Semantics is the study of meaning in communication. The word derives from Greek "σημαντικός" ("semantikos"), "significant", [cite web|url=http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0057%3Aentry%3D%2393797|title=Semantikos, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, "A Greek-English Lexicon", at Perseus] from "σημαίνω" ("semaino"), "to signify, to indicate" and that from "σήμα" ("sema"), "sign, mark, token". [cite web|url=http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0058%3Aentry%3D%2329446|title=Semaino, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, "An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon", at Perseus] In
linguisticsit is the study of interpretation of signs as used by agents or communities within particular circumstances and contexts.cite book
author = Otto Neurath (Editor), Rudolf Carnap (Editor), Charles F. W. Morris (Editor)
title = International Encyclopedia of Unified Science
publisher = University of Chicago Press
location = Chicago, IL
year = 1955 ] It has related meanings in several other fields.
Semanticists differ on what constitutes meaning in an expression. For example, in the sentence, "John loves a bagel", the word "bagel" may refer to the object itself, which is its "literal" meaning or "
denotation", but it may also refer to many other figurative associations, such as how it meets John's hunger, etc., which may be its " connotation". Traditionally, the formal semanticview restricts semantics to its literal meaning, and relegates all figurative associations to pragmatics, but this distinction is difficult to defend. The degree to which a theorist subscribes to the literal-figurative distinction decreases as one moves from the formal semantic, semiotic, pragmatic, to the cognitive semantictraditions.
The word "semantic" in its modern sense is considered to have first appeared in French as "sémantique" in
Michel Bréal's 1897 book, "Essai de sémantique'.In International Scientific Vocabularysemantics is also called " semasiology".The discipline of Semantics is distinct from Alfred Korzybski's General Semantics, which is a system for looking at non-immediate, or abstract meanings.
linguistics, semantics is the subfield that is devoted to the study of meaning, as inherent at the levels of words, phrases, sentences, and even larger units of discourse(referred to as "texts").The basic area of study is the meaning of signs, and the study of relations between different linguistic units: homonymy, synonymy, antonymy, polysemy, paronyms, hypernymy, hyponymy, meronymy, metonymy, holonymy, exocentricity / endocentricity, linguistic compounds. A key concern is how meaning attaches to larger chunks of text, possibly as a result of the composition from smaller units of meaning.Traditionally, semantics has included the study of connotative "sense" and denotative " reference", truth conditions, argument structure, thematic roles, discourse analysis, and the linkage of all of these to syntax.
Formal semanticists are concerned with the modeling of meaning in terms of the semantics of logic. Thus the sentence "John loves a bagel" above can be broken down into its constituents (signs), of which the unit "loves" may serve as both syntactic and semantic head.
In the late 1960s,
Richard Montagueproposed a system for defining semantic entries in the lexicon in terms of lambda calculus. Thus, the syntactic parse of the sentence abovewould now indicate "loves" as the head, and its entry in the lexicon would point to the arguments as the agent, "John", and the object, "bagel", with a special role for the article "a" (which Montague called a quantifier). This resulted in the sentence being associated with the logical predicate "loves (John, bagel)", thuslinking semantics to categorial grammarmodels of syntax.The logical predicate thus obtained would be elaborated further, e.g. using truth theory models, which ultimately relate meanings to a set of Tarskiian universals, which may lie outside the logic. The notion of such meaning atoms or primitives are basic to the language of thoughthypothesis from the 70s.
