Linguistics 001     Lecture 12    Meaning I: Semantics

Meaning I: Semantics

Semantics vs. Pragmatics

Semantics can be defined as "the study of the meaning of morphemes, words, phrases and sentences."

You will sometimes see definitions for semantics like "the analysis of meaning," To see why this is too broad, consider the following. Kim, returning home after a long day, discovers that the new puppy has crapped on the rug, and says "Oh, lovely."

We don't normally take this to mean that Kim believes that dog feces has pleasing or attractive qualities, or is delightful. Someone who doesn't know English will search the dictionary in vain for what Kim means by saying "lovely":

(ADJECTIVE): [love-li-er, love-li-est].

    1. Full of love; loving.

    2. Inspiring love or affection.

    3. Having pleasing or attractive qualities.

    4. Enjoyable; delightful.

Obviously this is because Kim is being ironic, in the sense of "using words to convey the opposite of their literal meaning". Kim might have said "great," or "wonderful," or "beautiful", or "how exquisite", and none of the dictionary entries for these words will help us understand that Kim means to express disgust and annoyance. That's because a word's meaning is one thing, and Kim's meaning -- what Kim means by using the word -- is something else.

There are lots of other ways besides irony to use words to mean something different from what you get by putting their dictionary entries together. Yogi Berra was famous for this: "if you can't imitate him, don't copy him;" and "you can observe a lot just by watching" and dozens of others.

In fact, even when we mean what we literally say, we often -- maybe always -- mean something more as well. The study of "speaker meaning" -- the meaning of language in its context of use -- is called pragmatics, and will be the subject of the next lecture.

Philosophers have argued about "the meaning of meaning," and especially about whether this distinction between what words mean and what people mean is fundamentally sound, or is just a convenient way of talking. Most linguists find the distinction useful, and we will follow general practice in maintaining it. However, as we will see, it is not always easy to draw the line.

Word meaning and processes for extending it

Word meanings are somewhat like game trails. Some can easily be mapped because they are used enough that a clear path has been worn. Unused trails may become overgrown and disappear. And one is always free to strike out across virgin territory; if enough other animals follow, a new trail is gradually created.

Since word meanings are not useful unless they are shared, how does this creation of new meanings work? There are a variety of common processes by which existing conventional word meanings are creatively extended or modified. When one of processes is applied commonly enough in a particular case, a new convention is created; a new "path" is worn.


Consider the difference in meaning between "He's a leech" and. "he's a louse." Both leech and louse are parasites that suck blood through the skin of their host, and we -- being among their hosts -- dislike them for it. Both words have developed extended meanings in application to humans who are portrayed as like a leech or like a louse -- but the extensions are quite different.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a leech is "one who preys on or clings to another", whereas a louse is "a mean or despicable person." These extended meanings have an element of arbitrariness. Most of us regard leeches as "despicable," and lice certainly "prey on" and "cling to" their hosts. Nevertheless, a human "leech" must be needy or exploitative, whereas a human "louse" is just an object of distaste.

Therefore it's appropriate for the dictionary to include these extended meanings as part of the meaning of the word. All the same, we can see that these words originally acquired their extended meanings by the completely general process of metaphor. A metaphor is "a figure of speech in which a term is transferred from the object it ordinarily designates to an object it may designate only by implicit comparison or analogy." For instance, if we speak of "the evening of her life", we're making an analogy between the time span of a day and the time span of a life, and naming part of life by reference to a part of the day.

In calling someone a leech, we're making an implicit analogy between interpersonal relationships and a particular kind of parasite/host relationship.

This kind of naming -- and thinking -- by analogy is ubiquitous. Sometimes the metaphoric relationship is a completely new one, and then the process is arguably part of pragmatics -- the way speakers use language to express themselves. However, these metaphors often become fossilized or frozen, and new word senses are created. Consider what it means to call someone a chicken, or a goose, or a cow, or a dog, or a cat, or a crab, or a bitch. For many common animal names, English usage a conventionalized metaphor for application to humans. Some more exotic animals also have conventional use as epithets ("you baboon!" "what a hyena!") No such commonplace metaphors exist for some common or barnyard animals ("what a duck she is"?), or for most rarer or more exotic animals, such as wildebeest or emus. Therefore, these are available for more creative use. The infamous 'water buffalo incident' of a few years ago was apparently a case where what was began as a fossilized metaphor coming from a language other than English was interpreted as a much more offensive novel usage.

Sometimes the metaphoric sense is retained and the original meaning disappears, as in the case of muscle, which comes from Latin musculus "small mouse".

Metonymy and synecdoche

Metonymy is "a figure of speech in which an attribute or commonly associated feature is used to name or designate something."

Synecdoche is "a figure of speech by which a more inclusive term is used for a less inclusive one, or vice versa."

