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Related to semantics: general semantics


[Gr.,=significant] in general, the study of the relationship between words and meanings. The empirical study of word meanings and sentence meanings in existing languages is a branch of linguistics; the abstract study of meaning in relation to language or symbolic logic systems is a branch of philosophy. Both are called semantics. The field of semantics has three basic concerns: the relations of words to the objects denoted by them, the relations of words to the interpreters of them, and, in symbolic logic, the formal relations of signs to one another (syntax).

In linguistics, semantics has its beginnings in France and Germany in the 1820s when the meanings of words as significant features in the growth of language was recognized. Among the foremost linguistic semanticists of the 20th cent. are Gustaf Stern, Jost Trier, B. L. Whorf, Uriel Weinreich, Stephen Ullmann, Thomas Sebeok, Noam ChomskyChomsky, Noam
, 1928–, educator and linguist, b. Philadelphia. Chomsky, who has taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology since 1955, developed a theory of transformational (sometimes called generative or transformational-generative) grammar that revolutionized
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, Jerrold Katz, and Charles Osgood. In the linguistics of recent years an offshoot of transformational grammargrammar,
description of the structure of a language, consisting of the sounds (see phonology); the meaningful combinations of these sounds into words or parts of words, called morphemes; and the arrangement of the morphemes into phrases and sentences, called syntax.
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 theory has reemphasized the role of meaning in linguistic analysis. This new theory, developed largely by George Lakoff and James McCawley, is termed generative semantics. In anthropology a new theoretical orientation related to linguistic semantics has been developed. Its leading proponents include W. H. Goodenough, F. G. Lounsbury, and Claude Lévi-StraussLévi-Strauss, Claude
, 1908–2009, French anthropologist, b. Brussels, Belgium, Ph.D Univ. of Paris, 1948. He carried out research in Brazil from 1935 to 1939.
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In philosophy, semantics has generally followed the lead of symbolic logic, and many philosophers do not make a distinction between logic and semantics. In this context, semantics is concerned with such issues as meaning and truth, meaning and thought, and the relation between signs and what they mean. The leading practitioners have been Gottlob FregeFrege, Gottlob
, 1848–1925, German philosopher and mathematician. He was professor of mathematics (1879–1918) at the Univ. of Jena. Frege was one of the founders of modern symbolic logic, and his work profoundly influenced Bertrand Russell.
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, Lady Welby, Bertrand RussellRussell, Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3d Earl,
1872–1970, British philosopher, mathematician, and social reformer, b. Trelleck, Wales.
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, Otto Neurath, Rudolf CarnapCarnap, Rudolf
, 1891–1970, German-American philosopher. He taught philosophy at the Univ. of Vienna (1926–31) and at the German Univ. in Prague (1931–35). After going to the United States he taught at the Univ. of Chicago (1936–52) and at the Univ.
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, Alonzo Church, Alfred Tarski, C. I. LewisLewis, Clarence Irving,
1883–1964, American philosopher, b. Stoneham, Mass., grad. Harvard (B.A., 1906; Ph.D., 1910). After teaching (1911–20) at the Univ. of California, he was professor of philosophy at Harvard from 1920 to 1953, when he became professor emeritus.
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, Ludwig WittgensteinWittgenstein, Ludwig Josef Johann
, 1889–1951, Austrian philosopher, b. Vienna. Life

Originally trained as an engineer, Wittgenstein turned to philosophy, went to Cambridge, where he studied (1912–13) with Bertrand Russell, and further developed his
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, J. L. Austin, W. V. Quine, P. F. Strawson, Steven Schiffer, John Searle, H. P. Grice, Saul Kripke, Donald Davidson, and Gilbert Harman.

Since the publication of the influential The Meaning of Meaning (1925) by C. K. Ogden and I. A. RichardsRichards, I. A.
(Ivor Armstrong Richards), 1893–1979, English literary critic. Richards was one of the founders of the school of interpretation known as the New Criticism, which stressed an awareness of textual and psychological nuance and ambiguity when studying
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, semantics has also become important to literary criticism and stylistics, in which the way that metaphors evoke feelings is investigated and differences between ordinary and literary language are studied. A related discipline, general semantics (so called to distinguish it from semantics in linguistics or philosophy), studies the ways in which meanings of words influence human behavior. General semantics was developed by Alfred KorzybskiKorzybski, Alfred Habdank
, 1879–1950, Polish-American linguist, b. Warsaw. In his system, which he called General Semantics, Korzybski aimed at a distinction between the word and the object it describes and between the individual objects all described by the same word,
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. The key term in Korzybski's system is evaluation, the mental act that is performed by the hearer when a word is spoken. Among the most prominent followers of Korzybski are Stuart Chase, S. I. Hayakawa, and H. L. Weinberg.


