What is semantics?

Semantics (from the Greek semantikos , ‘what has meaning’), study of the meaning of linguistic signs, that is, words, expressions and sentences. In metalogic it is the part that studies the interpretations of formal systems of logic ; and the grammar component that interprets the significance of the sentences generated by the syntax and the lexicon in the generative linguistic theory.
Those who study semantics try to answer questions of the type “What is the meaning of X (the word)?”. To do this they have to study what signs exist and which ones have meaning – that is, what they mean to speakers, how they designate them (that is, how they refer to ideas and things), and finally, how they interpret them the listeners. The purpose of semantics is to establish the meaning of the signs – what they mean – within the process that assigns such meanings.

Semantics is studied from a philosophical (pure semantics), linguistic (theoretical and descriptive semantics) perspective as well as from an approach known as general semantics. The philosophical aspect is based on behaviorism and focuses on the process that establishes significance. The linguist studies the elements or traits of meaning and how they relate within the linguistic system. General semantics is interested in meaning, how it influences what people do and say.

  1. Meaning Components

Commonly, semantics comprises two components or ways of assigning meaning, which are:

  • Denotation . The “standard” meaning of the words, the one recorded by the dictionaries and constitutes their “official” sense, more obvious, more referential.
  • Connotation . Those secondary senses that are attributed to a term and that do not have to do directly with the referent enunciated, but with certain characteristics attributed to him by certain culture.

An example of the latter is the word “harpy”, whose denotative meaning is that of mythological animals of ancient Greece, who attracted the sailors with their song and after making them shipwreck against the rocks, they proceeded to devour them.

The denotative meaning of “harpy”, on the other hand, is transmitted by imaginary association to women who consider themselves evil, cruel, unbearable or treacherous.

  1. Semantic families

In the language, relations of association, similarity, comparison or of various kinds arise between meanings: mental images of the things that make up reality. Many times, this relationship also has a related component between different meanings that allows them to be organized like a tree: a semantic family.

It can be said, then, that a semantic family is a set of words that share a common sema. This usually occurs between words that share their grammatical category (word type), for example:

  • Tree: shrub, leaves, roots, flowers, fruits, wood, branches …
  • Book: sheets, cover, library, bookstore, reading, literature …
  • Sport: athletics, tennis, baseball, soccer, basketball …
  • Bread: bakery, sandwich, wheat, oven …
  1. Semantics Examples

Some examples of connotation and denotation of meanings are:

  • That car is painted  black  (denotation: color)

The intentions of that man seem to be  black  (connotation: evil, murky, secret)

  • He had an   open heart operation (denotation: the organ)

He told me that his girlfriend had broken his  heart  (connotation: feelings)

  • The plane is  flying  over Edinburgh (denotation: the real action)

I will fly  to the supermarket to see if I arrive before it closes (connotation: go fast)

  • I left the exam sheet  blank  (denotation: no writing)

My cousin wants to marry in  white  (connotation: correctly, formally, traditionally)

  • Yesterday we adopted a  dog  (denotation: the animal)

That man is a  dog  (connotation: unfaithful, promiscuous, abusive)

  • I will  lift  the pencil from the ground (denotation: take from the ground)

I want to  get up  to Ezekiel’s cousin (connotation: fall in love, conquer)

Philosophical perspective

From the philosophical perspective, semantics (pure semantics), linguistics (theoretical and descriptive semantics) are studied, as well as from the approach known as general semantics. The philosophical aspect is instituted in behaviorism and focuses on the process that constitutes significance. Linguists study the traits of meaning and how they relate in the linguistic system. General semantics is interested in meaning, and how it influences what people do and say.
These approaches have certain applications. The anthropology based on the descriptive semantics, study what conceives a people from culturally significant. the psychology, supported by theoretical semantics, studies what mental process involves understanding and how people identify the acquisition of meaning. Behaviorism applied to animal psychology studies what animal species are capable of delivering messages and how they do it. Those who rely on general semantics examine the connotations of signs that apparently mean the same. The literary criticism , mediated by studies that differentiate the literary language of popular, describes how metaphors evoke feelings and attitudes, also linking to general semantics.

Symbolic logic

One of the most prominent figures of the Vienna Circle, the German philosopher Rudolf Carnap , made his most important contribution to philosophical semantics when he developed symbolic logic: formal system that analyzes the signs and what they designate. Logical positivism understands that meaning is the relationship that exists between words and things, and its study has an empirical foundation: since language, ideally, is a reflection of reality, its signs are linked to things and facts. Now, symbolic logic uses a mathematical notation to establish what the signs designate, and it does so more precisely and clearly than language; this notation also constitutes itself a language, specifically a metalanguage(formal technical language) used to speak the language as if it were another object: the language is the object of a particular semantic study.