Despite its elegance,
Montague grammarwas limited by the context-dependent variability in word sense, and led to several attempts at incorporating context, such as :
situation semantics('80s): Truth-values are incomplete, they get assigned based on context
generative lexicon('90s): categories (types) are incomplete, and get assigned based on context
The dynamic turn in semantics
In the Chomskian tradition in linguistics there was no mechanism for the learning of semantic relations, and the nativist view considered all semantic notions as inborn. Thus, even novel concepts were proposed to have been dormant in some sense. This traditional view was also unable to address many issues such as
metaphoror associative meanings, and semantic change, where meanings within a linguistic community change over time, and qualiaor subjective experience. Another issue not addressed by the nativist model was how perceptual cues are combined in thought, e.g. in mental rotation. [Barsalou, L. (1999). Perceptual Symbol Systems. "Behavioral and Brain Sciences" 22(4)]
This traditional view of semantics, as an innate finite meaning inherent in a
lexical unitthat can be composed to generate meanings for larger chunks of discourse, is now being fiercely debated in the emerging domain of cognitive linguisticscite book
author=Ronald W. Langacker
title=Grammar and Conceptualization
location=Berlin/New York| publisher=Mouton de Gruyer
isbn = ISBN 3110166038] and also in the non-Fodorian camp in
Philosophy of Language. cite book
author = Jaroslav Peregrin
year = 2003
title = Meaning: The Dynamic Turn. Current Research in the Semantics/Pragmatics Interface
publisher = Elsevier
location = London] The challenge is motivated by
* factors internal to language, such as the problem of resolving
indexicalor anaphora(e.g. "this x", "him", "last week"). In these situations "context" serves as the input, but the interpreted utterance also modifies the context, so it is also the output. Thus, the interpretation is necessarily dynamic and the meaning of sentences is viewed as context-change potentials instead of propositions.
* factors external to language, i.e. language is not a set of labels stuck on things, but "a toolbox, the importance of whose elements lie in the way they function rather than their attachments to things." This view reflects the position of the later
Wittgensteinand his famous "game" example, and is related to the positions of Quine, Davidson, and others.
A concrete example of the latter phenomenon is semantic
underspecification— meanings are not complete without some elements of context. To take an example of a single word, "red", its meaning in a phrase such as "red book" is similar to many other usages, and can be viewed as compositional.cite book
author = P. Gardenfors
title = Conceptual Spaces
publisher = MIT Press/Bradford Books
location = Cambridge, MA
year = 2000 ] However, the colours implied in phrases such as "red wine" (very dark), and "red hair" (coppery), or "red soil", or "red skin" are very different. Indeed, these colours by themselves would not be called "red" by native speakers. These instances are contrastive, so "red wine" is so called only in comparison with the other kind of wine (which also is not "white" for the same reasons). This view goes back to de Saussure::Each of a set of synonyms like "redouter" ('to dread'), "craindre" ('to fear'), "avoir peur" ('to be afraid') has its particular value only because they stand in contrast with one another. No word has a value that can be identified independently of what else is in its vicinity. [cite book
author = Ferdinand de Saussure
title = The Course of General Linguistics (Cours de linguistique générale)
year = 1916] and may go back to earlier Indian views on language, especially the
Nyayaview of words as indicators and not carriers of meaning.cite book
Bimal Krishna Matilal
title = The word and the world: India's contribution to the study of language
publisher = Oxford
year = 1990 The
Nyayaand Mimamsaschools in Indian vyakaranatradition conducted a centuries-long debate on whether sentence meaning arises through composition on word meanings, which are primary; or whether word meanings are obtained through analysis of sentences where they appear. (Chapter 8). ]
An attempt to defend a system based on propositional meaning for semantic underspecification can be found in the
Generative Lexiconmodel of James Pustejovsky, who extends contextual operations (based on type shifting) into the lexicon. Thus meanings are generated on the fly based on finite context.
Another set of concepts related to fuzziness in semantics is based on
prototypes. The work of
Eleanor Roschand George Lakoffin the 1970s led to a view thatnatural categories are not characterizable in terms ofnecessary and sufficientconditions, but are graded (fuzzy at their boundaries) and inconsistent as tothe status of their constituent members.
Systems of categories are not objectively "out there" in the world but arerooted in people's experience. These categories evolve as learned conceptsof the world — meaning is not an objective truth, but asubjective construct, learned from experience, and language arisesout of the "grounding of ourconceptual systems in shared embodiment and bodily experience".cite book
author = George Lakoff and Mark Johnson
title = Philosophy in the Flesh: The embodied mind and its challenge to Western thought. Chapter 1.
publisher = Basic Books.
location = New York
year = 1999] A corollary of this is that the conceptual categories(i.e. the lexicon) will not be identical fordifferent cultures, or indeed, for every individual in the same culture. Thisleads to another debate (see the
Whorf-Sapir hypothesisor Eskimo words for snow).
