Posted by: erienkoma | May 18, 2011

Semantics:The Study of Meaning, Language in Use


Semantics is study of the meaning of words and other parts of language, or the systematic study of meaning. The study of meaning can be undertaken in various ways. Speakers of a language have an implicit knowledge about what is meaningful in their language and it easy to show this. Three disciplines are concerned with the systematic study of ‘meaning’ in itself: psychology, philosophy, and linguistics.
In this paper the writers try to describe different approaches to the investigation of meaning. Linguistic semantics is concerned with what knowledge individual speakers of a language possess which makes it for them to communicate with one another.
More over, trough this paper the writers try to describe more at the specific features of communication, beginning with observations about non linguistic signs and how we get meaning from them. We introduce a distinction between a sentence, a language construction, and an utterance, a particular act of speaking or writing. An utterance is typically part of a larger discourse. In spoken discourse meanings are partly communicated by the emphases and melodies that are called prosody. Vocal and gestural signs can also be the means of transmitting meanings.
Long before linguistics existed as a discipline, thinkers were speculating about the nature of meaning. For thousands of years, this question has been considered central to philosophy. More recently, it has come to be important in psychology as well. Contributions to semantics have come from a diverse group of scholars, ranging from Plato and Aristotle in ancient Greece to Bertrand Russell in the twentieth century.
1. The study of meaning, by virtue of their meaning, words and phrases are able to enter into a variety of semantic relations with other words and phrases in the language. Because these relationships help identify those aspects of meaning relevant to linguistic analysis.
Synonyms are words or expressions that have the same meanings in some or
all contexts. Look at the following table.
Table 1.1 Some synonyms in English

● In the spine, the thoracic vertebrae are above the lumbar vertebrae.
In the spine, the lumbar vertebrae are below the thoracic vertebrae.

Antonym are words or phrases that are opposites with respect to some component of their meaning.
Table 1.2 Some antonyms in English

Contradict each other:

Jakarta is the capital of Indonesia.
Jakarta isn’t the capital of Indonesia
Polysemy occurs where a word has two or more related meanings.
Table 1.3 Some polysemy in English
Word Meaning A Meaning B
to glare
a deposit shining
to shine intensely
minerals in the earth intelligent
to stare angrily
money in the bank

Homophony exist where a single form has two or more entirely distinct meanings. In such cases, it is assumed that there are two (or more) separate words with the same pronunciation rather than a single word with different meanings.

Table 1.4 Some homophones in English
Word Meaning A Meaning B


pen A flying, mouse-like nocturnal mammal.
A financial institution

A social organization
A plan of a literary work
A writing instrument A piece of equipment used in cricket or baseball.
A small cliff at the edge of a river.
A blunt weapon
A small piece of ground
A small cage

1.1. Systematic study of meaning

Linguistic semantics is an attempt to explicate the knowledge of any
speakers of a language which allows that speaker to communicate facts, feeling, intentions and products of the imagination to other speakers and to understand what they communicate to him or her..

Three disciplines are concerned with the systematic study of ‘meaning’ in itself:
psychology, philosophy, and linguistics. Psychologists, they are interested in: how individual human learn, how they retain, recall, or lose information; how they classify, make judgments and solve problems. In other words, how the human mind seeks meanings, and works with them; Philosophers of language are concerned with how we know, how any particular fact that we know or accept as true is related to other possible facts In other words, what must be antecedent to that fact and what is a likely consequence, or entailment of it; what statements are mutually contradictory, which sentences express the same meaning in different words, and which are unrelated; Linguists want to understand how language works. Just what common knowledge do two people posses when they share a language that makes it possible for them to give and get information, to express their feelings and their intentions to another, and to be understood with a fair degree of success.
While linguistic semantic is concerned with the language system that people have in common that makes them able to communicate with one another, pragmatic is the study (and description) of how people actually use language in communicating. The elements of language are similar to natural signs and, more especially, to conventional signals. A sign is meaningful to us only if we perceive it, identify it and interpret it.