An object language has a speaker (for example a French one) who uses expressions (such as plume rouge) to designate a meaning (in this case to indicate a certain pen – plume – of red color –rouge-). The complete description of an object language is called the semiotics of that language. Semiotics presents the following aspects: 1) a semantic aspect, in which the signs (words, expressions and sentences) receive specific designations; 2) a pragmatic aspect, in which contextual relations between speakers and signs are indicated; 3) a syntactic aspect, in which the formal relationships that exist between the elements that make up a sign are indicated (for example, between the sounds that form a sentence).

Any language interpreted according to symbolic logic is an object language that has rules that link signs to their designations. Each sign that is interpreted has a condition of truth – a condition that must be found for the sign to be true. The meaning of a sign is what it designates when its condition of truth is satisfied. For example, the expression or sign the moon is a sphere is understood by anyone who knows Spanish; However, even if it is understood, it may or may not be true. The expression is true if the thing to which the expression or sign is linked – the moon – is really a sphere. To determine the truth values ​​of the sign, everyone will have to check it by looking at the moon.

Semantics of speech acts

The symbolic logic of the positivist school tries to capture the meaning through the empirical verification of the signs — that is, to verify whether the truth of the sign can be confirmed by observing something in the real world. This attempt to understand the meaning in this way has only been moderately successful. The British nationalized Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein abandoned her in favor of his philosophy of ‘ordinary language’ where it was claimed that the truth is based on daily language. He pointed out that not all signs designate things that exist in the world, nor all signs can be associated with truth values. In its approach to philosophical semantics, the rules of meaning are revealed in the use made of language.

The British philosopher JL Austin states that when a person says something, he performs an act of speech, or does something, such as enunciate, predict or warn, and its meaning is what is done in the act of speech through expression. Taking another step in this theory, the American John R. Searle focuses on the need to relate the functions of the signs or expressions with their social context. Affirms that speech implies at least three types of acts: 1) locutionary acts, when things that have a certain meaning or reference are enunciated (of the type the moon is a sphere); 2) ilocutionary acts, when something of a loud voice is promised or ordered, and 3) perlocutionary acts, when the speaker does something to the interlocutor while speaking, how to enrage him, comfort him, promise him something or convince him of something. The ilocutionary force, who receive the signs thanks to the actions implicit in what is said, expresses the intentions of the speaker. To achieve this, the signs used must be adequate, sincere and consistent with the speaker‘s beliefs and behavior, and they must also be recognizable by the listener and have meaning for him.

Philosophical semantics studies the distinction between organized semantics about the values ​​of truth and the semantics of speech acts. Criticisms of this theory maintain that its true function is to analyze the meaning of communication (as opposed to the meaning of language), and that therefore it becomes pragmatic, that is, semiotics, and therefore relates the signs to knowledge. of the world that speakers and listeners show, instead of relating the signs to what they designate (semantic aspect) or establishing the formal relationships between the signs (syntactic aspect). Those who make this criticism affirm that semantics should be limited to assigning the interpretations that correspond to the signs, regardless of who is the speaker and the listener.

Linguistic perspective

In this sense, two schools stand out:

  • descriptive semantics
  • The theoretical.

Descriptive semantics

From this perspective, research focuses on examining what the signs mean in a specific language. For example, they investigate what constitutes a name, a noun phrase, a verb or a verbal phrase. In some languages ​​such as Spanish, the analysis is done through the subject-predicate relationship. In other languages, which are not clear about the distinctions between names, verbs and prepositions, one can say what the signs mean when analyzing the sentence structure. In this analysis, a sign is an operator that is combined with one or more arguments, also signs – often nominal arguments (or noun phrases) – or it relates the nominal arguments to other elements of the expression (such as prepositional phrases or the adverbial ones). For example, in the expression:

Whether the analysis is done based on the subject-predicate relationship, as if it is done on the basis of the sentence, the descriptive semantics sets the classes of expressions (or classes of units that can be substituted within the same sign) and the classes of units, which are the parts of the sentence, as they are traditionally called (as names and verbs).

Thus, the resulting classes are defined in syntactic terms, which also have semantic roles; In other words, the units that constitute the classes perform specific grammatical functions, and when they do, they establish the meaning through preaching, reference and distinctions between entities, relationships and actions. For example ‘wetting’ belongs to a certain kind of expression that contains other units such as ‘modify’ and ‘cure’, and also belongs to the part of the sentence that is known as a verb, where it is part of the subclass of operators that need two arguments, one agent and another patient.

