The Word and the World: India's Contribution to the Study of Language. Oxford. The Nyaya and Mimamsa schools in Indian vyākaraṇa tradition conducted a centuries-long debate on whether sentence meaning arises through composition on word meanings, which are primary; or whether word meanings are obtained through analysis of sentences where they appear. (Chapter 8).
- Lakoff, George; Johnson, Mark (1999). Philosophy in the Flesh: The embodied mind and its challenge to Western thought. Chapter 1. New York, NY: Basic Books. OCLC 93961754.
- Levin, Beth; Pinker, Steven; Lexical & Conceptual Semantics, Blackwell, Cambridge, MA, 1991
- Jackendoff, Ray; Semantic Structures, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1990
- Cruse, D.; Lexical Semantics, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1986
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- Euzenat, Jerome. Ontology Matching. Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg, 2007, p. 36
- Nielson, Hanne Riis; Nielson, Flemming (1995). Semantics with Applications, A Formal Introduction (1st ed.). Chicester, England: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 0-471-92980-8.
- Giannini, A. J.; Semiotic and Semantic Implications of "Authenticity", Psychological Reports, 106(2):611–612, 2010
- Teaching page for A-level semantics
- Chomsky, Noam; On Referring, Harvard University, 30 October 2007 (video)
- Jackendoff, Ray; Conceptual Semantics, Harvard University, 13 November 2007 (video)
- Semantics: an interview with Jerry Fodor (ReVEL, vol. 5, no. 8 (2007))