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SEMANTICS The study of MEANING. The term has at least five linked senses: (1) Sometimes semasiology. In LINGUISTICS, the study of the meaning of words and sentences, their denotations, connotations, implications, and ambiguities. The three levels or components of a common model of language are phonology, syntax, and semantics. (2) In philosophy, the study of logical expression and of the principles that determine the truth or falsehood of sentences. (3) In SEMIOTICS, the study of signs and what they refer to, and of responses to those signs. (4) In general usage, interest in the meanings of words, including their denotations, connotations, implications, and ambiguities. (5) Informally and often pejoratively, the making of (pedantic and impractical) distinctions about the meaning and use of words.


The attempt to formulate a science of signs dates from the late 19c, when the French linguist Michel Bréal published Essai de sémantique (1897). He was interested in the influence of usage on the evolution of words and wished to extend the philological study of language (largely based on text and form) to include meaning. The historical study of meaning, however, is not currently central to the work of semanticists: see SEMANTIC CHANGE. Present-day semantic theory has developed largely from the later theories of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, who emphasized synchronic system and not diachronic evolution. Post-Saussurean semantics is the study of meaning as a branch of linguistics, like GRAMMAR and phonology. In its widest sense, it is concerned both with relations within language (sense) and relations between language and the world (reference). Generally, sense relations are associated with the word or lexical item/lexeme and with a lexical structure; their study is known as structural or lexical semantics. REFERENCE is concerned with the meaning of words, sentences, etc., in terms of the world of experience: the situations to which they refer or in which they occur.

Semantic fields

One approach has been the theory of semantic fields, developed by J. Trier and W. Porzig in 1934. It attempts to deal with words as related and contrasting members of a set: for example, the meaning of English colour words like red and blue, which can be stated in terms of their relations in the colour spectrum, which in turn can be compared with the colour words of other languages. Thus, there is no precise equivalent of blue in Russian, which has two terms, goluboy and siniy, usually translated as ‘light blue’ and ‘dark blue’. In Russian, these are treated as distinct colours and not shades of one colour, as users of English might suppose from their translation.

Sense relations

In addition to semantic fields and lexical sets, a number of different types of SENSE relation have been identified, some traditional, some recent: (1) Hyponymy. Inclusion or class membership: tulip and rose are HYPONYMS of flower, which is their hyperonym or superordinate term. In its turn, flower is a hyponym of plant. In ordinary language, however, words can seldom be arranged within the kinds of strict classification found in zoology or botany. For example, there are arguments about whether rhubarb is a vegetable or a fruit, and whether the tomato is a fruit or a vegetable. (2) SYNONYMY. Sameness of meaning: large is a SYNONYM of big. It is often maintained that there are no true synonyms in a language, but always some difference, of variety (AmE fall, BrE autumn), style (polite gentleman, colloquial BrE chap), emotive meaning (general politician, appreciative statesman), collocation (rancid modifying only bacon or butter). Partial or near synonymy is common, as with adult, ripe, and mature. (3) Antonymy. Oppositeness of meaning. There are, however, several types of opposite: wide/narrow and old/young are gradable both explicitly (X is wider than Y, A is older than B) and implicitly (a wide band is narrower than a narrow road). Such pairs allow for intermediate stages (neither wide nor narrow) and are ANTONYMS proper. Male/female and alive/dead are not usually gradable and allow for no intermediate stage, except in expressions such as more dead than alive. Such pairs are complementaries. Buy/sell and husband/wife are relational opposites (X sells to Y and Y buys from X; only a husband can have a wife, and vice versa). Such pairs are converses. (4) POLYSEMY or multiple meaning. The existence of two or more meanings or senses to one word: for example, flight defined in at least six different ways: the power of flying; the act of flying; an air journey; a series (of steps); fleeing; a unit in an air force. (5) Homonymy. Words different in meaning but identical in form: mail armour, mail post. It is not always easy to distinguish homonymy and polysemy, and dictionaries rely partly on etymology to help maintain the distinction. Ear (of corn) and ear (the organ) are examples of homonymy, because etymologically the former derives from Old English éar (husk) while the latter derives from Old English éare (ear). See HOMONYM, -ONYM.

Componential analysis

An approach which makes use of semantic components was first used by anthropologists in the analysis of kinship terms. Componential analysis seeks to deal with sense relations by means of a single set of constructs. Lexical items are analysed in terms of semantic features or sense components: for example, such sets as man/woman, bull/cow, ram/ewe have the proportional relationships man : woman :: bull : cow :: ram : ewe. Here, the components [male]/[female], and [human]/[bovine]/[ovine] may account for all the differences of meaning. Generally, components are treated as binary opposites distinguished by pluses and minuses: for example, [+male]/[−male] or [+female]/[−female] rather than simply [male]/[female]. It has been argued that projection rules can combine the semantic features of individual words to generate the meaning of an entire sentence, and to account for ambiguity (as in The bill is large) and anomaly (as in *He painted the walls with silent paint). There are complexities where the features are not simply additive but arranged in hierarchical structure: for example, in the proposal to analyse kill as [cause] [to become] [not alive]. It is controversial whether there is a finite set of such universal semantic components accounting for all languages and whether the components have conceptual reality.

