Why study semantics? Semantics (as the study of meaning) is central to the study of communication; and as communication becomes more and more a crucial factor in social organization, the need to understand it becomes more and more pressing. Semantics is also at the centre of human mind – thought processes, cognition, conceptualization – all these are strongly connected to the way in which we classify and convey our experience of the world through language.
Semantics can be defined as a branch of linguistics; it is an area of study parallel to, and interacting with syntax and phonology. While syntax and phonology study the structure of expressive possibilities in language, semantics studies the meaning that can be expressed. Nearly all linguists have accepted a linguistic model in which semantics is at one end and phonetics at the other, with grammar somewhere in the middle. However, until recently, semantics has been the ‘Cinderella’ of linguistics, a branch that had been abandoned to philosophers and anthropologists.
But in the past20 –25 years there has been a swing away from the view that semantics is a messy, unstructured intellectual no-man’s-land on the fringes of linguistics, and little by little it has acquired a central position in linguistic studies. The concentration on semantics has come not only from linguists, but from logicians, too. Consequently, in semantics we witness an unusual convergence of disciplines; the techniques and investigations of philosophy and cognitive psychology, in particular, have helped to lay a more solid foundation for linguistic studies.
A short history of semantics Although semantics is consider a rather young branch of linguistics, interest in today’s problems of semantics was alive already in ancient times. Antiquity In ancient Greece, philosophers dealt with the problem of the way in which words acquired their meaning. One of the questions they tried to find an answer to was the following: Why is a thing called by a given name? The answers provided made the Greek philosophers divide into two ‘parties’: on the one hand we have the adepts of the physei theory, and on the other hand the adepts of the thesei theory.
Let us now briefly present these two points of view. a) The physei theory. Some philosophers considered that the names of things were arrived at naturally, that they were somehow conditioned by the natural properties of the things themselves. An example provided by them is that of the letter rho [? ] which seems apt to express motion, since the tongue moves rapidly in its production; hence, its occurrence in such words as rhoein ‘to flow’. Other sounds like [s], [f] and [ks], which require greater breath-effort in production, seem suitable to appear in words like kseon ‘shaking’.
Despite the inadvertences of such correlations, the adepts of the physei theory kept on believing that it is the physical nature of sounds in a name that can tell use something about its meaning. b) The thesei theory. Some other philosophers held the opposite view, namely that names are given to things arbitrarily through convention. The physei – thesei controversy was discussed by various philosophers of the time, one of the most representative one being Plato. He wrote a dialogue entitled Cratylus in which the two discussants are Cratylus, the partisan of the physei theory, and Hermogenes, the defendant of the thesei point of view.
The two positions are debated by Socrates, who in an attempt to mediate between the two discussants, points out an interesting fact, i. e. that there are two types of names: simple names and compound names, which are divisible into smaller constituent elements and analysable into the meaning of these constituents. Two other dialogues by Plato, Theatetus and Sophists mark an important step in the development of semantics. In them, he dealt with problems such as the relation between THOUGHT, LANGUAGE and the OUTSIDE WORLD.
Language is defined as the expression of one’s thought be means of onomata (the name of the performer) and rhemata (the name defining the action). THOUGHT LANGUAGE OUTSIDE WORLD onomatarhemata (performer)(action) LOGOS Identifying onoma and rhema as the constituents of LOGOS, Plato opened the way for analysing the sentence in terms which are partly linguistic and partly pertaining to logic. He was dealing therefore with the meaning of utterances rather than the meaning of individual words. Another philosopher of Antiquity who had a contribution to the birth of semantics was Aristotle.
His works (Organon, Rhetorics, Poetics) mark a major contribution to language study in general, and to semantics, in particular. He approached language from the point of view of a logician and was interested in the following issues: * What is there to know about the world? * How men know it? * How they express this knowledge in language. He also identified the lexical level of language analysis the aim of which was to study the meaning of words either in isolation or in syntactic constructions. This marks his own contribution to semantics.
The Middle Ages During the Middle Ages an important contribution to linguistics and semantics was brought by a group of philosophers called the Modistae because of their writings entitled On the Modes of Signification. These writings were some kind of speculative grammars in which semantics considerations held an important position. The Modistae adopted the thesei point of view of the ancient philosophers and their efforts were directed towards pointing out the ways in which we can know things and the various ways of signifying things.