In The rain wets the streets, the semantic role of ‘wet’ is to relate two nominal arguments (‘rain’ and ‘streets’), therefore its semantic role is to identify a type of action. Unfortunately, it is not always possible to establish an exact correlation between semantic classes and semantic roles. For example, ‘David’ has the same semantic role – to identify a person – in the following sentences: It does not seem easy to love David and it does not seem easy for David to love us. However, the syntactic role of ‘David’ is different in the two sentences: in the first one ‘David’ is patient and recipient of the action, in the second he is an agent.

Anthropology, called ethnolinguistics, uses linguistic semantics to determine how the perceptions and beliefs of the people who speak that language express the signs of a language, and this is what is done through formal semantic analysis (or component analysis ). A sign is understood as a word, with its own unity in vocabulary, which is called lexeme.

The component analysis demonstrates the idea that linguistic categories influence or determine the worldview that a particular people has; This hypothesis, called by some ‘Whorf hypothesis’, has been formulated by several authors and has been much debated at the beginning of the 20th century by other authors such as Sapir, Vendryes or Menéndez Pidal. In component analysis, lexemes that belong to the same field of significance integrate the semantic domain. This is characterized by a series of distinctive semantic features (components or constituents) that are the minimum units of meaning that distinguish one lexeme from another.

An analysis of this type fixes, for example, that in Spanish the semantic domain of seating basically covers the chair, armchair, sofa, bench, stool and bench lexemes that distinguish each other by having or not having backrest, arms, number of people who they accommodate in the seat, and height of the legs. But all lexemes have in common a component or feature of significance: something to sit on.

With component analysis, linguists hope to identify the universal set of semantic features that exist, from which each language builds its own, which makes it distinct from another. French structuralist anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss has applied the hypothesis of universal semantic features to analyze the myth and kinship systems of various cultures. He showed that peoples organize their societies and interpret their hierarchies in them according to certain rules, despite the apparent differences they show.

Theoretical semantics

This school seeks a general theory of meaning within the language. For its followers, meaning is part of the linguistic knowledge or competence that every human has.

Generative grammar, as a model of linguistic competence, has three components:

  • the phonological (sound system)
  • the syntactic
  • the semantic

The latter, since it is part of the generative theory of meaning, is understood as a system of rules to decide how to interpret the signs that can be interpreted and determine which signs lack interpretation even if they are grammatical expressions. For example, the phrase Impressionist cats painted a ladder is meaningless even if it is an acceptable sentence from the point of view of their syntactic correction – there are no rules that can interpret it because the phrase is semantically locked.

These same rules also have to decide which interpretation is appropriate in some ambiguous sentences such as: Sancho’s donkey stumbled that can have at least two interpretations.

Generative semantics arose to explain the speaker‘s ability to produce and understand new expressions where grammar or syntax fails. Its purpose is to demonstrate how and why a person, for example, immediately understands that prayer is meaningless. Impressionist cats painted a ladder although it is constructed according to the rules of Spanish grammar; or how that speaker decides as soon as he hears it, what interpretation to give, within the two possible ones, to Sancho’s donkey.

Generative semantics develops the hypothesis that all the information necessary to semantically interpret a sign (usually a sentence) is in the deep syntactic or grammatical structure of that sign. This deep structure includes lexemes (to be understood as words or units of vocabulary that are formed by semantic features that have been selected within the universal set of semantic features).

In a superficial structure (this is when speaking) the lexemes will appear as names, verbs, adjectives and other parts of the sentence, that is, as vocabulary units. When a speaker produces a sentence, he assigns lexemes the semantic roles (of the subject, object and predicate type); The listener listens to the prayer and interprets the semantic features they mean.

Within this school, it has been discussed whether the deep structure and semantic interpretation are different. Most generativists affirm that a grammar should generate the series of well-constructed expressions that are possible in each language, and that that grammar should assign the semantic interpretation that corresponds to each expression. It has also been discussed whether semantic interpretation should be understood to be based on the syntactic structure (that is, it comes from the deep structure of the sentence), or if it should be based only on semantics. According to Noam Chomsky, the founder of this school – within a syntactic-based theory – the superficial and deep structure may jointly determine the semantic interpretation of an expression.

General semantics

This focuses on responding to the argument that raises how people value words and how they influence their behavior. Its main representatives are the linguist Alfred Korzybski , an American of Polish origin, and SI Hayakawa linguist and politician of the same nationality, who warned about the dangers of treating words only in their condition as signs. These authors use the guidelines of general semantics to nullify poor rigorous generalizations, rigid attitudes, incorrect purpose and inaccuracy. Some philosophers and linguists criticize general semantics for suffering from scientific rigor, which is why this approach has lost notoriety .

