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semantics [Gr.,=significant] in general, the study of the relationship between words and meanings. The empirical study of word meanings and sentence meanings in existing languages is a branch of linguistics; the abstract study of meaning in relation to language or symbolic logic systems is a branch of philosophy. Both are called semantics. The field of semantics has three basic concerns: the relations of words to the objects denoted by them, the relations of words to the interpreters of them, and, in symbolic logic, the formal relations of signs to one another (syntax).

In linguistics, semantics has its beginnings in France and Germany in the 1820s when the meanings of words as significant features in the growth of language was recognized. Among the foremost linguistic semanticists of the 20th cent. are Gustaf Stern, Jost Trier, B. L. Whorf, Uriel Weinreich, Stephen Ullmann, Thomas Sebeok, Noam Chomsky, Jerrold Katz, and Charles Osgood. In the linguistics of recent years an offshoot of transformational grammar theory has reemphasized the role of meaning in linguistic analysis. This new theory, developed largely by George Lakoff and James McCawley, is termed generative semantics. In anthropology a new theoretical orientation related to linguistic semantics has been developed. Its leading proponents include W. H. Goodenough, F. G. Lounsbury, and Claude Lévi-Strauss.

In philosophy, semantics has generally followed the lead of symbolic logic, and many philosophers do not make a distinction between logic and semantics. In this context, semantics is concerned with such issues as meaning and truth, meaning and thought, and the relation between signs and what they mean. The leading practitioners have been Gottlob Frege, Lady Welby, Bertrand Russell, Otto Neurath, Rudolf Carnap, Alonzo Church, Alfred Tarski, C. I. Lewis, Ludwig Wittgenstein, J. L. Austin, W. V. Quine, P. F. Strawson, Steven Schiffer, John Searle, H. P. Grice, Saul Kripke, Donald Davidson, and Gilbert Harman.

Since the publication of the influential The Meaning of Meaning (1925) by C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards, semantics has also become important to literary criticism and stylistics, in which the way that metaphors evoke feelings is investigated and differences between ordinary and literary language are studied. A related discipline, general semantics (so called to distinguish it from semantics in linguistics or philosophy), studies the ways in which meanings of words influence human behavior. General semantics was developed by Alfred Korzybski. The key term in Korzybski's system is evaluation, the mental act that is performed by the hearer when a word is spoken. Among the most prominent followers of Korzybski are Stuart Chase, S. I. Hayakawa, and H. L. Weinberg.


A useful introduction to general semantics is H. L. Weinberg, Levels of Knowing and Existence (1959) and F. R. Palmer, Semantics (1981). For semantics in linguistics, see S. Ullman, Semantics (1962) and The Principles of Semantics (1957, repr. 1967); N. Chomsky, Studies on Semantics in Generative Grammar (1972); G. Leach, Semantics (1974); and J. Lyons, Language, Meaning, and Context (1981). For semantics in philosophy, see R. Carnap, Meaning and Necessity (2d ed. 1956); K. and A. Lehrer, The Theory of Meaning (1970); J. F. Rosenberg and C. Travis, ed., Readings in the Philosophy of Language (1971); and D. Davidson and G. Harman, ed., Semantics of Natural Language (2d ed. 1973). For semantics in literary criticism, see K. Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives (1950) and A Grammar of Motives (1955) and the works of W. Empson and P. Wheelwright.

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se·man·tics / səˈmantiks/ • pl. n. [usu. treated as sing.] the branch of linguistics and logic concerned with meaning. There are a number of branches and subbranches of semantics, including formal semantics, which studies the logical aspects of meaning, such as sense, reference, implication, and logical form, lexical semantics, which studies word meanings and word relations, and conceptual semantics, which studies the cognitive structure of meaning. ∎  the meaning of a word, phrase, sentence, or text: such quibbling over semantics may seem petty stuff. DERIVATIVES: se·man·ti·cian / ˌsēmanˈtishən/ n. se·man·ti·cist n.

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semantics That branch of the study of symbols which deals primarily with the development of the meaning of words. Sometimes viewed as a branch of linguistics, sometimes as a sister discipline, semantics attempts to study the attribution of meaning to words, and how these are combined to produce complex meaningful utterances; the nature of meaning itself; and the difficulties people experience when meaning is confused or distorted. Semantics is a background influence in areas such as, for example, ethnomethodology and post-structuralism. See also MEAD, G. H.; PIAGET, JEAN.

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semantics That part of the definition of a language concerned with specifying the meaning or effect of a text that is constructed according to the syntax rules of the language. See also denotational semantics, operational semantics, axiomatic semantics, interpretation.

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semantics Branch of linguistics and philosophy concerned with the study of meaning. In historical linguistics, it generally refers to the analysis of how the meanings of words change over time. In modern linguistics and philosophy, semantics seeks to assess the contribution of word-meaning to the meanings of phrases and sentences, and to comprehend the relationship among and between words and the things they refer to, or stand for.