• David Crystal
Part of the Disorders of Human Communication book series (DISORDERS, volume 3)


Semantics is the study of meaning in language. Introduced into English in the late 19th century, the term has since competed with such other terms as “semasiology”, “semology” and “semics” to identify a possible science of meaning. It is now the most widely used label for such a science, despite the popular pejorative sense which has developed in everyday speech (as in “That’s just semantics”, i.e. quibbling unnecessarily over word meanings, or deliberately using language to mislead or confuse). Semantics is one of the main components, or levels, of linguistic analysis (cf p. 19). Given that the communication of meaning is the central function of language, we might thus expect semantics to be the most well-developed branch of linguistics. But semantic studies have lagged behind most other aspects of linguistic investigation, partly because of linguists’ preoccupation with phonetics, phonology and grammar, and partly because of fundamental difficulties in subjecting the notion of “meaning” to successful analysis. In the 1960s and 1970s, however, the subject attracted increasing attention in linguistics, so that there are now several introductory texts available) and several advanced reviews of the field2. There is as yet no orthodoxy in semantics, but certain common themes have emerged in this literature which can help to distinguish linguistic semantics from other, more well-established approaches to the study of meaning-in particular, those which take their rise from philosophy and psychology.


Language Acquisition Semantic Feature Semantic Structure Semantic Function Semantic Field 
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    For example, Palmer (1976), Leech (1974), Lyons (1977).Google Scholar
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    For example, the work of Charles Peirce, Rudolf Carnap and Alfred Tarski; see the review in Lyons ( 1977: Ch. 4).Google Scholar
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    See Ullmann (1973), Stankiewicz (1964).Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    For behaviourist semantics, see Osgood (1953), Bloomfield (1933) and the review in Lyons (1977: Ch. 5); for mentalistic semantics, see de Saussure (1916), Ogden and Richards (1923) and the review in Lyons (1977: Ch. 4 ).Google Scholar
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    For example, the work of Ayer (1936), Strawson (1971), Wittgenstein (1953).Google Scholar
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    Other broad conceptions, which emphasize the relationship between linguistic and philosophical/logical theories of meaning, are illustrated by Fillmore and Langendoen (1971), Leech (1974) and Keenan (1975).Google Scholar
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    Note, in this respect, that linguists see “meaning” both as a datum and as a criterion of analysis. Linguists study meaning, and also use meaning to study other aspects of language, through such notions as “contrastivity” and “distinctiveness”.Google Scholar
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    Cf. Piaget (1926), Donaldson (1978).Google Scholar
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    See Lyons (1977: 250–261), Robins (1971: 66–69). For the original German ideas, see Trier (1934); for developments by American anthropologists, see the papers in Part 4 (“Cultural focus and semantic field”) of Hymes (1964: 167–214). Much of the cogency of the original proposals lay in the illuminating comparisons of different languages or language states—demonstrating, for example, that lexemes were not totally equivalent in their domain of application between languages (see the discussion of the difficulties of translating the cat sat on the mat into French in Lyons (1977:237–2381), or that there were gaps in the lexical expression of one language compared with another (well-discussed examples such as the range of words for“snow” in Eskimo, compared with English),In this chapter, the illustration will be wholly from English, and this comparative dimension will be only indirectly referred to. It should also be noted that a different sense of“semantic field” is found in the neuropsychological use of the term by Luria, where it refers to the sound and meaning associations of a word with other words, as determined by the physiological measurement of orienting reactions. Lesser (1978) also prefers a more general sense for this term, using “semantic category” in its place.Google Scholar
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    It should perhaps be pointed out that only a small proportion of the data is relevant to this question, as the following statistics show: of all the words used by the clinicians, 55% were grammatical, 9% were social or stereotyped (in the sense of Crystal, Fletcher and Garman 1976), and 2% were proper names; which leaves only 34% for semantically “full” lexemes.Google Scholar
