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Short description: Study of meaning in language
Major levels of linguistic structure. Semantics is shown as the second-outermost layer, encompassed by pragmatics, and encompassing syntax.

Semantics (from grc σημαντικός (sēmantikós) 'significant')[lower-alpha 1][1] is the study of reference, meaning, or truth. The term can be used to refer to subfields of several distinct disciplines, including philosophy, linguistics and computer science.


In English, the study of meaning in language has been known by many names that involve the Ancient Greek word σῆμα (sema, "sign, mark, token").

In 1690, a Greek rendering of the term semiotics, the interpretation of signs and symbols, finds an early allusion in John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding:

The third Branch may be called σηµιωτικὴ [simeiotikí, "semiotics"], or the Doctrine of Signs, the most usual whereof being words, it is aptly enough termed also λογικὴ, Logick.

In 1831, the term sematology is suggested for the third branch of division of knowledge akin to Locke; the "signs of our knowledge".[2]

In 1857, the term semasiology (borrowed from German Semasiologie) is attested in Josiah W. Gibbs' Philological studies with English illustrations:[3]

The development of intellectual and moral ideas from physical, constitutes an important part of semasiology, or that branch of grammar which treats of the development of the meaning of words. It is built on the analogy and correlation of the physical and intellectual worlds.

In 1893, the term semantics is used to translate French sémantique as used by Michel Bréal.[4] Some years later, in Essai de Sémantique, Bréal writes:[5]

What I have tried to do is to draw some broad lines, to mark some divisions and as a provisional plan on a field not yet exploited, and which requires the combined work of several generations of linguists. I therefore ask the reader to consider this book as a simple Introduction to the science I have proposed to call Semantics. [In footnote:] Σημαντικὴ τέχνη, the science of significations [i.e., what it means], from the verb σημαίνω "to signify", as opposed to Phonetics, the science of sounds [i.e., what it sounds like].

In 1922, the concept of semantics is attested in mathematical logic amidst a group of scholars in Poland including Leon Chwistek, Leśniewski, Łukasiewicz, Kotarbinski, Adjukiewicz, and Tarski. According to Allen Walker Read, they had been influenced by French culture; moreover, later, their work influenced Alfred Korzybski's usage of the term.[2][6][7]

In the 1960s, semantics for programming languages is attested in publications by Robert W. Floyd and Tony Hoare, later termed axiomatic semantics; its chief application is formal verification of computer programs. Some years later, the terms operational semantics and denotational semantics emerged.[8] Floyd, in the lead to his 1967 paper Assigning meanings to programs, writes:[9]

A semantic definition of a programming language, in our approach, is founded on a syntactic definition. It must specify which of the phrases in a syntactically correct program represent commands, and what conditions must be imposed on an interpretation in the neighborhood of each command.


In linguistics, semantics is the subfield that studies meaning.[10] Semantics can address meaning at the levels of words, phrases, sentences, or larger units of discourse. Two of the fundamental issues in the field of semantics are that of compositional semantics (which applies to how smaller parts, like words, combine and interact to form the meaning of larger expressions, such as sentences) and lexical semantics (the nature of the meaning of words).[10] Other prominent issues are those of context and its role on interpretation, opaque contexts, ambiguity, vagueness, entailment, and presuppositions.[10]

Several disciplines and approaches have contributed to the often-disagreeing field of semantics. One of the crucial questions which unites different approaches to linguistic semantics is that of the relationship between form and meaning.[11] Some major contributions to the study of semantics have derived from studies in the 1980–1990s in related subjects of the syntax–semantics interface and pragmatics.[10]

The semantic level of language interacts with other modules or levels (like syntax) in which language is traditionally divided. In linguistics, it is typical to talk in terms of "interfaces" regarding such interactions between modules or levels. For semantics, the most crucial interactions are considered those with syntax (the syntax–semantics interface), pragmatics, and phonology (regarding prosody and intonation).[10]

Disciplines and paradigms in linguistic semantics

Formal semantics

Formal semantics seeks to identify domain-specific operations in minds which speakers perform when they compute a sentence's meaning on the basis of its syntactic structure. Theories of formal semantics are typically placed on top of theories of syntax, such as generative syntax or combinatory categorial grammar, and provided a model theory based on mathematical tools, such as typed lambda calculi. The field's central ideas are rooted in early twentieth century philosophical logic, as well as later ideas about linguistic syntax. It emerged as its own subfield in the 1970s after the pioneering work of Richard Montague and Barbara Partee and continues to be an active area of research.

