Semantics | Definition, Meaning, Process, Examples

Semantics | Definition, Meaning, Process, Examples

Semantics Definition

The subject matter of semantics is meaning. ‘Semantics is the technical used to refer to the study of meaning, and, since meaning is a part of language, semantics is part of linguistics.’ (FR Palmer: 1). Man has always been interested in language, and mainly in the relations of linguistic symbols, and over the centuries these relations have been viewed differently from various angles.

The term semantics was first used in the seventeenth century in the phrase semantick philosophy.

M. Breal is credited with coining the word semantics in his Essai de semantique (1897) ‘as a name for philosophical enquiries’. ‘Chwistek meant by it what Carnap called logical syntax, it is often used to refer to such inquiries into meaning as Peirce’s theory of signs, Frege’s distinction between Sense and Reference, and Wittgensteins picture theory.

In ancient times, in the days of pre-platonic philosophizing association between sense and reference, name and concrete things was recognised. This stand has not substantially changed in that the basic premises and processes of meaning recognise it.

In 1894 the English word semantics occurred in a paper presented to the American Philosophical Association : ‘Reflected meaning a point in semantics’. As a branch of language study considering language in terms of semantic units, structured in a certain way, being linked to phonetic units, semantics is recent development, yet to develop its tools, analytical procedures and somewhat uncertain of its theoretical foundations. Linguistics had not much to do with it till the thirties.

Leonard Bloomfield tried to form the theoretical basis by equating semantics to the stimulus – response formula.

As Wallace Chafe observes,

‘Linguistics thus finds itself at the present time in an awkward position, for of all things it has learned about the various parts of language, it has learned the least about semantics … It has left semantics to a very large extent to philosophers, behavioural scientists and others who have had no scientific paradigm within which knowledge about language could be systematically integrated’.

Emergence of structuralism on the linguistic scene marks the watershed in the realm of semantics, which highlighted that ‘Linguistic units are but points in a system, or network of relations, they are the terminals of these relations and they have no prior and independent existence’ (Lyons). In 1966 A. J. Greimas produced Structural Semantics which viewed semantics as an exploration of signification anchored in the world perceived through senses’.

Semantics Meaning

The meanings of words are constantly changing and we cannot say what the words we use today will come to mean in future. Words are not exact signs for definite and unchanging conceptions as are the formulas of mathematics, circumstances and the trend of a people’s thought exercise decisive influence upon the signification of words. Moreover, the word meanings are greatly modified by the adoption of foreign words bearing the similar meanings. That the words have no essential meanings but are merely conventional signs is borne out by the semantic changes.

Consider, for example, the sentence from Chaucer’s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales “He was veray parfit gentil knight”. If we take the words of the sentence in the significations they have to day, the sentence will mean, “He was a very perfect gentle knight.” Our meaning is, however, far from what Chaucer meant, because Chaucer meant, “He was a true, complete and noble knight”. In the days of Chaucer veray meant ‘true’ (not very), parfit complete (not perfect), gentil ‘noble’ (not gentle). In their sense-development words are often seen to pursue some well-marked tendencies. Among the more common of these are extension (or generalization of meaning, narrowing, (or specializing) of meaning, degeneration of meaning and elevation of meaning. Besides these common tendencies, semantic changes also occur through popular misunderstanding and emotional addition.

The Process of Semantics Change

1. Extension or Generalization of Meaning

By extension of meaning is meant the widening of a word’s signification until it covers much more than the idea originally conveyed.

Semantics Examples

The word box offers a good example of the extension of meaning. It originally meant a small receptacle, furnished with a lid, and intended to contain drugs, ointment, jewels or money. Gradually the sense grew wider and the word came to denote other things resembling a box in shape and use. Down to the end of the seventeenth century the word’s signification was restricted to objects of comparatively small size. After 1700 this restriction disappeared so that a chest or the like for holding clothes could be called a box. The meaning of box has now been so wide as to be equally applicable to what would formerly have been called a box, and to what would formerly have been called a chest. We now say a pill-box, a bandbox, a box for clothes, a box in a stable, a box in a theatre, a shooting box etc.

Rival (Latin rivus ‘river’) meant originally “neighbours who got water from the same brook.” Gradually it came to suggest the contest arising between neighbours respecting their riparian rights. But today we use the word to designate competitors in politics, or business or love.

The verb to carry which is an adaptation of an Old French word meant, etymologically, to convey something in a wheeled vehicle. In English it was applied to signify other modes of conveyance, perhaps at first by joke, as when we speak of carting some object from one room to another. “In the end, the verb became the most general expression”, as Dr. Bradley says, “for the act of removing a thing from one place to another by lifting it from the ground.” In this sense, the older verb to bear has come to be superseded, to a great extent, by the verb to carry.

Take also the word lovely which originally meant “worthy to be loved”. But today its signification has become so general that a girl may be lovely, a box of chocolate may be lovely, a dinner may be lovely, a chair may be lovely, a day may be lovely.

