Semantics (suh-MAN-ticks) refers to the interpretation of language, including words, sentences, phrasing, and symbols. This linguistics discipline also includes understanding the relationships between words and how readers build meaning from these relationships.
The study of semantics is the study of how language and its different facets create meaning. The languages analyzed in semantics can include natural languages—ones that occur and evolve naturally, such as English, Farsi, or French—and artificial languages, such as those used in computer programming (JAVA, Python, etc.).
The word semantic first appeared in English in 1894. It comes from the French semantique, “the psychology of language,” and derived from the Greek semantikos, indicating “significant,” and semainein, “to show by sign, signify, point out, indicate by a sign.”
Types of Semantics
There are seven types of linguistic semantics: cognitive, computation, conceptual, cross-cultural, formal, lexical, and truth-conditional.
- Cognitive semantics: This focuses on language through the lens of general human cognitive abilities.
- Computational semantics: This utilizes algorithms and architectures to explore how linguistic meaning is processed.
- Conceptual semantics: This analyzes the conceptual elements that allow people to understand words and sentences. Conceptual semantics includes analysis of both the denotative (literal, dictionary definition) meaning of a word, as well as the connotative meaning added by associated layers of emotions, thoughts, and experiences which humans connect to language.
- Cross-cultural semantics: This explores whether words have universal meanings and what differences and similarities translate between one language or culture to another.
- Formal semantics: This branch of semantics utilizes symbolic logic, philosophy, and mathematics to produce theories of meanings for natural and artificial languages.
- Lexical semantics: This focuses on the meaning of words, and how meaning is created through context. Lexical semantics also often involves breaking down individual lines of text to study root words, nouns, verbs, adjectives, idioms, and how they are arranged.
- Truth-conditional semantics: This is a formalized theory that associates each sentence of natural language with a meta-language conditional under which it is true.
Semantics and Literary Devices
Semantics plays a significant role in our ability to understand and be moved by literary works, as we must be able to grasp both the individual meaning of words and their relationship to their context.
Conceptual semantics, with its focus on connotative and denotative meaning, allows readers to process literary devices like figurative language, figures of speech, and various types of imagery, such as metaphor, simile and personification. Lexical semantics enables astute readers to interpret elements such as tone based on diction, context, and the writer’s choice of which symbols they use as markers for punctuation.
Examples of Semantics in Literature
1. Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
In the sequel to the novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice has the following exchange with Humpty Dumpty:
“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.”
Their exchange illuminates an interesting aspect of conceptual semantics. Humpty Dumpty intends his words to be interpreted for their denotative meaning only, while Alice is proposing alternate interpretations—some perhaps connotative based on emotions, thoughts, and experiences people may associate with words beyond their strict dictionary definition.
2. Nikki Giovanni, “Nikki-Rosa”
Near the end of her poem, Giovanni writes:
and I really hope no white person ever has cause
to write about me
because they never understand
Black love is Black wealth and they’ll
probably talk about my hard childhood
and never understand that
all the while I was quite happy
Here, Giovanni illustrates a question of cross-cultural semantics. She talks about how someone might misinterpret stories of her childhood and imagine that her life was difficult, rather than understanding that, for Giovanni and her family, they were rich with love.
3. Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
In the second chapter of Nabokov’s novel, his narrator Humbert Humbert describes his mother’s death by saying:
My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightening)
when I was three, and, save for a pocket of warmth in the darkest
past, nothing of her subsists within the hollows and dells of memory, over
which, if you can still stand my style (I am writing under observation), the
sun of my infancy had set: surely, you all know those redolent remnants
of day suspended, with the midges, about some hedge in bloom or
suddenly entered and traversed by the rambler, at the bottom of a hill, in
the summer dusk; a furry warmth, golden midges.
Lexical semantics allows the astute reader to notice the terseness of Humbert’s description of his mother’s death, which he isolates as two words only contained within parentheticals. The novel has already revealed that this narrator is verbose; even the rest of this sentence is lengthy and full of tangents. That Humbert Humbert conveys such an important—and no doubt deeply traumatic—event with uncharacteristic brevity reveals his inability to address painful experiences.
Further Resources on Semantics
Karim Nazari Bagha wrote an excellent introductory guide to semantics for the Journal of Language Teaching and Research.
Aurelie Herbelot explored the “semantics of poetry” for the University of Cambridge.