Conceptual semantics

This theory is an effort to explain the properties of an argument structure. The assumption behind this theory is that syntactic properties of phrases reflect the meanings of the words in them.[12] With this theory, linguists can better deal with the fact that subtle differences in word meaning correspond to other differences in the syntactic structure that the word appears in.[12] The way this is gone about is by looking at the internal structure of words.[13] These small parts that make up the internal structure of words are termed semantic primitives.[13]

Cognitive semantics

Main page: Cognitive semantics

Cognitive semantics approaches meaning from the perspective of cognitive linguistics. In this framework, language is explained by general human cognitive abilities rather than a domain-specific language module. The techniques originating from cognitive semantics are typically used in lexical studies such as those put forth by Leonard Talmy, George Lakoff, Dirk Geeraerts, and Bruce Wayne Hawkins. Some cognitive semantic frameworks, such as that developed by Talmy, take into account syntactic structures as well.[14]

Lexical semantics

Lexical semantics is a linguistic theory that investigates word meaning. This theory understands that the meaning of a word is fully reflected by its context. Here, the meaning of a word is constructed from its contextual relations.[15] Therefore, a distinction between degrees of participation as well as modes of participation are made.[15] In order to accomplish this distinction, any part of a sentence that bears a meaning and combines with the meanings of other parts is labeled as a semantic constituent. Semantic constituents that cannot be broken down into more elementary parts are labeled minimal semantic constituents.[15]

Cross-cultural semantics

Various fields or disciplines have long been contributing to cross-cultural semantics. Are words like love, truth, and hate universal?[16] Is even the word sense – one that is so central to semantics – universal, or a concept entrenched in a long-standing but culture-specific tradition?[17] These are the kind of crucial questions that are discussed in cross-cultural semantics. Translation theory, ethnolinguistics, linguistic anthropology and cultural linguistics specialise in the field of comparing, contrasting, and translating words, terms and meanings between languages.(see J. G. Herder, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Franz Boas, Edward Sapir, and B. L. Whorf). Philosophy, sociology, and anthropology have long-established traditions in contrasting the different nuances of the terms and concepts we use. Online encyclopaedias such as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophyand Wikipedia itself have greatly expanded the possibilities of comparing the background and usages of key cultural terms. In recent years, the question of whether key terms are translatable or untranslatable has been increasingly important in global discussions, especially since the publication of Barbara Cassin's Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon, in 2014.[18][19]

Computational semantics

Main page: Computational semantics

Computational semantics is focused on the processing of linguistic meaning. In order to do this, concrete algorithms and architectures are described. Within this framework the algorithms and architectures are also analysed in terms of decidability, time/space complexity, data structures that they require and communication protocols.[20]


Many of the formal approaches to semantics in mathematical logic and computer science originated in early twentieth century philosophy of language and philosophical logic. Initially, the most influential semantic theory stemmed from Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell. Frege and Russell are seen as the originators of a tradition in analytic philosophy to explain meaning compositionally via syntax and mathematical functionality. Ludwig Wittgenstein, a former student of Russell, is also seen as one of the seminal figures in the analytic tradition. All three of these early philosophers of language were concerned with how sentences expressed information in the form of propositions. They also dealt with the truth values or truth conditions a given sentence has in virtue of the proposition it expresses.[21]

In present day philosophy, the term "semantics" is often used to refer to linguistic formal semantics, which bridges both linguistics and philosophy. There is also an active tradition of metasemantics, which studies the foundations of natural language semantics.[22]

Computer science

In the context of computer science, semantics refers to the meaning behind programming language constructs, distinguishing it from their mere syntax, which is the arrangement of symbols and keywords. This concept is crucial for ensuring that code is not only correctly written in terms of syntax but also logically meaningful and functional. According to Euzenat, semantics "provides the rules for interpreting the syntax which do not provide the meaning directly but constrains the possible interpretations of what is declared".[23]

Programming languages

The semantics of programming languages and other languages is an important issue and area of study in computer science. Like the syntax of a language, its semantics can be defined exactly.

