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Semantics

Semantics is the study of the meanings of words, symbols, and various other signs.

The relationship between these elements and how writers interpret them is also part of semantics. Semantics also deals with how these different elements influence one another. For instance, if one word is used in a new way, how it’s interpreted by different people in different places. Body language is also a part of semantics. 

Semantics is incredibly important in one’s ability to understand literature. Without a way to connect words, their meanings and allusions, sentences, paragraphs, and the broader stories they’re a part of would make no sense. 

Semantic pronunciation: seh-man-tick
Semantics definition and examples


Definition of Semantic 

Semantics is the study of language, its meaning, and how it’s used differently around the world. This is auditory language as well as gestures and signs. For example, one gesture in a western country could mean something completely different in an eastern country or vice versa. Semantics also requires a knowledge of how meaning is built over time and words change while influencing one another. There are several different types of semantics that deal with everything from sign language to computer programming. 

The word “semantics” comes from the French meaning “the psychology of language.” 


Types of Semantics 

Below are a few of the many different types of semantics: 

  • Conceptual semantics: focuses on the conceptual elements that allow groups to understand words. It is concerned with literal and connotative meanings. 
  • Formal semantics: studies meaning in artificial and natural language using logic. 
  • Cross-cultural semantics: explores words that may or may not have universal meanings and the differences in translations between cultures and over time. 
  • Lexical semantics: the meaning of words through context. It involves an in-depth study of parts of speech. 
  • Truth-conditional semantics: a formal theory that connects language with meta-language. 
  • Computational semantics: one of the least obvious types of semantics. It focuses on the use of algorithms to process meaning in language. 


Examples of Semantic Language 

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

Within this well-loved tragedy, the reader can find a great example of Juliet questioning semantics and how language is used. The following lines are used to convey a figurative use of language as she asks rhetorical questions about names. 

Tis but thy name that is my enemy.

Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.

What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,

Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part

Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other word would smell as sweet.

Here, Juliet is asking, “What’s in a name?” and “What’s a Montague?” These two questions get to the heart of semantics. She’s trying to convey a figurative meaning that would be impossible to uncover if readers couldn’t connect the question to her broader situation and what the feud between the two families means for the lover’s relationship. She argues in these lines that “Montague” isn’t important to her. What his name is and what it symbolizes means nothing in the face of their love. 

Explore William Shakespeare’s poetry.


Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll 

Carroll’s literary works are often a source of interesting examples of language. His characters are usually quite self-aware and put forward curious statements that allude toter potion in the novel. Consider these lines from the novel: 

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

In these lines, the writer is suggest ing something about semantics. Humpty Dumpty wants his words to be interpreted denotatively while Alice is looking for different meanings. These are based around emotions and experiences that go beyond exactly what Humpty Dumpty said. There is no symbolism behind what he says, Humpty Dumpty suggests. When he says a word, it means what the dictionary says it means, “neither more nor less.” 

Read Lewis Carroll’s poetry.


Catch-22 by Joseph Heller 

In this memorable passage from Catch-22, Heller describes Yossarian’s censoring of letters from his fellow officers and enlisted men. He starts off feeling incredibly bored by the task but starts to make a game of it.

It was a monotonous job, and Yossarian was disappointed to learn that the lives of enlisted men were only slightly more interesting than the lives of officers. […] To break the monotony he invented games. Death to all modifiers, he declared one day, and out of every letter that passed through his hands went every adverb and every adjective. The next day he made war on articles. […]That erected more dynamic intralinear tensions, he felt, and in just about every case left a message far more universal. Soon he was proscribing parts of salutations and signatures and leaving the text untouched.

He removes bits and pieces of their language, axing adverbs, adjectives, conjunctions, and so on, on a rotating basis. This, he thought, made the messages “far more universal.” This is a curious statement that alludes to the nature of language. Without the depth of information needed to understand the sentence, the writer’s personal history becomes meaningless. Soon, anyone and everyone could understand the letters to the same extent. There is nothing for anyone to read into or interpret. 


FAQs 

What is semantics? 

Semantics is the study of the meaning of words and how they influence one another. It is concerned with how language changes and how symbols and signs are used around the world. 

Why is semantics important? 

Semantics is an incredibly important part of the language. Without connections between words, and the reader’s ability to create new connections, language would be meaningless.

What is connotative semantics? 

A phrase, word, or passage that has various associations and meanings. It might bring up emotional memories or allude to other experiences. It connotes other things. 

What is denotative semantics? 

A phrase, word, or passage that does not have any other associations or shouldn’t be interpreted as having any. It’s concerned with the dictionary definition of a word or phrase. 

What is figurative language

It refers to figures of speech that are used in order to improve a piece of writing. That is words that have another meaning other than their basic definition. 


  • Figurative Language: refers to figures of speech that are used in order to improve a piece of writing.
  • Antanaclasis: a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is used several times and the meaning changes.
  • Antiphrasis: a rhetorical device that occurs when someone says the opposite of what they mean, but their true meaning is obvious.
  • Denotation: the literal definition of a word. It is the meaning that’s most commonly found in dictionaries and other academic sources.


Other Resources 

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