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Semantics (from Ancient Greek: σημαντικός sēmantikós, "significant")[a][1] is the study of meaning, reference, or truth. The term can be used to refer to subfields of several distinct disciplines, including philosophy, linguistics and computer science.


In linguistics, semantics is the subfield that studies meaning. Semantics can address meaning at the levels of words, phrases, sentences, or larger units of discourse. One of the crucial questions which unites different approaches to linguistic semantics is that of the relationship between form and meaning.[2]

Theories in linguistic semantics

Formal semantics

Formal semantics seeks to identify domain-specific mental operations which speakers perform when they compute a sentence's meaning on the basis of its syntactic structure. Theories of formal semantics are typically floated on top of theories of syntax such as generative syntax or Combinatory categorial grammar and provide a model theory based on mathematical tools such as typed lambda calculi. The field's central ideas are rooted in early twentieth century philosophical logic as well as later ideas about linguistic syntax. It emerged as its own subfield in the 1970s after the pioneering work of Richard Montague and Barbara Partee and continues to be an active area of research.

Conceptual semantics

This theory is an effort to explain properties of argument structure. The assumption behind this theory is that syntactic properties of phrases reflect the meanings of the words that head them.[3] With this theory, linguists can better deal with the fact that subtle differences in word meaning correlate with other differences in the syntactic structure that the word appears in.[3] The way this is gone about is by looking at the internal structure of words.[4] These small parts that make up the internal structure of words are termed semantic primitives.[4]

Cognitive semantics

Cognitive semantics approaches meaning from the perspective of cognitive linguistics. In this framework, language is explained via general human cognitive abilities rather than a domain-specific language module. The techniques native to cognitive semantics are typically used in lexical studies such as those put forth by Leonard Talmy, George Lakoff, Dirk Geeraerts, and Bruce Wayne Hawkins. Some cognitive semantic frameworks, such as that developed by Talmy, take into account syntactic structures as well. Semantics, through modern researchers can be linked to the Wernicke's area of the brain and can be measured using the event-related potential (ERP). ERP is the rapid electrical response recorded with small disc electrodes which are placed on a person's scalp. [5]

Lexical semantics

A linguistic theory that investigates word meaning. This theory understands that the meaning of a word is fully reflected by its context. Here, the meaning of a word is constituted by its contextual relations.[6] Therefore, a distinction between degrees of participation as well as modes of participation are made.[6] In order to accomplish this distinction any part of a sentence that bears a meaning and combines with the meanings of other constituents is labeled as a semantic constituent. Semantic constituents that cannot be broken down into more elementary constituents are labeled minimal semantic constituents.[6]

Cross-cultural semantics

Various fields or disciplines have long been contributing to cross-cultural semantics. Are words like love, truth, and hate universals?[7] Is even the word sense – so central to semantics – a universal, or a concept entrenched in a long-standing but culture-specific tradition?[8] These are the kind of crucial questions that are discussed in cross-cultural semantics. Translation theory, ethnolinguistics, linguistic anthropology and cultural linguistics specialize in the field of comparing, contrasting, and translating words, terms and meanings from one language to another (see Herder, W. von Humboldt, Boas, Sapir, and Whorf). But philosophy, sociology, and anthropology have long established traditions in contrasting the different nuances of the terms and concepts we use. And online encyclopaedias such as the Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and more and more Wikipedia itself have greatly facilitated the possibilities of comparing the background and usages of key cultural terms. In recent years the question of whether key terms are translatable or untranslatable has increasingly come to the fore of global discussions, especially since the publication of Barbara Cassin's Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon, in 2014.[9][10]

Computational semantics

Computational semantics is focused on the processing of linguistic meaning. In order to do this concrete algorithms and architectures are described. Within this framework the algorithms and architectures are also analyzed in terms of decidability, time/space complexity, data structures that they require and communication protocols.[11]


Many of the formal approaches to semantics in mathematical logic and computer science originated in early twentieth century philosophy of language and philosophical logic. Initially, the most influential semantic theory stemmed from Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell. Frege and Russell are seen as the originators of a tradition in analytic philosophy to explain meaning compositionally via syntax and mathematical functionality. Ludwig Wittgenstein, a former student of Russell, is also seen as one of the seminal figures in the analytic tradition. All three of these early philosophers of language were concerned with how sentences expressed information in the form of propositions. They also dealt with the truth values or truth conditions a given sentence has in virtue of the proposition it expresses.[12]

In present day philosophy, the term "semantics" is often used to refer to linguistic formal semantics, which bridges both linguistics and philosophy. There is also an active tradition of metasemantics, which studies the foundations of natural language semantics.[13]

Computer science

In computer science, the term semantics refers to the meaning of language constructs, as opposed to their form (syntax). According to Euzenat, semantics "provides the rules for interpreting the syntax which do not provide the meaning directly but constrains the possible interpretations of what is declared."[14]

Programming languages

The semantics of programming languages and other languages is an important issue and area of study in computer science. Like the syntax of a language, its semantics can be defined exactly.

