Semantics is the study of meaning communicated through language. we begin with a basic assumption: that a person’s linguistic abilities are based on knowledge that they have. It is this knowledge that we are seeking to investigate. One of the insights of modern linguistics is that speakers of a language have different types of linguistic knowledge, including how to pronounce words, how to construct sentences, and about the meaning of individual words and sentences. To reflect this, linguistic description has different levels of analysis. So phonology is the study of what sounds a language has and how these sounds combine to from words; syntax is the study of how words can be combined into sentences; and semantics is the study of the meanings of words sentences.
Semantics and Semiotics
We see our basic task in semantics as showing how people communicate meanings with pieces of language. Note, though, that this is only part of a larger enterprise of investigating how people understand meaning. Linguistic meaning is a special subset of the more general human ability to use signs.
Three Challenges in Doing Semantics
Analyzing a speaker’s semantic semantic knowledge is an exciting and challenging task, as we hope to show in this book. We can get some idea of how challenging by adopting a simple but intuitively attractive theory of semantics which we can call the definitions theory. This theory would simply state that to give the meaning of words. We could then assume that when a speaker combines words to form sentences according to the grammatical rules of her language, the word definitions are combined to form phrase and then sentence definitions, giving us the meanings of sentences. Let us investigate putting this approach into practice.
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Meeting the Challenges
In most current linguistic theories, semantic analysis as important a part of the linguist’s job as, say, phonological analysis. Theories differ on details of the relationship between semantics and other levels of analysis like syntax and morphology, but all seem to agree that linguistic analysis is incomplete without semantics. We need, it seems to establish a semantic component in out theories. We have to ask: how can we meet the three challenges outlined in the last section? Clearly we have to replace a simple theory of definitions with a theory that successfully solves these problems.
Semantics in a Model of Grammar
As has been suggested already, for many linguists the aim if doing semantics is to set up a component of the grammar which will parallel other components like syntax or phonology. Linguists like to draw flowchart-style diagrams of grammatical models, and in many of them there is a box labeled semantics.
Word meaning and sentence meaning
If an independent component of semantics is identified, one central issue is the relationship between word meaning and sentence meaning. Knowing a language, especially one’s native language, involves knowing thousands of words. As mentioned earlier, we can call the mental store of these words a lexicon, making an overt parallel with the lists of words and meanings published as dictionaries. We can imagine the mental lexicon as a large but finite body of knowledge, part of which must be semantic. This lexicon is not completely static because we are continually learning and forgetting words. It is clear, though, that at any one time we hold a large amount of semantic knowledge in memory.
Phrases and sentences also have meaning, of course, but an important difference between word meaning on the one hand, and phrase and sentence meaning on the other, concerns productivity. It is always possible to create new words, but this is a relativity infrequent occurrence. On the other hand, speakers regularly create sentences that they have never used or heard before, confident that their audience will understand them. Norm Chomsky in particular has commented on the creativity of sentence formation.
Some important Assumptions
At this point we can introduce some basic ideas that are assumed in many semantic theories and that will come in useful in our subsequent discussion . In most cases the descriptions of these ideas will be simple and a little on the vague side.
Signified signified signified
signifier signifier signifier
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Reference and Sense
One important point made by the linguist Ferdinand de saussur (1974), whose ideas have been so influential in the development of modern linguistics, is that the meaning of linguistic expressions derives from two sources the language they are part of and the world they describe. Words stand in a relationship to the world, or our mental classification of it: hey allow us to identify parts of the world, and make statements about them. Thus If a speaker says He saw Paul or She bought a dog, the underlined nominal identify, pick out, or refer to specific entities in the world. However words also derive their value from their position with the language system. The relationship by which language hooks onto the world is usually called reference. The semantic links between elements within the vocabulary system are an aspect of their sense, or meaning.
Utterances sentences and propositions
These three terms are used to describe different levels of language. The most concrete is utterance and utterance is created by speaking (or writing) a piece of language. If I say Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny this is one utterance. If another person in the same room also says Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, then we would be dealing with two utterances.
Sentences, on the other hand, are abstract grammatical elements obtained from utterances. Sentences are abstract because if a third and fourth person in the room also say Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny with the same intonation, we will want to say that we have met four utterances of the same sentence. In other words, sentences are abstracted, or generalized, from actual language use One example of this abstraction is direct quotation. If someone reports He said Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny she is unlikely to mimic the original speaker exactly . Usually the reporter will use her normal voice and thus filter out certain types of in formation: the difference in pitch levels between men, women and children: perhaps some accent differences due to regional or social variation; and certainly those phonetic details which identify individual speakers. Speakers seem to recognize that at the level of the sentence these kinds of information are not important, and so discard them. So we can look at sentences from the point of view of the speaker, where they are abstract elements to be made real by uttering them; or from the hearer’s point of view, where they are abstract elements reached by filtering out certain kinds of information from utterances.
The War Ended
Logicians commonly use formulae for propositions in which the verb is viewed as a function, and its subject and any objects as arguments of the function. Such formulae often delete verb endings, articles and other grammatical elements so that corresponding to Literal and non-literal meaning
This distinction is assumed in many semantics texts but attempting to define it soon leads us into some difficult and theory-laden decisions. The basic distinction seems a common-sense one: distinguishing between instances where the speaker speaks in a neutral, factually accurate way, and instances where the speaker deliberately describes something in untrue or impossible terms I order to achieve special effects.
Semantics and pragmatics
A similarly difficult distinction is between semantics and pragmatics. These terms denote related and complementary fields of study, both concerning the transmission of meaning through language. Drawing the line between the two fields is difficult and controversial but as a preliminary we can turn to an early use of the term pragmatics in Charles Morris’s division of semiotics.
we will see examples of these problems and proposed solutions as we proceed through this book. We noted that establishing a semantics component in linguistic theory involves deciding how to relater word meaning and sentence meaning and sentence meaning. Finally, we introduced some background ideas that are assumed in many semantic theories and which we will examine in more detail in subsequent chapters reference and sense utterance, sentence and proposition literal and non literal meaning and semantics and pragmatics.
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