Throughout Antiquity and the Middle Ages, and almost until the 19th century, almost everything that came to be known about meaning in language was the result of philosophic speculation and logical reasoning. Philosophy and logic were the two important sciences which left their strong impact on the study of linguistic meaning. The 19th century In the 19th century, semantics became an independent branch of linguistics. The fist works which dealt with the study of semantic problems as we understand them today date as far as this century. Ch. C.
Reisig, a German linguist, was the first to formulate the object of study of the new science of meaning, which he called semasiology = a historical science studying the principles governing the evolution of meaning. Towards the end of the century, more exactly in 1877, M. Breal, a French linguist, published an important book Essay de semantique, which in many ways marks the birth date of semantics as a modern linguistic discipline. Breal did not only provide the name of the new science, which became general in use, but also defined more clearly its subject matter.
The theoretical sources of semantics as outlined by Breal are: -classical logic – rhetorics, and – psychology. In following the various changes in the meaning of words, interest is focussed on identifying certain general laws governing these changes. Some of these laws are arrived at by recourse to the categories of logic: -extension of meaning: eg. persona (Lat. ) = face mask worn by actors > characters in a play > a man, somebody >a person (feminine or masculine). – narrowing of meaning: e. g. the River may be used by a Londoner to refer to the Thames, or by a French person to refer to the Seine. – transfer of meaning (metaphor): e. g. the camel = the ship of the desert.
Other changes are due to a psychological approach: -degradation of meaning: e. g. silly (Old English) = happy, poor, innocent > helpless> stupid. -elevation of meaning: e. g. minister = a servant> an important public official. In the 19th century, the study of meaning was considerably enhanced by the writing of dictionaries. Lexicography played a significant role in the development of semantics. The dictionaries represent collections of a huge volume of data concerning the meaning of words and the changes in their meaning throughout the history of languages. Some dictionaries resorted to the alphabetical order of listing lexical items.
Others, however, tried to arrange words according to some more natural ties existing among them. It is in this manner that ‘notional’ or ‘conceptual’ dictionaries appeared, having a tremendous importance for the progress of semantic studies. The 20th century Within the process of development of the young linguistic discipline, the 1921 – 1931 decade has a particular significance. This period was marked by the publication of three important books. In 1931, Jost Trier published his ‘Der Deutsche Wortschatz im Sinnbezirk des Verstandes’ (The German vocabulary related to the semantic field of understanding).
Analysing the meaning of a set of lexical elements related to one another by their content, and thus belonging to a semantic field, Trier reached the conclusion that they were structurally organised within this field in such a manner, that the significative value of each element was determined by the position which it occupied within the respective field. It was for the first time that words were no longer approached in isolation, but analysed in terms of their position within a larger ensemble – the semantic field – which, in turn, is integrated together with other fields into an even larger one – the lexicon.
Unfortunately, at that time Trier’s valuable ideas did not enjoy broad circulation. The second important publication of the decade mentioned above was that of Gustav Stern, ‘Meaning and Change of Meaning’. This was an ambitious attempt at examining the component factors of meaning and of determining the causes and directions of changes of meaning. Stern postulated several classifications and principles which are essential in answering one of the most important problems of semantics, namely: WHY and HOW does change of meaning occur in linguistic forms?
The third important book, published in 1923, was co-authored by C. K. Ogden and J. A. Richards and was entitled ‘ The Meaning of Meaning’ This was a book which dealt with different accepted definitions of the word meaning, not only in linguistics, but in other disciplines, as well. In the following decades a period of crisis in semantics appeared. Meaning was completely ignored in linguistics, particularly due to the position adopted by Leonard Bloomfield, who considered that the study of meaning was outside the scope of (semantics) linguistics proper.
He believed that the study of meaning should be the object other sciences, such as philosophy, psychology, sociology and anthropology. Reference to semantics was only made in extremis, when the various linguistic theories were not able to integrate the complexity of linguistic events within a unitary system. Thus, semantics was considered some kind of ‘dumping place’, a vast container in which all language facts that were difficult to formulate could be disposed of. In the last years of the ‘60s, semantics was given again due attention.
Nowadays, the various linguistic theories admit that no language description can be regarded as being complete without including facts of meaning in its analysis. A specific feature of modern research in linguistics is the ever growing interest in the problem of meaning. Definition and object of semantics In linguistic terminology, the word semantics is used to designate the science of word-meaning. However, the term has acquired a number of senses in contemporary science and, at the same time, it has sometimes been replaced by other terms that cover the same area of study (i. e. the study of meaning), such as semasiology and semiotics.
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