1.2 Nature of Language

All animal have some system for communication with other member of their members of their species, but only humans have a language which allows them to produce and understand ever-new message and to do without any outside stimulus. Bees, birds, dolphins and chimpanzees, among other animals, transmit and interpret a fixed number of messages that signal friendliness or hostility, the presence of food or of danger, or have to do with mating and care of offspring.
According to Hockett (1957; 574 850; Bickerton (1990:10-16) humans can be differed from animals because of, first, animal communicate only response to some particular stimulus. Human (stimulus free) are able to talk about vast numbers of things which come from accumulated knowledge, memory, and imagination; second, animals have only a fixed repertoire of messages. Human language is creative – can produce new utterances which others understand. Arbitrariness – there is no natural relation and what that word designates.
1.3 Language and the individual

Language is considered to be a system of communicating with other people using sound, symbol, words in expressing a meaning, ideas or thought. Human child learn language of the society in which it grows up, and acquires the fundamentals of that language in the first or six years of life, at about the age of twelve months, begins to imitate its parents’ ways of naming what is the environment (bed, bottle, doll, baby, mama, etc) and of telling the characteristics and events in which these things can be observed (wet, empty, up, sit, all-gone). By the age of eighteen months the child is likely to be producing two-word utterances (baby up, Daddy bye bye, Mama shoes, Dolly sit). Soon utterances become more and more complex, and these utterances are clearly invented, not just repetitions of what parents may have said. According to Lenneberg (1967); Clark and Clark (1977:295 – 403), process that go beyond a mere reflection of what is in the environment and make it possible for the child to express himself and interact with others. And then, our ability to use language and our ability to think and conceptualize, develop at the same time and these abilities depend on each other.
Knowledge that a speaker of a language has about that language is a vocabulary and the ways to use it. More specifically, speakers have two vocabularies, one that is needed for understanding a variety of people. The vocabulary contains numerous names of people and places, as well as what we might think of as ordinary words; And knowledge that makes one capable of using the vocabulary, productively and receptively is he has to know how to combine the vocabulary items into utterances that will carry meanings for others and he has to grasp the meanings of complex utterances that others produce. For production or recognition, he must know the pronunciation, how it fits into various utterances, and what it means.

1.4. Demonstrating semantic knowledge
To demonstrate semantic knowledge the speakers must have a vocabulary and know how to pronounce every item in this vocabulary and how to recognize its production by other speakers. According to Bierwisch (1970: 167-75); Dillon (1977: 1-6), it is fairly easy to show what knowledge speakers have about meanings in their language and therefore what things must be included in an account of semantics.
The followings demonstrate ten aspects of any speaker’s semantic knowledge.
1. Meaningful in English
1a. Henry drew a picture.
1b. Henry laughed.
1c. The picture laughed.
1d. Picture a Henry drew.
1a and 1b are meaningful, while 1c and 1d are anomalous (examples of anomaly). Sentence 1c has the appearance of being meaningful and it might attain meaning in some children’s story or the like, while 1d is merely a sequence of words.

2. Speakers of a language generally agree as to when two sentences have essentially the same meaning and when they do not.
2a. Rebecca got home before Robert.
2b. Robert got home before Rebecca.
2c. Robert arrived at home after Rebecca.
2d. Rebecca got home later than Robert.

Sentences that make equivalent statements about the same entities, like 2a and 2c, or 2b and 2d, are paraphrases (of each other).

3. Speakers generally agree when two words have essentially the same meaning – in a given context. In each sentence below one word is underlined. Following the sentence is a group of words, one of which can replace the underlined word without changing the meaning of the sentence.
3a. Where did you purchase these tools?
use buy release modify take.

3b. At the end of the street we saw two enormous statues.
pink smooth nice huge original

Word that have the same sense in a given context are synonyms – they are instances of synonymy and are synonymous with each other.

4. Speakers recognize when the meaning of one sentence contradicts another sentence. The sentences below are all about the same person, but two of them are related in such a way that if one is true the other must be false.
4a. Edgar is married.
4b. Edgar is fairly rich.
4c. Edgar is no longer young.
4d. Edgar is a bachelor.

Sentence that make opposite statements about the same subject are contradictory.
5. Speakers generally agree when two words have opposite meanings in a given context. For example, speakers are able to choose from the group of words following 5a and 5b the word which is contrary to the underlined word in each sentence.
5a. Betty cut a thick slice a cake.
bright new soft thin wet

5b. The train departs at 12:25.
arrives leaves waits swerves

Two words that make opposite statements about the same subject are antonyms; they are antonymous, instances of antonymy.

6. Some sentences have double meanings; they can be interpreted in two ways. Speakers are aware of this fact because they appreciate jokes which depend on two-way interpretation, like the following.
6a. Marjorie doesn’t care for her parakeet.
(doesn’t like it; doesn’t take care of it)

6b. Marjorie took the sick parakeet to a small animal hospital.
(small hospital for animals; hospital for small animals)

A sentence that has two meanings is ambiguous – an example of ambiguity.

7. Speakers are aware that two statements may be related in such a way that if one is true, the other must also be true.

7a. There are tulips in the garden
7b. There are flowers in the garden.
7c. The ladder is too short to reach the roof.
7d. The ladder isn’t long enough to reach the roof.