For instance, the following statements use different syntaxes, but lead the computer to perform the same operations—add the value of a variable 'y' to the value of a variable 'x' and store the result in x:

Statement Programming languages
x += y C, C++, C#, Java, JavaScript, Python, Ruby, etc.
$x += $y Perl, PHP
x := x + y Ada, ALGOL, ALGOL 68, BCPL, Dylan, Eiffel, J, Modula-2, Oberon, OCaml, Object Pascal (Delphi), Pascal, SETL, Simula, Smalltalk, Standard ML, VHDL, and others.
Assembly languages: Intel 8086
ldr r2, [y]
ldr r3, [x]
add r3, r3, r2
str r3, [x]
Assembly languages: ARM
LET X = X + Y BASIC: early
x = x + y BASIC: most dialects; Fortran, MATLAB, Lua
Set x = x + y Caché ObjectScript
set /a x=%x%+%y% Batch
(incf x y) Common Lisp
/x y x add def PostScript
y @ x +! Forth

Various ways have been developed to describe the semantics of programming languages formally, building on mathematical logic:[24]

  • Operational semantics: The meaning of a construct is specified by the computation it induces when it is executed on a machine. In particular, it is of interest how the effect of a computation is produced.
  • Denotational semantics: Meanings are modelled by mathematical objects that represent the effect of executing the constructs. Thus, only the effect is of interest, not how it is obtained.
  • Axiomatic semantics: Specific properties of the effect of executing the constructs are expressed as assertions. Thus there may be aspects of the executions that are ignored.

Semantic models

The Semantic Web refers to the extension of the World Wide Web via embedding added semantic metadata, using semantic data modeling techniques such as Resource Description Framework (RDF) and Web Ontology Language (OWL). On the Semantic Web, terms such as semantic network and semantic data model are used to describe particular types of data model characterized by the use of directed graphs in which the vertices denote concepts or entities in the world and their properties, and the arcs denote relationships between them. These can formally be described as description logic concepts and roles, which correspond to OWL classes and properties.[25]


Main page: Philosophy:Semantics (psychology)

Semantic memory

In psychology, semantic memory is memory for meaning – in other words, the aspect of memory that preserves only the gist, the general significance, of remembered experience – while episodic memory is memory for the ephemeral details – the individual features, or the unique particulars of experience. The term "episodic memory" was introduced by Tulving and Schacter in the context of "declarative memory", which involved simple association of factual or objective information concerning its object. Word meaning is measured by the company they keep, i.e. the relationships among words themselves in a semantic network. The memories may be transferred intergenerationally or isolated in one generation due to a cultural disruption. Different generations may have different experiences at similar points in their own time-lines. This may then create a vertically heterogeneous semantic net for certain words in an otherwise homogeneous culture.[26] In a network created by people analyzing their understanding of the word (such as Wordnet) the links and decomposition structures of the network are few in number and kind, and include part of, kind of, and similar links. In automated ontologies the links are computed vectors without explicit meaning. Various automated technologies are being developed to compute the meaning of words: latent semantic indexing and support vector machines, as well as natural language processing, artificial neural networks and predicate calculus techniques.


Ideasthesia is a psychological phenomenon in which activation of concepts evokes sensory experiences. For example, in synesthesia, activation of a concept of a letter (e.g., that of the letter A) evokes sensory-like experiences (e.g., of red color).