Semantics and grammar

The meaning of a sentence is generally assumed to be derived from the meaning of its words, but it can be argued that we usually interpret whole sentences and that the sentence, not the word, is the basic unit of meaning, the meaning of words being derived from the meaning of sentences. This view is implicit in the referential theories of meaning discussed below. A distinction has been made by the British linguist John Lyons between sentence meaning and utterance meaning: sentence meaning is concerned with ‘literal’ meaning determined by the grammatical and lexical elements, unaffected by the context or what the speaker ‘meant’ to say.

Utterance meaning includes: (1) Presupposition. The statement The king of France is bald presupposes that there is a king of France, and the statement I regret that Mary came presupposes that Mary did come, but I believe that Mary came does not. What is presupposed in this sense is not asserted by the speaker but is nevertheless understood by the hearer. (2) Implicature. A term associated with H. P. Grice. The statement It's hot in here may imply the need to open a window, I tried to telephone John yesterday would normally suggest that I failed, and I've finished my homework (as a reply to Have you finished your homework and put your books away?) would suggest that the books have not been put away. Implicature is concerned with the various inferences we can make without actually being told, and includes presupposition. (3) Prosodic features. The use of stress and tone, as when He SAW Mary this morning means that he did not avoid her or telephone her, in contrast with He saw MARY this morning, rather than or in addition to anyone else. (4) Speech acts. Associated with J. L. Austin (How to do Things with Words, 1962). When a ship is launched with the words I name this ship…, the usage is not a statement of fact but an action. Similarly, I declare this meeting closed is the act of closing that meeting. Such speech acts, called performatives, cannot be said to be true or false. The notion of speech act can be extended to more common types of speech function: questions, orders, requests, statements, etc., and it is instructive to note that what appears to be a question may actually be a request: for example, Can you pass the salt?, where it would be inappropriate, though true, to reply Yes, of course I can without taking any action.


The place of reference in semantics is controversial. A problem with word meaning in terms of reference is that though words for objects may seem to denote, or refer to, objects (as with stone and house), other words (abstract nouns, verbs, and prepositions, etc.) do not seem to refer to anything. Many words are quite vague in their reference, with no clear dividing line between them (hill/mountain, river/stream/brook), and may be used for sets of objects that are very different in appearance (dog and table covering a wide range of animals and pieces of furniture). Referential meaning (usually of words but also of sentences) is sometimes known as cognitive meaning, as opposed to emotive or evaluative meaning. In traditional terms, this is the difference between denotation and connotation. Since there are theoretical problems with the concept of referential meaning (which seems inapplicable to abstract nouns, verbs, etc.), some scholars prefer the terms cognitive and affective. Thus, the pairs horse/steed, statesman/politician, and hide/conceal may be said to have the same cognitive meanings, but different affective meanings.

Approaches to meaning

The American linguist Leonard Bloomfield regarded meaning as a weak point in language study and believed that it could be wholly stated in behaviourist terms. Following the Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, the British linguist J. R. Firth argued that context of situation was an important level of linguistic analysis alongside syntax, collocation, morphology, phonology, and phonetics, all making a contribition to linguistic meaning in a very wide sense. However, there have been few attempts to make practical use of that concept. Many scholars have therefore, excluded reference from semantics. Thus, in transformational-generative grammar, the semantic component is entirely stated in terms of sense or semantic components, as described above in terms of componential analysis. Others have argued for a truth-conditional approach to semantics, in which the meaning of bachelor as ‘unmarried man’ is shown by the fact that if X is an unmarried man is true, then X is a bachelor is also true.


Every aspect of meaning which cannot be stated in truth-conditional terms is PRAGMATICS; the distinction is close to that of sentence and utterance meaning. But there are problems with this distinction and with the exclusion of reference. Thus, such deictic relationships as here/there and this/that, and words such as today and the personal pronouns, appear to contribute to sentence meaning, yet depend for their interpretation on reference, which varies according to the identity of speaker and hearer and the time and place of the utterance.


There can be no single, simple approach to the study of semantics, because there are many aspects of meaning both within language and in the relation between language and the world. The complexity of semantics reflects the complexity of the use of human language.


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Bacon, Leonard

Leonard Bacon, 1802–81, American Congregational minister, b. Detroit, Mich. He served for 41 years as pastor of the First Church of New Haven, one of the leading Congregational churches in the country. Bacon was a noted antislavery leader, although not an abolitionist. His Slavery Discussed in Occasional Essays (1846) made a great impression upon Lincoln. He was a founder and editor of the Independent and author of the widely known Pilgrim Hymn (1833) and The Genesis of the New England Churches (1874).

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