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    A “theme”, in this sense, does not constitute a semantic field: it is a non-linguistically motivated notion, which cuts across the notion of semantic field, and may use lexemes from several of them. For example, the theme “What can you see at the zoo?” could be correctly answered by lion, tiger,etc. (field: ANIMALS), cages, cafe (field: BUILDINGS), boys, girls,etc. (field: PEOPLE), and so on. Examples of other themes include the story-lines of novels, plays, fairy-stories, etc. To determine when P can determine a theme from a list (e.g. queen… mirror… cottage… seven beds… dwarfs…) is an interesting exercise, but it is not one directly involving semantic structure.Google Scholar
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    In logic, contradictory terms are those where p and q cannot both be true or both false, e.g. if X is male, X cannot be female, and vice versa: one cannot be both male/female or neither male/female. Contrary terms are those where p and q cannot both be true, but both may be false, e.g. if X is hot,X cannot be cold,but X may be neither hot nor cold, e.g. lukewarm.Google Scholar
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    See Firth (1951: 194 ff.), Halliday (1966), Robins (1971: 63–66). Sometimes the term is used for all co-occurrences between lexemes—including the house/wall type nor is there as clear a boundary between these two types as the above examples might suggest—cf. Palmer (1976: 96).Google Scholar
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    See, for example, the methods used by Sinclair(1966), on the basis of the approach summarised in Halliday (1966).Google Scholar
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    Cf. the baby-talk prosody of parents: see the paper by Garnica, and other references in Snow and Ferguson (1977); also above, p. 93. On the social function of accents, see Trudgill (1974), Giles and Powesland (1975).Google Scholar
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    Cf. Empson (1930), Firth (1951: 193–194), Leech (1969: Ch. 6 ).Google Scholar
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    In some accounts of linguistic analysis, the patterns discussed below would in fact be handled under the heading of grammar, and not in this Chapter at all. The boundary between syntax and semantics is always somewhat arbitrarily decided.Google Scholar
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    These are based on a comparison of the functions recognised in Brown (1973), Bowerman (1973), Wells (1974), Bloom, Lightbown and Hood (1975), and Bloom and Lahey (1978), with the further references therein.Google Scholar
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    Cf. the grammatical classification of Quirk, et al ( 1972: Ch. 3).Google Scholar
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    Note the close cognitive relationship between space and time in early development, as argued by H. Clark (1973).Google Scholar
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    Some lexemes may of course be used in both a static and a dynamic interpretation. Cf. Quirk et al. (1972: Ch. 3), though their purpose is to identify the grammatical constraints operating upon verbs, and not to provide a semantic classification in its own right.Google Scholar
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    See Nelson (1973), Chambers and Tavuchis (1976), Cruse (1977), Andersen (1978), Clark (1979), Rescorla (1981), and, for an early review, Nice (1915).Google Scholar
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    One such framework is illustrated in Crystal (1982).Google Scholar
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    See Clark (1971), Hatch (1971), French and Brown (1977), Coker (1978).Google Scholar
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    For an example of the interaction between grammatical and semantic variables in an area of considerable clinical importance, we may refer to the development of question forms, p. 103.Google Scholar
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    See Goldin-Meadow, Seligman and Gelman (1976), Benedict (1979). Average number of (different) lexemes in production are:10 by 1:2,50 by 1:6,100 by 1:7,200 by 1:9,and 300 by 2:0. However, in the early period, the ratio of number of lexemes comprehended to number produced is about 5:1, with often a gap of several months between comprehension and production. On average, comprehension development moves at the rate of just over 20 new lexemes per month; production just under 10 per month. The distinction becomes much less important after age 2.Google Scholar
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    Cf.Aram and Nation (1975), and fn. 16 in Ch. 4.Google Scholar
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    It is obviously important for T to know the target item, before a decision about relatedness can be made; similarly, a lot depends on the unambiguity of the stimulus.Google Scholar
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    These strictly intra-linguistic observations of course constitute only a part of a theory of lexical retrieval—but they are an important part. For broader, psycholinguistic accounts, within which structural semantic notions might be incorporated, see Forster (1978), Morton (1979).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Wien 1981

Authors and Affiliations

  • David Crystal
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Linguistic ScienceUniversity of ReadingGreat Britain

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