In the 1960s, psychosemantic studies became popular after Charles E. Osgood's massive cross-cultural studies using his semantic differential (SD) method that used thousands of nouns and adjective bipolar scales. A specific form of the SD, Projective Semantics method[27] uses only most common and neutral nouns that correspond to the 7 groups (factors) of adjective-scales most consistently found in cross-cultural studies (Evaluation, Potency, Activity as found by Osgood, and Reality, Organization, Complexity, Limitation as found in other studies). In this method, seven groups of bipolar adjective scales corresponded to seven types of nouns so the method was thought to have the object-scale symmetry (OSS) between the scales and nouns for evaluation using these scales. For example, the nouns corresponding to the listed 7 factors would be: Beauty, Power, Motion, Life, Work, Chaos, Law. Beauty was expected to be assessed unequivocally as "very good" on adjectives of Evaluation-related scales, Life as "very real" on Reality-related scales, etc. However, deviations in this symmetric and very basic matrix might show underlying biases of two types: scales-related bias and objects-related bias. This OSS design meant to increase the sensitivity of the SD method to any semantic biases in responses of people within the same culture and educational background.[28][29]

Prototype theory

Another set of concepts related to fuzziness in semantics is based on prototypes. The work of Eleanor Rosch in the 1970s led to a view that natural categories are not characterizable in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, but are graded (fuzzy at their boundaries) and inconsistent as to the status of their constituent members. One may compare it with Jung's archetype, though the concept of archetype sticks to static concept. Some post-structuralists are against the fixed or static meaning of the words. Derrida, following Nietzsche, talked about slippages in fixed meanings.[citation needed]

Systems of categories are not objectively out there in the world but are rooted in people's experience. These categories evolve as learned concepts of the world – meaning is not an objective truth, but a subjective construct, learned from experience, and language arises out of the "grounding of our conceptual systems in shared embodiment and bodily experience".[30] A corollary of this is that the conceptual categories (i.e. the lexicon) will not be identical for different cultures, or indeed, for every individual in the same culture. This leads to another debate (see the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis or Eskimo words for snow).

See also

  • Engineering:Semantic technology – Lua error: not enough memory. – Lua error: Internal error: The interpreter exited with status 1.
  • Philosophy:Metasemantics – Lua error: Internal error: The interpreter exited with status 1. – Lua error: Internal error: The interpreter exited with status 1.
  • Philosophy:Cognitive linguistics – Lua error: Internal error: The interpreter exited with status 1. – Lua error: Internal error: The interpreter exited with status 1.
  • Philosophy:Principle of compositionality – Lua error: Internal error: The interpreter exited with status 1. – Lua error: Internal error: The interpreter exited with status 1.


  1. The word is derived from the Ancient Greek word σημαντικός (sēmantikós), which means "related to meaning, significant" (from grc σημαίνω (sēmaínō) 'to signify, indicate', from σῆμα (sêma) 'sign, mark, token'). The plural is used in analogy with words similar to physics, which was in the neuter plural in Ancient Greek and meant "things relating to nature".

