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Semantics: The meaning of Words, Phrases & Sentences

The word Semantics is derived from the Greek word ‘semantikos’ meaning ‘significance’. In linguistics, it is known as ‘the branch which studies the meaning of the words, phrases & sentences’. Meaning is the relation between words and objects (image) to which they refer. If we say ‘tree’, we imagine an object (having branches, leaves and flowers or fruits). However, the meaning and application of the term ‘semantics’ was not used in this sense till the 1920s. In 1923, Ogden, Charles K. & Richards Ivor A. published a seminal book titled ‘Meaning of Meaning’. From this point the linguists started considering semantics as a special branch of linguistics studying the way in which the words and sentences acquire meaning or how does the native users understand the meaning associated with particular words, phrases and sentences.

Earlier, semantics used to study historical meaning of the words. This process by which the words and sentences gain their meaning, include some important terms and concepts. The study of semantics, therefore, depends upon discussion and understanding of these terms. So, lets understand some of them:


Denotative Meaning:
In simple words, this can be described as ‘a dictionary meaning’. It is a kind of a stable or fixed meaning representing a true, real objects rather than a word standing for some other idea. This kind of meaning can also be described as cognitive, descriptive, referential or conceptual meaning. It is the logical meaning of the words. For example, in the sentence “Sam climbed the mango tree”, all words have a conceptual meaning. i.e. Sam is a name, climb is an act, and the mango tree is a fixed concept of a tree somewhat with a little variation.


Connotative Meaning:
It is an associated meaning or additional meaning of the words. This uses the words and their denotation to mean something extra than their conceptual or denotative meaning. The ‘extra’ meaning is cultural and subjective. It can be understood only by an exclusive groups like native speakers, a group of friends or some cultural, social & ethnical groups. For example, the denotative meaning of the term Knight Riders is the worriers awarded by the royal family. However, when this name is given to a cricket team it does not mean actual worriers but it represents the strengths, valour and worrier like attitude.


Seven Types of Meaning:
Geoffrey Leech in his book ‘Semantics the Study of Meaning’ (1981, second edition) proposed seven types of meaning and they are well accepted. They are as follows:
1. CONCEPTUAL MEANING or SENSE Logical, cognitive, or denotative content
2. CONNOTATIVE MEANING What is communicated by virtue of what language refers to
3. SOCIAL MEANING What is communicated of the social circumstances of language use
4. AFFECTIVE MEANING What is communicated of the feelings and attitudes of the speaker/writer
5. REFLECTED MEANING What is communicated through association with another sense of the same expression
6. COLLOCAT1VE MEANING What is communicated through association with words which tend to occur in the environment of another word
7. THEMATIC MEANING What is communicated by the way in which the message is organized in terms of order and emphasis


Lexical Relations:
The words in an utterance or a sentence are related to each other in various ways. The relations are described with the help of following terms:
A. Synonymy (Same name): These are the words with the same meaning. This may be a partial similarity. For example, the word ‘learner’ has student, pupils, trainee & disciple as synonyms. However, they can be used with difference of meaning also.
B. Antonymy (Opposed meaning): This kind of words often mean considering the contrast or difference they suggest. For example, ‘big – small’. Antonyms can be separate words like ‘hot-cold’ or they can be words derived by adding prefixations like ‘legal-illegal’, etc.
C. Homonymy: The words with same spelling and pronunciation but different meaning come under this category. For example, ‘Bank’ has same spelling and pronunciation but it means differently as ‘a financial institution’ or ‘a bank of a river’.
D. Homography: The words with same spelling but having different meaning. For example, ‘wind’ can be meant ‘air in motion’ or also ‘to wrap something’. However, in both cases the pronunciation is different. If we mean it ‘air in motion’ it will be pronounced as /wind/, whereas when we mean it as ‘to wrap’ it will be pronounced as /waind/.
E. Homophones: The words having similar pronunciation with different spellings and different meanings. For example, /rait/ can be spelled as right, rite, or write, all having different meanings.
F. Polysemy: This means words with different meanings. For example, ‘Dish’. It can refer to an object (utensil in which we eat), or a favourite food item, or the electric tool for catching TV channels. ‘Position’ can be meant as a place, a designation in a job or a kind opinion on a matter.


Sense and Reference:
Sense is internal relation of the words with the other words. It includes synonymy, hyponymy, antonymy and homonymy.

Reference is a relation of word with concept or object. Ogden & Richard (1923) explained the relation in the following manner:

ReferentThe object in the real world
ReferenceThe concepts in our mind
SymbolWords or linguistic item we use.


Entailment and Presupposition:
Entailment is when a sentence is logical sequence of the other sentence, or when a sentence includes meaning of the other sentence. For example, in a sentence ‘Sam works in London’ includes ‘Sam lives in England’.

Presupposition is when it implies earlier meaning which is known. For example, ‘Jonny divorced Amber’ presupposes Jonny and Amber were married.

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