Textual analysis at the semantic level

The analysis of the texts is carried out at different levels: morphological, syntactic, lexical, syntactic, morphological, phonic and semantic; the precise semantic level:

  • semantic cores and word networks:
  • lexical-semantic oppositions
  • discursive configuration
  • hermeneutical analysis
  • semi-narrative analysis of the lyrical text
  • grammatical lexical cohesive procedures or means
  • text theme determination

Linguistic Semantics

The language is the discipline where originally the semantics concept was introduced. Linguistic semantics is the study of the meaning of language words . Linguistic semantics contrasts with three other aspects that intervene in an expression with meaning: syntax and pragmatics . Semantics is the study of the meaning attributable to syntactically well-formed expressions. The syntax studies only the rules and principles on how to construct semantically interpretable expressions from simpler expressions, but in itself it does not allow to attribute meanings. Semantics examines the way in which meanings were attributed to words, their modifications throughtime and even its changes for new meanings. The lexicography is another part of the semantics that tries to describe the meaning of the words of a language at a given moment and often display their results in the preparation of dictionaries.

On the other hand, pragmatics refers to how circumstances and context help to decide between alternatives of use or interpretation; Thanks to pragmatics, language can be used for humorous or ironic purposes. In addition, pragmatics reduces the ambiguity of expressions, selecting only an appropriate set of interpretations in a given context.

Semantics in mathematics and logic

First-order predicate logic is the simplest type of logical-mathematical system where the concept of semantic interpretation appears. This logic is formed by:

  1. A set of signs (connective, parentheses, quantifiers, …).
  2. A set of variables and constants.
  3. A set of predicates about the variables.
  4. A set of rules for good expression formation from simple expressions.

In the first order logic, the set of variables and constants plays a role similar to the lexicon of natural languages, since under a semantic interpretation they are the elements that admit referents. In turn, the set of rules for good expression training plays the role of syntax in natural languages.

To semantically interpret the formal expressions of a first-order logical system we need to define a structured model or set on which to interpret the formal statements of the logical system. A model according to model theory is a set with a certain structure together with a rule of interpretation that allows to assign to each variable or constant an element of the set and each predicate in which a set of variables intervenes can be judged as true or false about the set in which the propositions of the formal logical system are interpreted.

In mathematical logic , axioms are usually divided into two types:

  • Logical axioms, which basically define the rules of deduction and are formed by tautologies. They are basically valid for any kind of reasonable formal system.
  • Mathematical axioms, which affirm the existence of certain types of sets and objects with true semantic content. Thanks to this, it is possible to introduce new concepts and test the relationships between them.

Thus, if there is a set of axioms that define group theory, any mathematical group is a model in which the propositions and axioms of said theory receive interpretation and result in certain propositions about that model.

Semantics in cognitive sciences

The semantics in cognitive sciences has to do with the combination of signs and with how the mind attributes permanent relationships between these combinations of signs and other facts unrelated by nature to these symbols. It is also very special, since it is the way to introduce given meanings of oneself. For example, the notion that there is a chair in which it has 4 legs, backrest, etc. There are more or less legs but it is a sense of sliding, which is constructed in the mind from the central case or prototype.

Semantic and syntax

The syntax has the function of offering guidelines or norms to create sentences in a coherent way, with the objective of expressing or enunciating the correct meaning of the words, being able to be supervised by the semantic linguistic science that as well identified above is responsible for studying the meaning of words.

Semantic and morphological

Morphology is the linguistic discipline in charge of studying the form and combinations of the internal components of words. Morphology studies through monemas and, these are divided into: lexemes and morphemes.

The lexemes give the lexical meaning to the word, that is, the root of nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs, for example: baker, the lexeme is bread, bluish the lexeme is blue.

On the other hand, morphemes provide grammatical meaning, such as: the determining articles, prepositions, conjunctions, disengagements or affixes.

Semantics and syntax

The syntactic function is the type of relationship established between the different kinds of phrases.

The syntactic functions can be classified into 3 categories:

  • Primary, subject and predicate.
  • Secondary, performed by verbal supplements.
  • Tertiary, they affect the secondary, that is, complement of the name, complement of the adjective, complement of the adverb.

Lexical and structural semantics

Lexical semantics consists in the study of words without any connection with the context in which it operates. For its part, structural semantics, as indicated by its name, consists in building and analyzing elementary units to understand such meanings.

Generative semantics

In generative linguistic theory, semantics is the grammar component that interprets the significance of the sentences generated by the syntax and the lexicon.

Well, generative semantics is the linguistic theory that comes from generative grammar, and states that every sentence made comes, through transformations, from a semantic and non-syntactic structure.


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