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  1. Lua error: Internal error: The interpreter exited with status 1.. Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; A Greek–English Lexicon at the Perseus Project.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Read, Allen Walker (August 1948). "An Account of the Word 'Semantics'". WORD 4 (2): 78–97. doi:10.1080/00437956.1948.11659331. 
  3. Gibbs, Josiah W. (1857). Philological studies: with English illustrations. Durrie and Peck. p. 18. Retrieved 2022-11-20. 
  4. Bréal, Michel (1893). "On the Canons of Etymological Investigation". Transactions of the American Philological Association 24: 27. doi:10.2307/2935732. "Here I will cut short these reflections, which might be developed at great length; for all, or almost all, the chapter of linguistics treating of Semantics, or the science of meanings, has yet to be written.". 
  5. Bréal, Michel (1897). "Introduction". Essai de Sémantique (Science des significations). Hachette. pp. 1–9. 
  6. Chwistek, Leon (1922). "Über die Antinomien der Prinzipien der Mathematik" (in de). Mathematische Zeitschrift (Berlin: Julius Springer) 14: 237. doi:10.1007/BF01215902. Retrieved 2022-11-20. 
  7. Chwistek, Leon (1929). "Neue Grundlagen der Logik und Mathematik" (in de). Mathematische Zeitschrift (Berlin: Julius Springer) 30: 708. doi:10.1007/BF01187796. Retrieved 2022-11-20. 
  8. Winskel, Glynn (1993). The formal semantics of programming languages : an introduction. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. p. xv. ISBN 978-0-262-23169-5. 
  9. Floyd, Robert W. (1967). "Assigning Meanings to Programs". in Schwartz, J.T.. Mathematical Aspects of Computer Science. Proceedings of Symposium on Applied Mathematics. 19. American Mathematical Society. pp. 19–32. ISBN 0821867288. 
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 Partee, B. (1999) Semantics in R. A. Wilson and F. C. Keil (eds.) The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences , Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. 739–742.
  11. Kroeger, Paul (2019). Analyzing Meaning. Language Science Press. pp. 4–6. ISBN 978-3-96110-136-8. Retrieved 2020-09-13. 
  12. 12.0 12.1 Levin, Beth; Pinker, Steven; Lexical & Conceptual Semantics, Blackwell, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1991.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Jackendoff, Ray; Semantic Structures , MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1990.
  14. Goldstein, E. Bruce (2015). Cognitive psychology : connecting mind, research and everyday experience (4th ed.). New York: Cengage learning. ISBN 978-1-285-76388-0. OCLC 885178247. 
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 Cruse, D.; Lexical Semantics , Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1986.
  16. Underhill, James, W. Ethnolinguistics and Cultural Concepts: truth, love, hate & war, Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  17. Wierzbicka, Anna. Experience, Evidence, and Sense: The hidden cultural legacy of English, Oxford University Press, 2010.
  18. Cassin, Barbara. Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon, Princeton University Press, 2014.
  19. Sadow, Lauren, ed. In Conversation with Anna Wierzbicka – How English shapes our Anglo world on YouTubeLua error: Internal error: The interpreter exited with status 1..
  20. Nerbonne, J.; The Handbook of Contemporary Semantic Theory (ed. Lappin, S.), Blackwell Publishing, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1996.
  21. "Theories of Meaning" . Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  22. Alexis Burgess, Brett Sherman (eds.), Metasemantics: New Essays on the Foundations of Meaning, Oxford University Press, 2014, p. 29 n. 13.
  23. Euzenat, Jerome. Ontology Matching. Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg, 2007, p. 36.
  24. Nielson, Hanne Riis; Nielson, Flemming (1995). Semantics with Applications, A Formal Introduction (1st ed.). Chicester, England: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 0-471-92980-8. 
  25. Sikos, Leslie F. (2017). Description Logics in Multimedia Reasoning. Cham: Springer International Publishing. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-54066-5. ISBN 978-3-319-54066-5. Retrieved 2017-09-11. 
  26. Giannini, A. J.; Semiotic and Semantic Implications of "Authenticity", Psychological Reports, 106(2):611–612, 2010.
  27. Trofimova, I (2014). "Observer bias: how temperament matters in semantic perception of lexical material". PLOS ONE 9 (1): e85677. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0085677. PMID 24475048. Bibcode2014PLoSO...985677T. 
  28. Trofimova, I (1999). "How people of different age sex and temperament estimate the world". Psychological Reports 85/2: 533–552. doi:10.2466/pr0.85.6.533-552. 
  29. Trofimova, I (2012). "Understanding misunderstanding: a study of sex differences in meaning attribution". Psychological Research 77/6 (6): 748–760. doi:10.1007/s00426-012-0462-8. PMID 23179581. 
  30. Lakoff, George; Johnson, Mark (1999). Philosophy in the Flesh: The embodied mind and its challenge to Western thought. Chapter 1.. New York, NY: Basic Books. OCLC 93961754. 

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External links

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