How is semantics studied?


Lexical semantics can be defined as ‘the study of meaning’, therefore semanticists are interested in the lexical meaning of words rather than grammatical meaning. It is not so much a practical topic but one that requires thinking rather than doing and does not really require any experiments. It is about studying language in isolation and not language in use. Some semanticists see native speakers as having semantic competence.

The study of semantics also ties in with other fields of linguistic study:

  • Pragmatics– it would be impossible when studying semantics not to come into contact with pragmatics. Some theoretical approaches have got rid of the distinction between semantic and pragmatic competence. However, it is important to make the distinction between a word’s contribution to the meaning of an utterance and the contributions of context (pragmatics). Pragmatic issues have been touched upon in many lexical semantic issues, like polysemy.
  • Morphology– there is a question of whether word class is semantically determined.
  • Psycholinguistics- Most lexical semantic issues can be addressed from a psycholinguistic perspective, and psycholinguistic methods offer evidence concerning how words and meanings are organised in the mind.
  • Language Acquisition– Unlike grammar, vocabulary is acquired throughout life, so some of the issues in lexical acquisition can be addressed from an adult first- or second-language angle.

What is semantic competence?

It consists of the ability to judge which strings of words form grammatical sentences. Similarly, semantic competence consists of the ability to determine the meaning of a particular string of words. Since a particular string of words may correspond to more than one syntactic structure, we can take semantic competence to consist of the ability to determine the meaning of a particular syntactic structure. This ability also consists of the ability to determine the relationships between the meanings of distinct syntactic structure.

Changes in the study of semantics

In the last twenty-to-thirty years there have been changes in the traditional ways of studying semantics.

Chomskian linguistics and the nativist view sees all Semantic notions as inherent. However, this view was thought of as being unable to address many issues such as metaphor and semantic change, where meanings within linguistics change over time.
On the other hand, Cognitive Linguistics views Semantics as an innate, finite meaning inherent in a lexical unit, which can be used to generate meaning. This challenge to the traditional Chomskian views is motivated by factors external to language, i.e., language is not a set of labels stuck onto things but “a toolbox, the importance of whose elements lie in the way they function rather than their attachments to things.”[2]

Syntax trees as a means of studying Semantics

Semantics also uses our theoretical knowledge of how language works on a broader level to explain and formally note how meaning works. We can present how words are arranged in utterances through drawing syntax trees. There is a structural difference of the tree when coming to syntax trees that have to do with Semantics, as the sentences used in order to draw the trees are ambiguous. Below there is an example of an ambiguous sentence and two trees showing how meaning affects grammar.

Ambiguous sentence: Nicole saw people with binoculars[1]

I) In the first structure, the people have the binoculars
first structure

II) In the second structure, Nicole uses the binoculars to see people
second structure


[1] Archibald, J., Katamba, F., O’Grady, W., 2011. Contemporary linguistics: An introduction; Second Edition. USA: Pearson

A global reputation

Sheffield is a research university with a global reputation for excellence. We're a member of the Russell Group: one of the 24 leading UK universities for research and teaching.