Skip to main content



SEMANTICS conveniently divides into two branches, the theory of designation and/or denotation and the theory of meaning. The former constitutes extensional, the latter intensional semantics. Both branches are thus parts of the modern trivium of syntax, semantics, and pragmatics, which is often called "logical semiotics" for short. Semiotics is in fact modern logic in full dress, and is thought by many, especially perhaps at Oxford University, to occupy a central place in the study of the liberal arts. Syntax is the theory of signs as such and how they are interrelated to form longer signs, phrases, sentences, texts, and so on. In semantics, signs are interrelated in one way or another with the objects for which they stand. And in pragmatics the user of language is brought in fundamentally, as well as the various relations that he or she bears to signs and combinations of signs in particular occasions of use.

Signs are often understood in a broader, nonlinguistic sense to allow for "natural" signs, human artifacts, and the like. Thus a weathercock is a sign that the wind is blowing in a certain direction, smoke is a sign of fire, a stop sign on the highway is a sign to the driver, and so on. The study of nonlinguistic signs harks back to the medieval period and in the nineteenth century was given a considerable boost by the work of the American philosopher C. S. Peirce. Even so, it has not yet achieved the exactitude of logical semiotics and, pending such a development, remains somewhat contro-versial.

Designation is the fundamental relation between a sign and what it stands for. In the theory of meaning, much more is taken into account. Thus, in Frege's famous example, the phrases "the morning star" and "the evening star" designate the same object, the planet Venus, but differ considerably in meaning. What is meaning? No easy answer is forthcoming. In any adequate theory of it, however, account should surely be taken of the contexts, linguistic and nonlinguistic alike, in which signs or expressions are used, including, where needed, reference to the user.

A detailed history of semantical concepts, and of the broader domain of semiotical concepts, has not yet been written. Especially important here is the material in book 2 of Augustine's On Christian Doctrine and book 4 of Peter Lombard's Book of Sentences that sustains the doctrine of sacramental theology even to the present day. The contributions of the Scholastic logicians also constitute a rich mine of material that has not yet been sufficiently studied from a modern point of view. Logical semiotics, including semantics, has an important role to play in the study of the languages of theology, both those of fundamental theory and of particular religions.


Bochenski, Joseph M. A History of Formal Logic. Notre Dame, Ind., 1961.

Deely, John. Introducing Semiotics: Its History and Doctrines. Bloomington, Ind., 1982.

Martin, R. M. Truth and Denotation: A Study in Semantical Theory. Chicago, 1958.

Martin, R. M. Semiotics and Linguistic Structure. Albany, N. Y., 1978.

New Sources

Houben, Han, Jac van Wout, and Ineke Sluiter, eds. The Emergence of Semantics in Four Linguistic Traditions; Hebrew, Sanskrit, Greek, Arabic. Amsterdam, 1997.

R. M. Martin (1987)

Revised Bibliography

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Semantics." Encyclopedia of Religion. . 17 Aug. 2018 <>.

"Semantics." Encyclopedia of Religion. . (August 17, 2018).

"Semantics." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved August 17, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.