Comparative linguistics
Computational linguistics
Historical linguistics
Synchronic linguistics

Semantics (Greek semantikos, giving signs, significant, symptomatic, from sema, sign) is a theory of the aspects of meanings of various forms of linguistic expressions: Such as natural languages, artificial languages, codes, etc. As such, it is contrasted with two other aspects of linguistic expressions. One is syntax, which studies the construction of complex signs from simpler signs; the other is pragmatics, which studies the practical use of signs by agents or communities of interpretation in particular circumstances and contexts.


There are various kinds of studies in semantics in various fields. For instance, in linguistics and philosophy of language, the general natures of meaning are discussed and, in mathematical logic, the formal structures of semantical concepts are developed. Other disciplines, such as computer science and psychology, also address semantics, depending on the interests of the studies.

Historical overview

Syntax is one of the major subfield of linguistics, whose origin can be traced back to Ancient Greece. The recent development of semantic theories witness various kinds of approaches. Componential analysis, having a long tradition, was recently developed by Fordor (1963), Wierzbicka (1972), Schank (1975), Jackendoff (1983; 1990), Goddard (1994), and others. Other major approaches that deviate from this are, for instance, structuralism and prototype theory. The former goes back to Ferdinand de Saussure and has been developed in two separate lines: The theory of lexical fields by Trier (1934) Lehrer (1974), and relational theories of word meaning by Lyons (1977), Cruse, (1986), Evens (1988) and others. The latter emerged in the theory of Ludwig Wittgenstein and was later established by Rosch (1978).[1]

Linguistics and philosophy of language

In linguistics and philosophy of language, semantics is the subfield that is devoted to the study of meanings of various kinds of linguistic units, which ranges from smaller linguistic units, such as words, phrases, or sentences, to larger units of discourse, generically referred to as texts.

Traditionally, semantics has included the study of two main aspects of the meanings of linguistic expressions. One is an extensional (or denotational) aspect of meaning, concerning the relation between linguistic expression and the objects that the linguistic expression refers to, often referred to as denotations or referents. For instance, the expression “two” and the expression “the smallest prime number” refers to the same object, i.e. the number two. Thus, these expressions are considered as extensionally indistinguishable. The other aspect is the intensional (or connotative). This concerns the relation between linguistic expressions and the aspects of the associated meanings that are not captured by the extensional aspect of meaning, which are often referred to as "concepts." The expression “two” and the expression “the smallest prime number” refers to the same object, but they do so through different concept.

One tradition in studying these aspects of meaning is compositional theories of meaning. In theories of this kind, the meanings of linguistic expressions are considered in such a way that the meanings of the simplest linguistic units, say, words, are first given and those of more complex expressions, (phrases, sentences etc.) are explained in terms of those of the simplest components of the expressions.

Another tradition is to consider linguistic expressions as having independent established meanings of their own and to study the relations between different linguistic expressions in terms of the similarities in meaning. This includes homonymy, synonymy, antonymy, polysemy, paronyms, hypernymy, hyponymy, meronymy, metonymy, and others.

The dynamic turn in semantics

These traditional perspectives have been fiercely debated in the emerging domain of cognitive linguistics.[2]

There are two main challenges against the traditions. One concerns the fact that meanings of certain linguistic expressions, such as "indexical" or "anaphora" (e.g. "this X," "him," "last week"), are contextual. The meanings of linguistic expressions of such kinds seems to be determined from factors external to the expressions themselves, such as the contexts of the utterance of the expressions or the positions (say, positions in a given discourse) in which the expressions are placed. The other challenge holds that 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" (Peregrin 2003). 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 a single word, "red," its meaning in a phrase such as "red book" is similar to many other usages, and can be viewed as compositional.[3] However, the color implied in phrases such as "red wine" (very dark), and "red hair" (coppery), or "red soil," or "red skin" are very different. Indeed, these colors 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.

Also, 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.[4]

Against these challenges, various attempts have been made to defend a system based on compositional meaning for semantic underspecification. These can be found, for instance, in the Generative Lexicon model of James Pustejovsky, who extends contextual operations (based on type shifting) into the lexicon.

Prototype theory

Another set of concepts related to fuzziness in semantics is based on Prototype theory. The work of Eleanor Rosch and George Lakoff 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.

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—that is, 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"[5]

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 discussed by the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis.