In many words the extension of meaning has gone so far that they mean nothing in particular. There are many English words which once had a precise and definite meaning, but now they can be applied to so many things that they mean really almost nothing, just as a man who is equally intimate with everybody has no real friends. Circumstances illustrates best this see mantic phenomenon. It means literally “things that stand round one”, but it has now become so vague that we say without hesitation, under the following circumstances”. The phrase includes, as Greenough and Kittredge say, “three inconsistent expressions of direction or position: under, after and around. Yet we do not feel the inconsistency.”

Presently originally meant immediately, but since the seventeenth century it has passed to its rather vague and indefinite meaning of today. Thing which originally meant discussion and also ‘legislative assembly’ has now come to mean a variety of things with the result that it means nothing definitely. There are many words which once meant something rather definite, but have gradually faded into their present vague and shadowy condition. Such words are, in Modern English, affair, business, concern, regard, account, article, fact, state, condition, position, situation, way, means, respect, matter etc. According to G.L. Brook, “Another extreme form of extension is the tendency, particularly noticeable in slang, for adjectives of the most varied origins to become either vague terms of approval or vague terms of disapproval. Standard English examples are good, nice, fine, excellent, admirable, beside, bad, worthless, mean, evil, vile, and many others.”

2. Specialization of Meaning

Sometimes words which are originally of wide reference are seen to have undergone specialization in meaning or to have become restricted in use.

Semantics Examples

A classic example of this specialization of meaning is the word doctor. Formerly the word meant learned men in theology, law, and in many other fields besides medicine, but nowadays it is applied only to the practitioner of the healing art, whether having a University degree or not. In Old English fide (cognate with German zeit) signified “time.” But in Middle English its application was restricted, and came to mean chiefly the time of the periodical rise or fall of the sea, after wards it was used to name these phenomena of the sea, the older sense being sufficiently expressed by the synonym time.

Starve (OE. Steorfan) like its German cognate sterben originally meant “to die”. Now the meaning has been specialized in Standard English to signify “to die of hunger” while in many dialects it means “to die of cold.”

Deer (OE déor) meant ‘animal’ of any sort down to the sixteenth century, but is now applied to one particular kind of animal.

Cattle formerly meant ‘property’ and it was used in this sense down to the sixteenth century. In an agricultural society living animals like cows, oxen, goats, hens, bees, lambs etc., are one of the chief forms of property and from the beginning of the fourteenth century the word (cattle) was specialized to mean ‘live-stock’- living creatures that could be kept or dealt in for profit or use. Afterwards the word has undergone another round of specialization, so that it now means bovine animals only.

There are some words in English which were originally used to mean either good or bad things, but now they have been specialized to mean either one or the other. Censure originally meant ‘opinion’, favourable or unfavourable. “And your name is great in mouths of wisest censure” (Othello, 11.3.193), it has now come to mean “unfavourable opinion”. Retaliate which was originally applied to benefits as well as to ill-treatment is now limited only to ill-treatment.

When a word has acquired a restricted sense, it is not uncommon to find the older sense preserved in proverbial phrases, compounds etc. Thus the older sense of meat (OE. mete), which originally meant food, is preserved in the compound sweetmeat, or in the proverb “One man’s meat is another man’s poison.” The original signification of play (OE plega), which was ‘motion’ of almost any kind is preserved in technical usage, as in “The piston-rod does not play freely“, “the play of the valve.”

When a word has been specialized in meaning the restricted sense does not always drive out the other sense the two (or more) senses exist side by side for centuries. When Edgar says in King Lear (111,4,149), “Rats and mice and such small deer”. he is using deer in its original sense of animal The specialized and the wider sense of cousin existed side by side down to the 18th century when the wider sense “kinsman or kinswoman” became obsolete, except for special use.

3. Degeneration of Meaning

The tendency of a word to acquire a less favourable sense than it originally had is commonly known as degeneration (of meaning).

Semantics Examples

Curiosity meant formerly the desire to learn, a feeling of interest that led to inquiry, Dr. Johnson used curiosity in this sense when he wrote “Curiosity is, in great and generous minds, the first passion and the last.” Recently the word has undergone degeneration in meaning and has come to mean “inquisitiveness, in reference to trifles or matters which do not concern one.”

Sensual originally possessed no evil meaning and was used in the sense of sensuous. In the sixteenth century the word came to imply something bad or vicious, and so Milton was compelled to coin the word sensuous to fill up the gap caused by the degeneration of sensual. It is interesting to note that Keats uses the word sensual with the old and innocent signification in his Ode on a Grecian Urn:

“……. Ye, soft pipes, play on:

Not to the sensual car…….” (Lines 12-13)

Ghost once meant ‘spirit in general, with the introduction of the Latin word ‘spirit’ it deteriorated in meaning, and came to acquire the dishonorable sense of the apparition of a dead person. The older sense of the word survives in religious phrases like “Holy Ghost.” Coleridge uses the word (ghost) with the original and honourable sense in his “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

“I thought that I had died in sleep,

And was blessed ghost.” (Lines 307-8)

Fiend, in Old English and down to the middle of the 14th century was used in the sense of ‘enemy’ (contrary of friend. But with the introduction of the French word enemy, its use in the sense of ‘enemy’ was usurped by the French intruder, except its use with reference to the unseen enemies of the souls of man. In the end the original meaning of fiend was quite forgotten, and it became simply equivalent to devil.