These pairs of sentences are examples of entailment. Assuming that 9a and 9b are about the same garden, the truth of 9a entails the truth of 9b, that is, if 9a is true, 9b must also be true. Likewise, assuming the same ladder and roof, the truth of 9c entails the truth of 9d.

2.1 Language in use

Pragmatics: another branch of linguistics that is concerned with meaning,
but speakers also know how to use this knowledge when they listen and read, when they speak and write – when they communicate (particular acts of communication).
The study of how words and phrases are used with special meanings in particular situations.
e.g. “When did you last see my brother?”
“ Around noon,”
“Last Tuesday,”
“I think it was on June first,”…. And so on.

Different between Pragmatics and Semantics
Semantics: Mainly concerned with a speaker’s competence to use the language system in producing meaningful utterances and processing (comprehending) utterances produced by others.
Pragmatics: a person’s ability to derive meanings from specific kinds of speech
situations – to recognize what the speaker is referring to, to relate new information, to interpret, to infer, …

2.2 Natural and conventional
Language is a system of symbols through which people communicate. e.g. spoken, written, or signed with the hands. Language is only one of the common activities of a society. The totality of common activities, institutions, and beliefs make up the culture of that society.
A language is a complex system of symbols, or signs, that are shared by members of a community. It will be useful to consider other signs that we know and how we react to them. e.g. Signs : Cases foot prints Robinson Crusoe in the Defoe’s novel; we see smoke and know that there is a fire; A black cloud informs us of the possibility of rain; treetops moving tell us that wind is blowing.
Our own bodies: earaches and hunger pangs, interpret shivering, perspiration, head nodding with drowsiness. All sorts of sights, sounds and smells, in modern life: horns, whistles, sirens, buzzers and bells. None of these communication uses language, though of course devising, installing and learning them could not be accomplished by people who had no language.
Perception, the sign and the observer share a context of place and time in which the sign attracts the observer’s attention (the process of using the senses to acquire information about the surrounding environment or situation). e.g. Robinson Crusoe with footprint.

Identification, is the action of identifying somebody or something, or an act of recognizing and naming somebody or something.
Interpretation, The meaning of any sign depends on the space-time context in
which we observe it. e.g. – cases Crusoe’s reaction and footprint was due to the circumstances of his life; the whistle of a policeman directing traffic, the whistle of a hotel doorman summoning a taxi, and the whistle of the referee in a soccer game.

2.3. Linguistic signs
Words are linguistic signs, similar in certain respects to natural and conventional signs. In order to grasp what somebody says, we must first of all perceive the utterance.
Clark (1996:92 – 121) Identification of the elements in an utterance requires speaker and hearer to share ‘common ground’.
2.4 Utterance and sentence
Different pieces of language can have different meanings in different contexts.

A beggar who has not eaten all day says “I’m hungry”;
A child who hopes to put off going to bed announces “I’m hungry”;
A young man who hopes to get better acquainted with one of his co-workers and intends to ask her to have dinner with him begins with the statement “I’m hungry”;

They are different intentions – interpreted differently because the situations and the participants are different. Each of three speech events illustrated above is a different utterance, and we write and utterance with quotation marks: “I’m hungry.”
Each utterance contains the same sentence, which we write with italics: I’m hungry. A Sentence is not event; it is a construction of words in a particular sequence which is meaningful.
• An utterance is often part of a larger discourse – a conversation, a formal lecture, a poem, a short story, a business letter, or a love letter, among other possibilities.
• A written discourse may be the record of something that has been spoken, or it, may originate for the purpose of being performed aloud, like a play or speech, articles, books.
2.5 Prosody
Prosody is an important carrier of meaning in spoken utterances and consists of two parts, accent and intonation.
e.g. 1. A: Has the Winston Street bus come yet?
B: Sorry. I didn’t understand. What did you say?

2. C: I’m afraid Fred didn’t like the remark I made.
D: Oh? What did you say?

3. E: Some of my partners said they wouldn’t accept these terms.
F: And you? What did you say?
4. G: You’re misquoting me. I didn’t say anything like that.
H: Oh? What did you say?

1. T did you say?
2. What did you A
3. What did O
U say?
4. What I
D you say?

• Intonation is the set of tunes that can diff-erentiate meanings of utterances
with the same verbal content. Intonation patterns are falls and rise in pitch and combinations of falls and rises. Generally a fall indicates spe-aker dominance or ter-mination. A rise is hearer oriented and suggests continuance.

