Semantics From A Linguistic View English Language Essay

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Semantics is an entity in linguistics, which involves the study of the meaning in language. Thus language is used as part of communication, which is the transfer of information from a sender to a receiver. The meaning is transferred by word, phrases and sentences. Semantics is also a very important property for speech-language pathologists. (photocophy)

Why is it relevant to Speech-Language Pathologists?

A speech-language pathologist is a professional who can assess, treat and diagnose patients or clients who have speech, voice and swallowing difficulties. They encourage patients to formulate messages that are correct in order to achieve proper communication. Since communication reflects the knowledge of word meaning of an individual, semantics is greatly significant to a speech-language pathologist.

Semantics from a Linguistic View

A person is said to have a vocabulary or lexicon of his own. The development of a vocabulary is unique to each and every person, it is also heavily affected upon environmental exposure and culture. As a child grows he/she will acquire new words that help the child communicate more accurately. Also a child learns how to use words to produce new meanings and improve the words he/she already knows.

Semantics is an important unit in language together with syntax, morphology, phonology and pragmatics which all merge together. All these components are of great importance for language in order to use them and convey an accurate and useful message.

Another three important components in language are form, content and use which were studied intensely by Ferdinand de Saussure in his theory of Language. Saussure identified the form (sound pattern) and content (meaning) as inseparable and arbitrary, that is both are used simultaneously and one cannot know the form without its content and vice versa. Thus individuals with language difficulties may experience problems regarding the form and content. For example one may know the meaning of a dog but cannot produce the form or sound of the word dog. A diagrammatic representation of the components of language is on the following page. (photocopy + crstal and varley)










Figure 1: Components of Language

From Robert E. Owens Jr. Language Development: An Introduction, 6th edition. Published by Allyn & Bacon, Boston, MA. (2005)

Word Learning

Word learning is one of the most important achievements one can accomplish, since a child will gain the ability to communicate with his/her caregiver. First the child must be interested in understanding the form or concepts in order to attain the need to communicate for his/her needs during everyday activities.

The child will start to decode (understand) language before he/she will encode (produce) a message. It is very important for a child to learn comprehension in order to start producing sounds that are associated with a given situation. The child then tries to reproduce the word without associating it with the situation where he/she heard it. After reaching this step the child then says the word in the appropriate situation and will wait for a response. This continues to occur until the child will master the word and be able to use it at appropriate situations.

Word learning is a dyadic (relationship between two persons) affair that depends on both the adult and the child (joint attention). The most vital issue is the child's own cognitive skills and efforts which contributes to his/her intention reading and cultural learning.

The Social Pragmatic Theory of Word Learning (Tomasello, 2003)

Michael Tomasello divided his theory into three processes:

Prerequisite processes

Foundational processes

Facilitative processes

Prerequisite processes are conditions or qualities that are essential in order for a child to learn a language. Prerequisite processes are divided mainly into two aspects, segmentation and conceptualizing referents, both are crucial for word learning.

Segmenting speech is the process of classifying spoken language into words, syllables, morphemes and phonemes. Young children must develop word knowledge in order to learn how to segment words in speech from one another. Children normally deal with segmentation before linking forms to meanings. Parents usually do not use pauses between words when they are talking to their children, this may cause the child to experience difficulty in segmenting speech. Earlier studies show that the facility to segment speech develops at around six to eight months of age (Jusczyk & Aslin, 1995). Speech segmentation requires a child to be exposed to a certain amount of language.

Children learn to conceptualize in order to associate daily activities with word meanings. As children grow older, they learn how to link meanings with objects and events that they have already experienced, together with learning new words that are used in the same concept.

Foundational Processes are divided mainly into three components: joint attention, intention reading and cultural reading. As children start learning words they develop what we call mapping skills. They learn how to map meanings onto word forms. The forms were stored at an earlier age of the child's life, and now the children are aware of the word meaning, therefore the forms become meaningful.

Joint attention is when two individual share focus on an object, this happens when on individual signals the other individual to the object by gestures and other non-verbal communication. This sharing of focus represents first social interactions of young children that are acquiring their first words.

Intention reading is another concept when infants try to understand the need of communication of others. "They infer the meanings conveyed by specific forms by relying on:


Conceptual knowledge

Pragmatic principles

Cultural learning is an outcome of intention reading."  