English nouns are found by language analysis to have 25 different semantic features, each associated with its own pattern of fMRI brain activity. The individual contribution of each parameter predicts the fMRI pattern when nouns are considered thus supporting the view that nouns derive their meaning from prior experience linked to a common symbol. [cite journal|author = Mitchell TM, Shinkareva S, Carlson A, Chang K, Malave V, Mason R, Just M. date=
2008-05-08|title= Predicting Human Brain Activity Associated with the Meanings of Nouns|journal= “Science”|volume= 320|pages= 1191–1195| doi=10.1126/science.1152876|pmid=18511683]
computer science, where it is considered as an application of mathematical logic, semantics reflects the meaning of programs or functions.
In this regard, semantics permits programs to be separated into their syntactical part (grammatical structure) and their semantic part (meaning). For instance, the following statements use different syntaxes (languages), but result in the same semantic:
* x += y; (C, Java, etc.)
* x := x + y; (Pascal)
* Let x = x + y; (early
* x = x + y (most BASIC dialects,
Generally these operations would all perform an arithmetical addition of 'y' to 'x' and store the result in a variable called 'x'.
Semantics for computer applications falls into three categories: [ Citation
title=Semantics with Applications , A Formal Introduction
publisher=John Wiley & Sons
Operational semantics: The meaning of a construct is specified by the computation it induces when it is executed on a machine. In particular, it is of interest "how" the effect of a computation is produced.
Denotational semantics: Meanings are modelled by mathematical objects that represent the effect of executing the constructs. Thus "only" the effect is of interest, not how it is obtained.
Axiomatic semantics: Specific properties of the effect of executing the constructs as expressed as "assertions". Thus there may be aspects of the executions that are ignored.
Semantic Webrefers to the extension of the World Wide Webthrough the embedding of additional semantic metadata; s.a. Web Ontology Language(OWL).
psychology, " semantic memory" is memory for meaning, in other words, the aspect of memory that preserves only the "gist", the general significance, of remembered experience, while episodic memoryis memory for the ephemeral details, the individual features, or the unique particulars of experience. Word meaning is measured by the company they keep; the relationships among words themselves in a semantic network. In a network created by people analyzing their understanding of the word (such as Wordnet) the links and decomposition structures of the network are few in number and kind; and include "part of", "kind of", and similar links. In automated ontologiesthe links are computed vectors without explicit meaning. Various automated technologies are being developed to compute the meaning of words: latent semantic indexingand support vector machinesas well as natural language processing, neural networksand predicate calculustechniques.
Semantics has been reported to drive the course of psychotherapeutic interventions. Language structure can determine the treatment approach to drug-abusing patients. [AJ Giannini. Mi ritroni in mente.(My echoes in the mind). Il Giornale di San Patrignano.6(32) 27-30,1990] While working in Europe for the US Information Agency, American psychiatrist Dr. A. James Giannini reported semantic differences in medical approaches to addiction treatment. [ AJ Giannini. Bo kahunte ha kpekot(In the claws of crack). Hoba Makeohja. 6(10)34-35,1990.] English-speaking countries used the term "drug dependence" to describe a rather passive pathology in their patients. As a result the physician's role was more active. [ AJ Giannini. An approach to drug abuse, intoxication and withdrawal. American Family Physician. 61(9):2763-2769,2000. ] Southern European countries such as Italy and Yugoslavia utilized the concept of "tossicomania" (i.e. toxic mania) to describe a more active rather than passive role of the addict. As a result the treating physician's role shifted to that of a more passive guide than that of an active interventionist. [ AJ Giannini. L'abbuso di coca crack invasione da fermare.(On avoiding the invasion of crack cocaine). Il Giornale di Medico. 7(6):1-5,1990.]
Major philosophers and theorists
Charles E. Osgood
Charles Sanders Peirce
S. I. Hayakawa
Donald Davidson (philosopher)
Linguistics and semiotics
Colorless green ideas sleep furiously
Discourse representation theory
Natural semantic metalanguage
Problem of universals
Logic and mathematics
Semantics of logic
Semantic theory of truth
Formal semantics of programming languages
Semantic service oriented architecture
* [http://www.universalteacher.org.uk/lang/semantics.htm Teaching page for A-level semantics]
* [http://blip.tv/file/471951 Noam Chomsky, On Referring, Harvard University, 30 October 2007(video)]
* [http://blip.tv/file/509192 Ray Jackendoff, Conceptual Semantics, Harvard University,13 November 2007(video)]
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