Various semantical structures of languages have been studied through various logic paradigms. One dominant logical setting in which semantical structures of languages are studied is 1st-order language. The 1st-order is an artificial language which includes constants, variables, function symbols, predicate symbols, and quantifiers. Linguistic expressions in natural languages are dealt with in terms of these artificial linguistic units, and interpreted extensionally. For instance, consider the sentence “The brother of Bob is tall.” Given a domain of discourse, say, human beings in this case, the name “Bob” is dealt with as a constant, say “b” and to the symbol “b,” Bob himself is assigned as the referent; the predicate “is tall” is taken as a predicate symbol, say “T,” and the set of tall people in the domain will be assigned to the symbol “T”; the expression “the brother of” is dealt with as a function symbol, say “f,” and the function from people to the brothers of people is assigned to the symbol “f.” In this setting, the whole sentence will be represented as “Tf(b)” and logical connections of this expression and other expressions of languages are studied.

The semantic structures of various linguistic expressions have been represented and clarified in terms of the first-order logic. For instance, the meanings of determiners, such as “some,” “most,” “more than half” etc. can be analyzed in the setting of the first-order logic.

There are other logical settings used to study semantical structures of languages. Among those, lambda-calculus, modal logic, fuzzy logic.

Semantics, in the field of mathematical logic, also refers often to the theory that presents the rules of how to interpret each elements of logical vocabulary and define the notions of truth and validity (see Metalogic too).

Other Areas

Computer science

In computer science, considered in part as an application of mathematical logic, semantics reflects the meaning of programs.


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.

Major theorists

Linguistics and semiotics

  • Colorless green ideas sleep furiously
  • Discourse representation theory
  • General semantics
  • Meta-semantics
  • Natural semantic metalanguage
  • Pragmatic maxim
  • Pragmaticism
  • Pragmatism
  • Semantic change
  • Semantic class
  • Semantic feature
  • Semantic field
  • Semantic lexicon
  • Semantic progression
  • Semantic property
  • Semeiotic
  • Sememe
  • Semiosis
  • Semiotics
  • Words whose meanings changed when people misunderstood them in context]]

Logic and mathematics

  • Proof-theoretic semantics
  • Semantics of logic
  • Semantic theory of truth
  • Truth-value semantics

Computer science

  • Axiomatic semantics
  • Denotational semantics
  • Formal semantics of programming languages
  • Inheritance semantics
  • Operational semantics
  • Semantic integration
  • Semantic link
  • Semantic network
  • Semantic spectrum
  • Semantic web
  • Theory-based semantics


  1. Philip Edmonds, Semantic Representations of Near-Synonyms for Autocratic Lexical Choice (University of Toronto, 1999).
  2. Ronald W. Langacker, Grammar and Conceptualization (New York: Mouton de Gruyer, 1999). ISBN 3-11-0166604
  3. P. Gardenfors, Conceptual Spaces (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000).
  4. Ferdinand de Saussure, The Course of General Linguistics (1916).
  5. Goerge Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh: The embodies mind and its challenge to Western thought (New York: Basic Books, 1999).


  • Aronoff, M. and J. Rees-Miller. 2003. The Handbook of Linguistics. Blackwell Publishing Professional. ISBN 978-1405102520
  • Enderton, H. B. 2000. A Mathematical Introduction to Logic. 2nd Edition. Academic Press. ISBN 978-0122384523
  • Heasley B. and J. R. Hurford. 2006. Semantics: A Coursework. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521289498
  • Saeed, J. I. 2003. Semantics (Introducing Linguistics, 2). 2nd Edition Blackwell Publishing Professional. ISBN 978-0631226932

External links

All links retrieved September 4, 2015.

General Philosophy Sources


New World Encyclopedia writers and editors rewrote and completed the Wikipedia article in accordance with New World Encyclopedia standards. This article abides by terms of the Creative Commons CC-by-sa 3.0 License (CC-by-sa), which may be used and disseminated with proper attribution. Credit is due under the terms of this license that can reference both the New World Encyclopedia contributors and the selfless volunteer contributors of the Wikimedia Foundation. To cite this article click here for a list of acceptable citing formats.The history of earlier contributions by wikipedians is accessible to researchers here:

Note: Some restrictions may apply to use of individual images which are separately licensed.