Like metaphors, many examples of metonymy and synecdoche become fossilized: gumshoe, hand (as in "all hands on deck"), "the law" referring to a policeman. However, the processes can be applied in a creative way: "the amputation in room 23".

It often requires some creativity to figure out what level of specificity, or what associated object or attribute, is designated by a particular expression. "I bought the Inquirer" (a copy of the newspaper); "Knight-Ridder bought the Inquirer" (the newspaper-publishing company); "The Inquirer endorsed Rendell" (the newspaper's editorial staff); etc. "Lee is parked on 33rd St." (i.e. Lee's car, perhaps said at a point when Lee in person is far away from 33rd St.).

For more examples, consider the guidelines for annotating "geographical/social/political entities" in the ACE project (extract from this longer document).


The word "sea" denotes a large body of water, but its connotative meaning includes the sense of overwhelming space, danger, instability; whereas "earth" connotes safety, fertility and stability. Of many potential connotations, the particular ones evoked depend upon the context in which words are used. Specific kinds of language (such as archaisms) also have special connotations, carrying a sense of the context in which those words are usually found.

Over time, connotation can become denotation. Thus trivial subjects were originally the subjects in the trivium, consisting of grammar, rhetoric and logic. These were the first subjects taught to younger students; therefore the connotation arises that the trivium is relatively easy, since it is taught to mere kiddies; therefore something easy is trivial.

Other terminology in lexical semantics

In discussing semantics, linguists sometimes use the term lexeme (as opposed to word), so that word can be retained for the inflected variants. Thus one can say that the words walk, walks, walked, and walking are different forms of the same lexeme.

There are several kinds of sense relations among lexemes. First is the opposition between syntagmatic relations (the way lexemes are related in sentences) and paradigmatic relations (the way words can substitute for each other in the same sentence context).

Important paradigmatic relations include:

  1. synonymy - "sameness of meaning" (pavement is a synonym of sidewalk)
  2. hyponymy - "inclusion of meaning" (cat is a hyponym of animal)
  3. antonymy - "oppositeness of meaning" (big is an antonym of small)
  4. incompatibility - "mutual exclusiveness within the same superordinate category" (e.g. red and green)

We also need to distinguish homonymy from polysemy: two words are homonyms if they are (accidentally) pronounced the same (e.g. "too" and "two"); a single word is polysemous if it has several meanings (e.g. "louse" the bug and "louse" the despicable person).

Lexical Semantics vs. Compositional Semantics

In the syntax lectures, we used the example of a desk calculator, where the semantics of complex expressions can be calculated recursively from the semantics of simpler ones. In the world of the desk calculator, all meanings are numbers, and the process of recursive combination is defined in terms of the operations on numbers such as addition, multiplication, etc.

The same problem of compositional semantics arises in the case of natural language meaning. How do we determine the meaning of complex phrases from the meaning of simpler one?

There have been many systematic efforts to address this problem, going back to the work of Frege and Russell before the turn of the 20th century. Many aspects of the problem have been solved. Here is a simple sketch of one approach. Suppose we take the meaning of "red" to be associated with the set of red things, and the meaning of "cow" to be associated with the set of things that are cows. Then the meaning of "red cow" is the intersection of the first set (the set of red things) with the second set (the set of things that are cows). Proceeding along these lines, we can reconstruct in terms of set theory an account of the meaning of predicates ("eat"), quantifiers ("all"), and so forth, and eventually give a set-theoretic account of "all cows eat grass" analogous to the account we might give for "((3 + 4) * 6)".

This sort of analysis -- which can become very complex and sophisticated -- does not tell us anything about the meanings of the words involved, but only about how to calculate the denotation of complex expressions from the denotation of simple ones. The denotation of the primitive elements -- the lexemes -- is simply stipulated (as in "the set of all red things").

Since this account of meaning expressed denotations in terms of sets of things in the word -- known as "extensions" -- it is called "extensional".

Sense and Reference

One trouble with this line of inquiry was raised more than 100 years ago by Frege. There is a difference between the reference (or extension) of a concept -- what it corresponds to in the world -- and the sense (or intension) of a concept -- what we know about its meaning, whether or not we know anything about its extension, and indeed whether or not it has an extension.

We know something about the meaning of the word "dog" that is not captured by making a big pile of all the dogs in the world. There were other dogs in the past, there will be other dogs in the future, there are dogs in fiction, etc. One technique that has been used to generalize "extensional" accounts of meaning is known as possible worlds semantics. In this approach, we imagine that there are indefinitely many possible worlds in addition to the actual one, and now a concept -- such as dog -- is no longer just a set, but rather is a function from worlds to sets. This function says, "Give me a possible world, and I'll give you the set of dogs in that world."

Like many mathematical constructs, this is not a very practical arrangement, but it permits interesting and general mathematics to continue to be used in modeling natural language meaning in a wider variety of cases, including counterfactual sentences ("If you had paid me yesterday, I would not be broke today").







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