For instance, the following statements use different syntaxes, but cause the same instructions to be executed, namely, perform an arithmetical addition of 'y' to 'x' and store the result in a variable called 'x':

Statement Programming languages
x += y C, C++, C#, Java, JavaScript, Python, Ruby, etc.
$x += $y Perl, PHP
x := x + y Ada, ALGOL, ALGOL 68, BCPL, Dylan, Eiffel, J, Modula-2, Oberon, OCaml, Object Pascal (Delphi), Pascal, SETL, Simula, Smalltalk, Standard ML, VHDL, etc.
Assembly languages: Intel 8086
ldr r2, [y]
ldr r3, [x]
add r3, r3, r2
str r3, [x]
Assembly languages: ARM
LET X = X + Y BASIC: early
x = x + y BASIC: most dialects; Fortran, MATLAB, Lua
Set x = x + y Caché ObjectScript
set /a x=%x%+%y% Batch
(incf x y) Common Lisp
/x y x add def PostScript
y @ x +! Forth

Various ways have been developed to describe the semantics of programming languages formally, building on mathematical logic:[15]

  • 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 are expressed as assertions. Thus there may be aspects of the executions that are ignored.

Semantic models

The Semantic Web refers to the extension of the World Wide Web via embedding added semantic metadata, using semantic data modeling techniques such as Resource Description Framework (RDF) and Web Ontology Language (OWL). On the Semantic Web, terms such as semantic network and semantic data model are used to describe particular types of data model characterized by the use of directed graphs in which the vertices denote concepts or entities in the world and their properties, and the arcs denote relationships between them. These can formally be described as description logic concepts and roles, which correspond to OWL classes and properties.[16]


Semantic memory

In 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 memory is memory for the ephemeral details – the individual features, or the unique particulars of experience. The term 'episodic memory' was introduced by Tulving and Schacter in the context of 'declarative memory' which involved simple association of factual or objective information concerning its object. Word meaning is measured by the company they keep, i.e. the relationships among words themselves in a semantic network. The memories may be transferred intergenerationally or isolated in one generation due to a cultural disruption. Different generations may have different experiences at similar points in their own time-lines. This may then create a vertically heterogeneous semantic net for certain words in an otherwise homogeneous culture.[17] 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 ontologies the links are computed vectors without explicit meaning. Various automated technologies are being developed to compute the meaning of words: latent semantic indexing and support vector machines as well as natural language processing, artificial neural networks and predicate calculus techniques.


Ideasthesia is a psychological phenomenon in which activation of concepts evokes sensory experiences. For example, in synesthesia, activation of a concept of a letter (e.g., that of the letter A) evokes sensory-like experiences (e.g., of red color).


In the 1960s, psychosemantic studies became popular after Charles E. Osgood's massive cross-cultural studies using his semantic differential (SD) method that used thousands of nouns and adjective bipolar scales. A specific form of the SD, Projective Semantics method[18] uses only most common and neutral nouns that correspond to the 7 groups (factors) of adjective-scales most consistently found in cross-cultural studies (Evaluation, Potency, Activity as found by Osgood, and Reality, Organization, Complexity, Limitation as found in other studies). In this method, seven groups of bipolar adjective scales corresponded to seven types of nouns so the method was thought to have the object-scale symmetry (OSS) between the scales and nouns for evaluation using these scales. For example, the nouns corresponding to the listed 7 factors would be: Beauty, Power, Motion, Life, Work, Chaos, Law. Beauty was expected to be assessed unequivocally as "very good" on adjectives of Evaluation-related scales, Life as "very real" on Reality-related scales, etc. However, deviations in this symmetric and very basic matrix might show underlying biases of two types: scales-related bias and objects-related bias. This OSS design meant to increase the sensitivity of the SD method to any semantic biases in responses of people within the same culture and educational background.[19][20]

Prototype theory

Another set of concepts related to fuzziness in semantics is based on prototypes. The work of Eleanor Rosch in the 1970s led to a view that natural categories are not characterizable in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, but are graded (fuzzy at their boundaries) and inconsistent as to the status of their constituent members. One may compare it with Jung's archetype, though the concept of archetype sticks to static concept. Some post-structuralists are against the fixed or static meaning of the words. Derrida, following Nietzsche, talked about slippages in fixed meanings.

