What is Semantics? - Introduction to Linguistics - The Scientific Study of Language

What is Semantics?

Lexical and Phrasal Semantics

Lexical semantics is concerned with the meanings of words and the meaning of relationships among words, while phrasal semantics is concerned with the meaning of syntactic units larger than the word. Semantic properties are the components of meanings of words. For example, the semantic property “human” can be found in many words such as parent, doctor, baby, professor, widow, and aunt. Other semantic properties include animate objects, male, female, countable items and non-countable items.

The -nyms
Homonyms: different words that are pronounced the same, but may or may not be spelled the same (to, two, and too)

Polysemous: word that has multiple meanings that are related conceptually or historically (bear can mean to tolerate or to carry or to support)

Homograph: different words that are spelled identically and possibly pronounced the same; if they are pronounced the same, they are also homonyms (pen can mean writing utensil or cage)

Heteronym: homographs that are pronounced differently (dove the bird and dove the past tense of dive)

Synonym: words that mean the same but sound different (couch and sofa)

Antonym: words that are opposite in meaning
Complementary pairs: alive and dead
Gradable pairs: big and small (no absolute scale)

Hyponym: set of related words (red, white, yellow, blue are all hyponyms of “color”)

Metonym: word used in place of another to convey the same meaning (jock used for athlete, Washington used for American government, crown used for monarcy)

Retronym: expressions that are no longer redundant (silent movie used to be redundant because a long time ago, all movies were silent, but this is no longer true or redundant)

Thematic Roles
Thematic roles are the semantic relationships between the verbs and noun phrases of sentences. The following chart shows the thematic roles in relationship to verbs of sentences:

Thematic Role Description Example
Agent the one who performs an action Maria ran
Theme the person or thing that undergoes an action Mary called John
Location the place where an action takes place It rains in Spain
Goal the place to which an action is directed Put the cat on the porch
Source the place from which an action originates He flew from Chicago to LA
Instrument the means by which an action is performed He cuts his hair with scissors
Experiencer one who perceives something She heard Bob play the piano
Causative a natural force that causes a change The wind destroyed the house
Possessor one who has something The tail of the cat got caught
Recipient one who receives something I gave it to the girl

Sentential Meaning
The meaning of sentences is built from the meaning of noun phrases and verbs. Sentences contain truth conditions if the circumstances in the sentence are true. Paraphrases are two sentences with the same truth conditions, despite subtle differences in structure and emphasis. The ball was kicked by the boy is a paraphrase of the sentence the boy kicked the ball, but they have the same truth conditions – that a boy kicked a ball. Sometimes the truth of one sentence entails or implies the truth of another sentence. This is called entailment and the opposite of this is called contradiction, where one sentence implies the falseness of another. He was assassinated entails that he is dead. He was assassinated contradicts with the statement he is alive.

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Dr. Jennifer Wagner

PhD in Applied Linguistics, ESL/French teacher, author of two French books, and helping others to learn languages online at ielanguages.com.