A useful introduction to general semantics is H. L. Weinberg, Levels of Knowing and Existence (1959) and F. R. Palmer, Semantics (1981). For semantics in linguistics, see S. Ullman, Semantics (1962) and The Principles of Semantics (1957, repr. 1967); N. Chomsky, Studies on Semantics in Generative Grammar (1972); G. Leach, Semantics (1974); and J. Lyons, Language, Meaning, and Context (1981). For semantics in philosophy, see R. Carnap, Meaning and Necessity (2d ed. 1956); K. and A. Lehrer, The Theory of Meaning (1970); J. F. Rosenberg and C. Travis, ed., Readings in the Philosophy of Language (1971); and D. Davidson and G. Harman, ed., Semantics of Natural Language (2d ed. 1973). For semantics in literary criticism, see K. Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives (1950) and A Grammar of Motives (1955) and the works of W. Empson and P. Wheelwright.

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the subdivision of LINGUISTICS concerned with meaning. Semantics attempts the systematic study of the assignment of meanings to minimal meaning-bearing elements and the combination of these in the production of more complex meaningful expressions. A variety of theories seek to account for semantic relations, ranging from behaviourist psychology, COMPONENTIAL ANALYSIS and theories based in modern logics, to sociological accounts taking meaning to be unavoidably a local achievement of interactive negotiation. Currently in logical semantics the search is on for an integrated SYNTAX and semantics. In this, syntax is framed as a structural vehicle for meanings, which moves from ‘possible worlds’ to ‘truth values’. The project amounts to a technical reworking of the VERIFICATION PRINCIPLE that meaning is to be equated with a set of truth conditions. If the programme were to be successful it would possess important implications for sociology.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



the branch of linguistics that studies the meanings of linguistic units. Semantics can also be defined as an aspect of the study of signs in semiotics or as the meaning of linguistic units. [This article will discuss linguistic semantics, that is, semantics as first defined above.] The term “semasiology” is historically a synonym for “semantics.”

In linguistic semantics, the elementary object of study consists of the three elements of the linguistic sign—especially the word—considered in their unity: the signifier, the denotatum, and the signified. The signifier is the external element, the sequence of sounds or graphic signs. It is linked with the denotatum (a signified object or phenomenon of reality) and with the referent (an object or phenomenon signified by a given linguistic unit within an utterance or by an utterance as a whole). It is also linked with the signified, which is the reflection of that object or phenomenon in human consciousness. The signified is the result of the social understanding of reality and is usually identical to a concept or mental representation. The three-way link of signifier-denotatum-signified constitutes the category of meaning and the basic unit of semantics.

These tripartite units enter into regular and systemic relationships with one another. One unit may be compared to another on the basis of one of the three elements: the signified (in the case of synonyms), the signifier (in the case of homonyms), and the denotatum and referent (in the case of a special form of synonymy known as transformation or periphrasis). Synonymy, homonymy, periphrasis (transformation), and polysemy form the basis of the systemic quality in semantics. The systemic quality is manifested most clearly in relatively small groups of words that are similar in one respect (in which they are synonyms) and opposed in another (in which they are antonyms). Such groupings, which differ depending on the language, constitute structural oppositions. For example, the Russian words ekhat (“to go [by vehicle]”), idti (“to go [on foot]”) plyt’ (“to swim,” “to go [by boat]”), and letet’ (“to fly”) have a common feature of “human locomotion” but are opposed as regards the feature of “means of locomotion.” Such features within groups are studied and described as components of meaning or semantic factors.