Silly (OE. Saelig) originally meant ‘blessed’ or ‘happy like’ its German cognate selig. “In the Middle English it was often used satirically in a tone of mock, envy or admiration, and hence acquired the disparaging sense which it now has” (Dr. H. Bradley).

The adjective base which now implies moral unworthiness originally meant “of humble birth.” Marlowe uses the word in the original sense in Edward II. When the Younger Mortimer says, “The glozing head of thy base minion thrown” (1.,133), he uses base in the sense of “of humble birth”. Shakespeare also uses it in the original sense. When Hamlet says that he once regarded it as “baseness to write fair” (V, ii, 34) he means that he once thought that the ability to write fair belonged to those who were of humble birth, and not that it was morally unworthy.

The semantic history of minion is also very interesting, Minion (from French mignon) was formerly used in a good sense of “darling” but now it has acquired the contemptuous sense of a base, unworthy favourite. Marlowe uses the word in the modern contemptuous sense, as in “The glozing head of thy base minion thrown.” Shakespeare uses it both in the good and bad senses. Sergeant’s description of Macbeth as “valour’s minion” contains the original (also good) sense while the line, “Go, rate thy minions, proud insulting boy” (Henry VI, Part 3,II,ii,84) contains the modern bad sense.

According to A.C. Baugh, the degeneration of meaning may take the form of the gradual extension to so many senses that any particular meaning which the word may have had is completely lost. In other words, degeneration results sometimes from generalization or widening of meaning. Great originally meant ‘large in size’ the opposite of ‘small’. But today anything from a ball game to the weather may be great. Other words which have suffered this type of degeneration are lovely awful, terrible, etc.

4. Elevation of Meaning

If words sometimes go downhill, they sometimes undergo the opposite process known as elevation Fame (Latin fama) originally meant report, talk’, but the word is now used in a good sense. The older sense is preserved in the phrase “a house of ill fame”.

Semantics Examples

Many words which were formerly slang have now undergone elevation of meaning. Thus in the eighteenth century snob and sham were slang, but in the nineteenth century they attained respectability, the former partly through the influence of Thackeray.

The word sturdy which originally meant “harsh, rough or intractable” is now used in a wholly complimentary sense. Smock was applied to a woman’s undergarment down to the 18th century. But now the word has been uplifted in caste and has come to be applied to a woman’s outer garment. We also speak, nowadays, of an artist’s smock.

“Extension of meaning”, as G.L. Brook says “has often led to elevation. A word which once had quite a precise meaning is liable to become a vague expression of approval if it describes a quality which many people regard as admirable“. The word ‘nice’ best illustrates this semantic development. This French word found its way into English in the thirteenth century, and was used in derogatory senses. In the sixteenth century it was specialized in the sense of “fastidious, difficult to please”. In the eighteenth century the word again underwent an extension of meaning and became a term of praise. Nowadays we use the word in many senses – a nice book, a nice girl, a nice picture, a nice dinner, a nice journey. The word has been raised in caste, but has become vague in signification

5. Semantic changes through Emotional Addition

There are in English a large number of words which have undergone semantic change through the addition of emotional connotation to their primary meaning Illustrative examples of this semantic process are the adjectives enormous, extraordinary, extravagant. In their etymological sense these words merely express the fact that something passes the ordinary or prescribed limits. Thus “an enormous appetite” formerly meant what we now call an abnormal appetite; “an extraordinary event” was simply not an ordinary event: “extravagant conduct” was conduct which did not conform to the established rules of conduct. Now the employment of these adjectives not only indicates something that is unusual or abnormal, but also excites our wonder, indignation or contempt, while referring to the abnormal or unusual character of their nouns.

Semantics Examples

Grievous has also undergone this kind of change. The word, now-a-days, implies sympathy on the part of the person speaking while formerly it did not signify any such emotional association.

Great and large mean to the understanding very much the same thing, but great has emotional implication which large has not.

6. Change of meaning through Popular Misunderstanding

There are many words which have undergone semantic changes because they have been popularly misunderstood.

Semantics Examples

The use of the verb to transpire in the sense of ‘to happen’ or ‘to take place’ is not uncommon now-a-days, specially in newspapers, Literally to transpire means ‘to emit or to be emitted through the pores of the skin’ and a circumstance may be correctly said to have transpired in the sense of becoming known, becoming public gradually. But the use of transpire in the sense of ‘to happen’ has arisen, Jespersen thinks, through a vulgar misunderstanding of the English signification of an English word.

Preposterous is another word which illustrates this process of semantic change. Literally it means only “placed in reversed order”. If a letter written today is delivered before the letter written yesterday, the delivery of the letter should be called preposterous in accordance with the original sense of the word. But from the use of the word in contexts in which its exact meaning was not obvious, the unlearned people wrongly took it to mean something like “outrageously absurd”. This mistaken sense is now firmly established. Other words belonging to this class of semantic change are emergency (as used in the sense of urgency), premises, ingenuity etc.


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