Systems of categories are not objectively out there in the world but are rooted in people's experience. These categories evolve as learned concepts of the world – meaning is not an objective truth, but a subjective construct, learned from experience, and language arises out of the "grounding of our conceptual systems in shared embodiment and bodily experience".[21] A corollary of this is that the conceptual categories (i.e. the lexicon) will not be identical for different cultures, or indeed, for every individual in the same culture. This leads to another debate (see the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis or Eskimo words for snow).

See also

  • Semantic technology


  1. ^ The word is derived from the Ancient Greek word σημαντικός (semantikos), "related to meaning, significant", from σημαίνω semaino, "to signify, to indicate", which is from σῆμα sema, "sign, mark, token". The plural is used in analogy with words similar to physics, which was in the neuter plural in Ancient Greek and meant "things relating to nature".


  1. ^ σημαντικός. Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; A Greek–English Lexicon at the Perseus Project
  2. ^ Kroeger, Paul (2019). Analyzing Meaning. Language Science Press. pp. 4–6. ISBN 978-3-96110-136-8.
  3. ^ a b Levin, Beth; Pinker, Steven; Lexical & Conceptual Semantics, Blackwell, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1991
  4. ^ a b Jackendoff, Ray; Semantic Structures, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1990
  5. ^ Goldstein, E. Bruce, 1941- (2015). Cognitive psychology : connecting mind, research and everyday experience (4th ed.). New york: Cengage learning. ISBN 978-1-285-76388-0. OCLC 885178247.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  6. ^ a b c Cruse, D.; Lexical Semantics, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1986
  7. ^ Underhill, James, W. Ethnolinguistics and Cultural Concepts: truth, love, hate & war, Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  8. ^ Wierzbicka, Anna. Experience, Evidence, and Sense: The hidden cultural legacy of English, Oxford University Press, 2010.
  9. ^ Cassin, Barbara. Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon, Princeton University Press, 2014.
  10. ^ Sadow, Lauren, ed. In Conversation with Anna Wierzbicka,
  11. ^ Nerbonne, J.; The Handbook of Contemporary Semantic Theory (ed. Lappin, S.), Blackwell Publishing, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1996
  12. ^ "Theories of Meaning". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  13. ^ Alexis Burgess, Brett Sherman (eds.), Metasemantics: New Essays on the Foundations of Meaning, Oxford University Press, 2014, p. 29 n. 13.
  14. ^ Euzenat, Jerome. Ontology Matching. Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg, 2007, p. 36
  15. ^ Nielson, Hanne Riis; Nielson, Flemming (1995). Semantics with Applications, A Formal Introduction (1st ed.). Chicester, England: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 0-471-92980-8.
  16. ^ Sikos, Leslie F. (2017). Description Logics in Multimedia Reasoning. Cham: Springer International Publishing. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-54066-5. ISBN 978-3-319-54066-5. S2CID 3180114.
  17. ^ Giannini, A. J.; Semiotic and Semantic Implications of "Authenticity", Psychological Reports, 106(2):611–612, 2010
  18. ^ Trofimova, I (2014). "Observer bias: how temperament matters in semantic perception of lexical material". PLOS ONE. 9 (1): e85677. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0085677. PMC . PMID 24475048.
  19. ^ Trofimova, I (1999). "How people of different age sex and temperament estimate the world". Psychological Reports. 85/2: 533–552. doi:10.2466/pr0.85.6.533-552.
  20. ^ Trofimova, I (2012). "Understanding misunderstanding: a study of sex differences in meaning attribution". Psychological Research. 77/6 (6): 748–760. doi:10.1007/s00426-012-0462-8. PMID 23179581. S2CID 4828135.
  21. ^ Lakoff, George; Johnson, Mark (1999). Philosophy in the Flesh: The embodied mind and its challenge to Western thought. Chapter 1. New York, NY: Basic Books. OCLC 93961754.

Edited: 2021-06-18 19:10:36