Elementary word groups may be combined in a relationship of content, forming thematic groups and semantic and lexical “fields.” For example, all the means of expressing the concept of joy in a given language constitute the lexical-semantic field “joy.” Linguistic semantics seeks to provide a complete description of the semantic system of a given language in the form of a thesaurus. The thesaurus vividly demonstrates that semantics preserves what results from the reflection and comprehension of the objective world in human social practice. For example, the concepts “to be,” “to have,” “time,” “form,” and “content,” which were developed in European culture, may be represented differently or not at all in other cultures. In the language of the Hopi Indians, there are no nouns of the type “spring,” “winter,” “present,” and “future”; corresponding—but not identical—concepts are expressed adverbially (for example, “when warm”). “Rain” is named as an object (substance) in Indo-European languages but as a process (feature) in the American Indian language of the Hupa (literally, “it comes down”). On the other hand, the opposition of substance (“object”) and feature (“process,” “action,” and so forth) is objective and universal: every language maintains the opposition through its own means and within the framework of its own system as an opposition between noun and verb. Semantics seeks to discover and study these universal semantic categories.

The polysemant is a most important object of semantic study and one of the key points in the interrelationships between system and speech (or text). It represents a complex of lexical-semantic variants, related to one another in the system as specific lexical meanings and behaving in speech as the concrete realization of these meanings.

In speech or text, words also enter into elementary relationships of another type. The relationships are determined by the ability of words to combine with one another. The combinations permitted by the system of a language determine the distribution of each word relative to others. For example, the distribution will vary for the Russian words krichat’ (vo vsiu moch’) (“to shout [with all one’s might]”), bezhat’(vo vse lopatki) (“to run [as fast as one can]”), pozdravliat’ (ot vsego serdtsa) (“to congratulate [with all one’s heart]”), and naedat’sia (do otvala) (“to eat [until one can eat no more]”). The distributive analysis of meanings is a special task of semantics.

The word combinations vo vsiu moch’, vo vse lopatki, ot vsego serdtsa, and do otvala have the common meaning of “to the highest degree,” but the specific form used to express this meaning depends on the combining word; thus, vo vsiu moch’ is combined with krichat’, vo vse lopatki with bezhat’, and so forth. The form of expression is therefore a function of the combination. Semantics seeks to discover and study such functions—known as lexical parameters—which allow extensive groups of words, word combinations, and sentences to be represented as systemic periphrases (transformations) of one another. The creation of a thesaurus of functions is a long-range task of semantics.

When transformations are studied, the distinction between lexical semantics (the meaning of root morphemes, words, and word combinations) and grammatical semantics (the study of the meanings of grammatical forms) recedes into the background, and traditional semasiology becomes simply a part of semantics. On the other hand, the distinction between the denotatum and the referent becomes essential. Thought correspondence to the denotatum is called meaning, and thought correspondence to the referent and the reflection in consciousness of a whole situation is often called sense. Thus, the content of the term “semantics” expands and semantics acquires a new task: to study the system of such “senses.” The study is known as syntactic semantics.

Semantics also studies characteristic changes in meaning that occur in the history of a language and seeks to discover semantic laws. The conceptual fund of a language is divided into that which is the common property of all members of a given society and that which is the property of science. The former includes the everyday, “naïve,” or linguistic, concepts (the “immediate” meanings of words), whereas the latter includes scientific concepts and terms (the “more distant” meanings of words). An example of the difference is seen in the colloquial use of the Russian word kapital to mean a large sum of money and the specialized use of the term in political economy to mean capital. One general semantic law is that everyday words having features in common with scientific concepts constantly strive to merge their parameters of content with those of the scientific terms. Key cultural terms, which differ for each era, occupy a special place between everyday and scientific concepts. Such key terms include “civilization,” “revolution,” “democracy,” “science,” “technology,” “individual,” “love,” and “machine.” The meanings of a language’s everyday words and the dominant ideas of society are combined in the semantic content of these terms. In studying the development of key cultural terms and concepts of different types, the tasks of semantics coincide with those of cultural history and semiotics.

Semantics emerged in the late 19th century, simultaneously in Russia (M. M. Pokrovskii) and France (M. Bréal), as a historical discipline studying semantic laws. According to the aspect of the semantics of language that is taken as the basis for the discipline, various directions are distinguished. These directions include analysis of lexical-semantic variation (V. V. Vinogradov, A. I. Smirnitskii, N. N. Amosova, A. A. Ufimtseva, and D. N. Shmelev of the USSR); oppositive (componential) analysis, or semantic factoring (L. Hjelmslev of Denmark, A. Kroeber and W. Goodenough of the USA, and O. N. Seliverstova of the USSR); and the method of fields and thesauri (R. Hailing and W. Wartburg of the Federal Republic of Germany and Iu. N. Karaulov of the USSR). Among other directions are distributive analysis (R. Langacker of the USA and V. A. Zvegintsev and Iu. D. Apresian of the USSR); logical-transformational analysis based on the category of lexical parameter, or function (I. A. Mel’chuk and Iu. D. Apresian of the USSR and A. Wierzbicka of Poland); and analysis of key cultural terms (G. Matoré and E. Benveniste of France and Iu. S. Sorokin and R. A. Budagov of the USSR).