Facilitative processes helps the child the master his/her language by different means. The two main aspects are lexical contrast and linguistic context. Lexical contrast is when children learn to contrast different words which have the same meaning. Example: car and truck, for the child they are both means of transport and both are driven by someone. Therefore children will start to understand that there are various means to convey the intended message to someone, by different words that have similar or same meaning.

Linguistic context helps children to understand new meanings by the linguistic context around the word. For example if a child is told to 'sit on a chair' and the child already knows the meaning of sit, the infant now can associate the word 'chair' with 'sit' and eventually will learn the true meaning of chair. This is a vital step for children, since it helps them build up their own lexicon and be able to use longer utterances.

Semantic Impairments in Children

According to the World Health Organization, a disability is…

"Any restriction or lack (resulting from any impairment) of ability to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being"

A semantic impairment may lead to problems such as processing words, mapping forms with meanings and others, which may hinder communication. There are four semantic impairments that are most common in children:

Word Finding Difficulties (WFD)

Confusion of Polar Opposites

Over Extensions & Under Extensions

Difficulty with Semantic Field Boundaries

Word finding difficulties (WFDs): Children that have difficulty to retrieve words but have good comprehension of words are said to have word finding difficulty. These children seem not to know the answer or topic that they are being spoken about, but in reality they know but unfortunately they fail to express their knowledge. Children with word finding difficulties experience a problem of retrieving specific words such as verbs, nouns, adjectives, numbers etc. During discourse children find a problem to relate experiences and events, also their conversation may be short or contain word repetition, insertions, fillers and others. Children with such difficulty may have different ranges of word finding difficulties, those who fail to retrieve a word in single-word tasks and those who suffer from word retrieval difficulties during a discourse.

Confusion of polar opposites: Polar opposites are words that contradict each other. Examples of such opposites: on & off, hot & cold. Children that have problem with confusing polar opposites, know the feature if each word but confuses the meaning of each word. For example a child might know when the water is hot and also when the water is cold, but when faced with a situation to state the water condition, the child is confused. The child will answer hot instead of cold, and cold instead of hot. Confusion of polar opposites is fairly common during the very early stages of word learning but might result in a difficulty if it is not handled.

Over extensions: Over extensions is the use of the same words to denote different objects which have similar features. Example using the word 'dog' for any four legged animal. In this way children may use a word to overgeneralize. Also over extensions may be the result of preferring to use simpler words rather than more complex words. Children may experience such difficulty between 12-30 months of age. The opposite of over extension is under extension which is also common with young children. This is when a child uses a single word for only one particular item. For example the child says 'cat' referring to their pet at home, but when the same child is in a park and sees a cat he/she will not refer to that animal as a cat. In their mind a cat is only their pet at home. (Studies done by: Caplan & Barr, 1989).

Difficulty with semantic field boundaries: Children that experience language disorders may have problems with how the semantic system works. A child may encounter slow development of learning in general which affects his/her semantic field boundaries. Example categorizing the word 'table' with food instead of a piece of furniture. Also children may use deictic terms more than normal. Deictic terms are words that refer to someone or something which are used during a conversation. Examples of deictic terms: 'there', 'he', 'she', 'this', 'that' these words are used when the individual who is being spoken to knows the context knowledge of the conversation. For example if two persons are talking about their mother, they are most likely to use: 'her', 'she' and other similar deictic terms. Children who possess poor lexical knowledge may overuse deictic terms. Example: I want to go there. The word 'there' is not specific.

Semantic Impairments in Adults

Usually semantic impairments in adults will develop on a later stage in life, typically after a traumatic injury which involves the brain. Previously to an injury the individual would have developed a typically semantic system.

After a traumatic brain injury there are definite difficulties that an individual may experience such as memory, which is one of the commonest to be affected. Also language and communication skills may be damaged, causing difficulties to produce and understand language. Vision and auditory deficits may also arise.

Post trauma patients may have word sound deafness, word form deafness or word meaning deafness. Word sound deafness is when the individual can listen to a particular sound but cannot identify it. Word form deafness is when word forms that are stored in the brain cannot be recognized, while word meaning deafness is when the word forms are familiar but their meanings are not. Adults may also experience word finding difficulties as previously discussed in children semantic impairments. Individuals may start to retrieve words that are used more often and also retrieve words that are simpler in form rather than complex words.


Semantics is a crucial component, it is the gist of transferring relevant information from one another through communication. Semantic impairments live through every age group, from young children to elderly people. A speech language pathologist must be familiar with such impairments in order to approach individuals with the most suitable treatment. Treatment may not treat completely the impairment but certainly makes one's life better.