Accents is the comparatively greater force and higher pitch that makes one part of the utterance more prominent than other parts. It has a syntagmatic function, giving focus is an emphasis on one word as opposed to other words that might have been used.
• Accent is mobile, enabling us to communicate different meanings by putting the emphasis in different places. The usual place is on last important word,
• “I’d never say THAT” with one focus and “I/would NEVer/say THAT”with three.
My cousin is an ARchitect.

● If the utterance is broken into two or more sense groups, each group has its own accent. The last accent is ordinarily the most prominent of all because the pitch changes on that syllable.
My COUsin is an ARchitect.
My cousin EDWard, who lives in
FULton, is an ARchitect.
The placement of accent on different words ties the utterance to what has been said previously. For example, in reply to the question.
• “What does your cousin do?”, one might say:
• My cousin
• Edward ‘s an
• He ARchitect.
architect is new information, something not previously mentioned, Edward my cousin is old.
The Role of accent
Each of the following utterances has an emphasis that makes a contrast.
Alex phoned Edna LAST Sunday.
Alex phoned EDna last Sunday.
Alex PHONED Edna last Sunday.
Alex phoned Edna last Sunday.
A falling pitch is more ‘normal’ of and, correspondingly, a rising pitch at the end of an utterance is the indication of something special.
• Allen (1968:Chapter 5);
A falling tune suggests that the speaker is confident of what he or she is saying and the utterance is delivered with finality; it shows speaker dominance.
A rising tune is more oriented toward the addressee. It is customary when the speaker is asking the addressee to repeat, or to contradict what has just been said.
1. Statement vs question (fall vs rise)
Yes. Yes? This is the place.
This is the place?
With a falling tone “Yes” is an answer to some question and “This is the place” is a statement. With rising tones the speaker seeks confirmation or information from addressee.
2. Information sought vs repetition
requested (fall vs rise)
When? Where?
When? Where?
• With “When?,” “Where?” rising,
the speaker is asking for repetition of something that was said; the speaker has understood enough of the previous utterance to know that some time or place was mentioned. The falling intonation in such utterances is a request for information that has not yet been given.
3. Parallel structure vs antithesis
(fallvs fall and rise)
This is my sister, Ellen.
This is my sister, Ellen.
If sister and Ellen have the same tune, a fall on sister and a long fall on Ellen, the parallel structure indicates a correlation of the two – specifically here, equivalence: that Ellen is the name of the speaker’s sister. Fall on sister – typically a long fall – and a short rise on Ellen denotes lack of correlation, so that Ellen can only be the name of the addressee, a short vocative attached to an utterance.
4. Open question vs alternative question (rise vs rise, fall)
Do you have a pencil or a pen?
Do you have a pencil or a pen?
The distinction here reflects the speaker’s attitude, perhaps about what seems appropriate in what addressee can answer.
5. Full statement vs reservation (fall vs fall-rise)
That’s true, (or That’s true.)
That’s true.
This difference reflects the speaker’s attitude. A fall expresses agreement with what has been said; a fall and short rise expresses only partial agreement, agreement with reservations.
2.6. Non-verbal communication
paralanguage nonverbal vocal nuances in commu-nication that may add meaning to language as it is used in context, e.g. tone of voice or whispering.
Gestures, a movement made with a part of the body in order to express meaning or emotion or to communicate an instruction. In gestures, the former, the visible signs, have the capacity to communicate in much the way a word communicates; the latter could only be said to communicate in a secondary sense.
Consider the visual sign;
Nodding the head in response to an utterance.
Crossing one’s fingers.
Pretending to yawn, with finger tips in front of mouth.
Holding up a thumb from a closed fist.
Pinching one’s nostrils closed with thumb and forefinger.


The study of meaning can be undertaken in various ways. Linguistic semantics is an attempt to explicate the knowledge of any speaker of a language which allows that speaker to communicate fact, feelings, intentions and products of the imagination to other speakers and to understand what they communicate to him or her. Language differs from the communication systems of other animals in being stimulus-free and creative.
The elements of language are similar to natural signs and, more especially, to conventional signals. A sign is meaningful to us only if we perceive it, identify it and interpret it. Speakers do not merely have certain abstract knowledge; they use that knowledge in various social contexts. Piece of language, like other signs, depend on context for what they signify. We recognize social context and linguistic context. We distinguish between sentence, a language formation and utterance, what is produced in a particular social context. The meaning that speakers extract from an utterance is often more than the linguistic message itself; knowledge of reality, the situation, and the participants in the communication event enables the individual to fill in. A conversational implicature is the formation that is not spoken but is understood in tying one utterance meaningfully to a previous utterance.


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