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Languages. Semantics. Definitions of meaning

Semantics. Definitions of meaning

Semantics and meaning are inseparable terms as they are closely related. The definition of semantics used in the present paper was taken from Kempson (1977). According to his description, ‘semantics has, until recently, been the Cinderella of linguistics, a branch of the subject which many scholars thought was not amenable to such rigorous methods of evaluation.’  (1977: 2) Almost all the authors describe semantics similarly. For instance, Löbner defines this study as ‘(…) the part of linguistics that is concerned with meaning.’ (2002: 3) Later in his book he offers an exact definition of semantics.
(2002: 10)

Semantics is the study of the meanings of linguistic expressions, either simple or complex, taken in isolation. In further accounts for the way utterance meaning, i.e., the meaning of an expression used in a concrete of utterance, is related to expression of meaning.

I have already mentioned that semantics and meaning are inseparable parts of linguistics. Since I have provided the definition of semantics, I would like to introduce types of meaning relationships, too. The definition was taken from Jannedy et al. (1994: 220). Jannedy et al. claim that ‘(…) the most studied types of semantic relationships between words are synonymy, homonymy, antonymy (…). ’
There are several types of meaning. These are some of them taken from Ginzburg et al. (1979). According to them, the most often studied types of meaning are lexical (which consists of denotational and connotational meaning), grammatical and part-of-speech meaning.

 In this term-paper semantics will be understood as the study of meaning. Some words will be written about the history of semantics and some scientists who studied it. Later, some information about most studied types of semantic relationships will be given. Moreover, several types of meaning will be discussed in this work. Obviously, the most popular issue among linguists who investigate semantics - Ogden & Richards’ triangle will be discussed as well.

According to Crystal, there are three conceptions of meaning (1995: 100-101).

Three conceptions of meaning

Words --> things

In famous philosopher’s Plato’s Cratylus we can find a very popular opinion that such words as ‘name’ or ‘refer to’ are related to things. Proper names like Moscow, Tom Jones, and Daddy demonstrate this idea. So do other words and phrases – labels on the goods in shops or some other labeled things. But there is a large amount of words looking at which we cannot see with what ‘thing’ is it related to, e.g. ‘ask’ or ‘find’, ‘difficult’ or ‘popular’, ‘constancy’ or ‘tradition’. As a result, we are unable to relate some of the words with things, in any clear way.    

Words --> concepts -->  things

This observation denies a direct link between words and things. It tells us that such relationship can be made not only through the use of our minds. There is an associated concept for every word. Here is shown ‘Ogden and Richards’ semiotic triangle’ which perfectly formulates this view.



Symbol           ----    ----        Referent

The main drawback of such approach is hard identifying of ‘concepts’. The ‘concept’ of the word which origin is tradition is no easier to define than the ‘thing’ related to tradition. There are some words which have meanings and it is easy to conceptualize them, but we definitely do not have efficient visual images corresponding to every word we say. Also there is no guarantee that a concept which may come to mind when I use the word hand is going to be the same as other person might imagine.

Stimuli --> words --> responses

Leonard Bloomfield in his book Language stated that meaning is something that can be deduced solely from a study of the situation in which speech is used – the stimulus (S) that led someone to speak (r), and the response (R) that resulted from this speech (s). He draws this as follows:

 S  -->   r………s    -->  R

In Bloomfield’s example, Anna is hungry, sees an apple (S), and asks John to get it for her (r); this linguistic stimulus (s) leads to Jack getting the apple (R). Bloomfield disagrees that the meaning of r…..s must be just observing the events that accompanied it. However, in many situations it is hard to show what the appropriate features of the stimulus/response are. The problem occurs when events are not evidently visible in physical terms (as in the expression of feelings).

The role of semantics in linguistics

Since linguistics is the study of language itself, semantics plays a very important role in it. According to Crystal, ‘semantics is the study of meaning in language’ (1995: 100). Hence, can there be a language without any meaning? Obviously not. In this paragraph I will try to explain you the role of semantics in linguistics.

I think there are several reasons why semantics is a very important issue in linguistics. First of all it is a very attractive subject to investigate. I am sure that every time you try to do so you will find out new things. Further exploration will carry other news and so on. Such ‘semantic chain’ can be endless. What is more, it is fascinating. Most of linguists can’t be mistaken.

Second point in favor of semantics is that it is many-sided. It is related to many subfields of linguistics, for instance:

v    historical linguistics;
v    neurolinguistics/psycholinguistics;
v    pragmatics;
v    Sociolinguistics.

I have numbered only some of major subfields of linguistics which semantics are more or less related to. As I have already said, semantics is an issue which suggests and opens new things all the time you try to explore it.

A personal issue

 In conclusion, I would like to state that meaning is very personal issue for everyone. Let’s look at 7 of 16 different meanings of the word ‘mean/meaning’:
John means to write.

A green light means go. ‘indicates’
Health means everything. ‘has importance’
His look was full of meaning. ‘special import’
What is the meaning of life? ‘point, purpose’
What does ‘capitalist’ mean to you? ‘convey’
What does ‘cornea’ mean? ‘refer to in the world’

As you see from this example, which was taken from Crystal’s encyclopedia (1995: 100), even such easy word as ‘meaning’ can have so many meanings. Obviously, not only this word can have so many meanings. There is a large amount of set phrases which we use in our everyday life. However, their lexical and grammatical meaning completely differs. Have a look at these Lithuanian and English examples.

v    ‚Žiūrėk, kokia karvė eina‘. A Lithuanian would understand me that I am talking about a fat woman walking along the street. A stranger (no matter from which country) who knows or learns Lithuanian would start to look for a real cow walking along the street.

v    ‘To kick the bucket’. People, who have good skills in English language, would understand at once that this is an idiom which means ‘to die’. Bad speakers of this language would start to think that ‘to kick the bucket’ means to kick a bucket and wouldn’t see an idiom in this expression.

Of course, I have given only two examples. Actually there are much more. I think you already know that semantics is kind of science that can be investigated all the time. To sum up, it is very personal matter for every person and can be understood very differently.


1.    Crystal, D. 1995. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Second edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

2.    Fromkin, V. and R. Rodman. 1993. An Introduction to Language. Fifth edition. Holt,Rinehart and Winston, Inc.
3.    Ginzburg R. S., S. S. Khidekel, G. Y. Knyazeva and A. A. Sankin 1979. A Course in Modern English Lexicology. Moscow:Vysšaja Škola.
4.    Jannedy S.I., R. Poletto and L.T. Weldon. 1994. Language Files. Materials for Introduction to Language and Linguistics. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.
5.    Kempson, R.M. Semantic Theory. 1977. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

6.    Löbner, S. 2002. Understanding Semantics. New York: Oxford University Press.

7.    Lyons, J. 1977. Semantics. Volume 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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