Vinogradov, V. V. “O formakh slova.” Izv. Otd. lit-ry i iazyka AN SSSR, 1944, vol. 3, issue 1.
Zvegintsev, V. A. Semasiologiia. Moscow, 1957.
Pokrovskii, M. M. Izbrannye raboty po iazykoznaniiu. Moscow, 1959.
Hjelmslev, L. “Mozhno li schitat’, chto znacheniia slov obrazuiut strukturu?” In Novoe v lingvistike, fasc. 2. Moscow, 1962.
Ufimtseva, A. A. Slovo v leksiko-semanticheskoi sisteme iazyka. Moscow, 1968.
Budagov, R. A. Istoriia slov v istorii obshchestva. Moscow, 1971.
Shmelev, D. N. Problemy semanticheskogo analiza leksiki. Moscow, 1973.
Shcherba, L. V. “Opyt obshchei teorii leksikografii.” In his book Iazykovaia sistema i rechevaia deiatel’nost’. Leningrad, 1974.
Benveniste, E. Obshchaia lingvistika. Moscow, 1974. (Translated from French.)
Apresian, Iu. D. Leksicheskaia semantika: Sinonimicheskie sredstvaiazyka. Moscow, 1974.
Seliverstova, O. N. Komponentnyi analiz mnogoznachnykh slov. Moscow, 1975.
Stepanov, Iu. S. Osnovy obshchego iazykoznaniia, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1975.
Bréal, M. Essai de sémantique, 7th ed. Paris, 1924.
Matoré, G. La Méthode en lexicologie. Paris, 1953.
Goodenough, W. H. “Componential Analysis and the Study of Meaning.” Language, 1956, vol. 32, no. 1.
Wierzbicka, A. Semantic Primitives. Frankfurt am Main, 1972.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


The branch of semiotics that deals with the relations between symbols and what they stand for, and defines the meaning that is prescribed for a statement by its originator.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


1. the study of the relationships between signs and symbols and what they represent
2. Logic
a. the study of interpretations of a formal theory
b. the study of the relationship between the structure of a theory and its subject matter
c. (of a formal theory) the principles that determine the truth or falsehood of sentences within the theory, and the references of its terms
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005


The meaning of a string in some language, as opposed to syntax which describes how symbols may be combined independent of their meaning.

The semantics of a programming language is a function from programs to answers. A program is a closed term and, in practical languages, an answer is a member of the syntactic category of values. The two main kinds are denotational semantics and operational semantics.
This article is provided by FOLDOC - Free Online Dictionary of Computing (


The study of the meaning of words. A semantic vocabulary is a formal description of the data used in a specific domain such as advertising, physics, real estate, telecom, etc. Contrast with syntax, which governs the structure of a language and the rules pertaining to the actual data. For example, a semantic tag for temperature may be Fahrenheit, but the syntactic values for Fahrenheit may be numeric -60 to +120. The statement a = b may be syntactically correct, but if there is no "a" or no "b" defined elsewhere, the code is semantically invalid. See Semantic Web, semantic error and Systemantics.

A Note from the Author

Obviously, a dictionary of terminology is all about semantics, and researching countless articles to be able to define an IT topic is an exploration in semantics. In this field, people love to use different words for the same subject (for extreme examples, look up USB drives and digital media hub terminology). But even in the field of semantic data (Semantic Web, linked data, ontological vocabularies, etc.), the terminology is just as bad, if not worse. This is one area where people might think about uniform semantics while they're writing about it. It has been a bit of a "semantic nightmare" researching articles about the Semantic Web.
Copyright © 1981-2019 by The Computer Language Company Inc. All Rights reserved. THIS DEFINITION IS FOR PERSONAL USE ONLY. All other reproduction is strictly prohibited without permission from the publisher.
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