As far as we know, man has always been interested in language, in such matters as its origins, its nature, and its various uses (Wardhaugh, 1972: 1). Language has been something of a mystery to him, not unlike the mysteries of creation, the origin of the sun, and the coming of the sun. It has provided man with such a rich source of myth that even today much of the mystery of language prevails.

Language is a system of arbitrary vocal symbols used for human communication. This definition implies that a language must be systematic, for otherwise it could not be learned or used consistently. A very basic observation of what ways a language is systematic is that each language contains two systems: a system of sounds and a system of meanings (ibid.: 3-4). To study a language, we should deal with phonology, morphology—syntax, and semantics.

The study of meanings is called Semantics. The word ‘semantics’ comes originally from Greek: ‘sema’ (N) meaning ‘signs’ and ‘samaino’ meaning ‘to sign’ or ‘to mean’. Semantics is a branch of Linguistics that studies the meaning of language.

‘Meaning’ covers a variety of aspects of language, and there is no general agreement about the nature of meaning, what aspect of it may properly be included in Semantics, or the way in which it should be described (Palmer, 1981: 1).

In addition, Hurford and Heasley (1983: 1) have stated:

Meaning is so vague, insubstansial, and elusive that it is impossible to come to any clear, concrete, or tangible conclusions about it … by careful thought about the language you speak and the way it is used, definite conclusions can be arrived at concerning meaning.

The term ‘Semantics’ is a recent addition to the English language. There was one occurrence of semantick in the phrase ‘semantick philosophy’ to mean ‘divination’ in the seventh century. However, semantics does not occur until it was introduced in 1894 in an article entitled ‘Reflected Meanings: A point in Semantics’ read to the American Philological Association. The French term ‘semantique’ had been coined from the Greek in the previous year by M. Breal. In both cases the term was not used to refer to meaning but to its development which was then called ‘historical semantics’. In 1900, however, there appeared Breal’s book ‘Semantics: studies in the science of meaning’; the French original ‘Essai de Semantique’ had appeared three years earlier(Palmer, 1981: 1). Through this article, Semantics was confirmed as a study of meaning in language.

As a matter of fact, Semantics may cover not only the structure and the functions of language, but also deal with interdisciplinary studies. The fact that Semantics is a branch of linguistics, the object of Semantics is meaning. The meaning may be studied from the point of view of phonology, morphology, and syntax. The meaning may also be analyzed in relation to functions of inter-structures of the language. It covers not only the lexical but also the grammatical meanings. Thus the scope of Semantics includes the phonology, morphology, syntax, and discourse.

In Semantics, ‘meaning’ is different from ‘sense’. The meaning deals with the relationship among the language components. It accordingly deals with the intralanguage. In addition, the meaning can be the content of communication.

To study a meaning means to study how members of a speech community understand each other. A meaning of a language does not depend only upon the grammatical or lexical system but also the discourse system. The meaning will not be able to be understood only by considering its grammatical system or choice of words but also its relationship with other sentences.

Within the scope of meaning are involved the relations between utterances, written and spoken, and the world at large. Therefore the study of meaning embraces a wider range than language alone (Robins, 1980: 14).

This paper extends the discussion of the following problems:

  • What is Semantics?
  • What areas are covered by Semantics?


A. The Definitions of Semantics

Several linguists have defined what Semantics is. The followings are the definitions of Semantics proposed by those linguists:

Ø Semantics is the study of the meanings of words, phrases, and sentences (Yule, 2006: 100).

Ø Semantics is the study of meaning (Wardhaugh, 1972: 137).

Ø Semantics is the study of the relationships between linguistic forms and entities in the world; that is, how words literally connect to things (Yule, 1996: 4).

Ø Semantics is the technical term used to refer to the study of meaning (Palmer, 1981: 1).

Ø Semantics is the study of meaning in language (Hurford and Heasley, 1983: 1).

Ø Semantics is the study of linguistic meaning (Frawley, 1992: 1).

From the above definitions, it can be concluded that Semantics is the technical term used to refer to the study of meaning in language.

B. The Nature of Meaning

It is not all clear what constitutes evidence for a statement about meaning. Meanings do not seem stable but depend on speakers, hearers, and contexts (Palmer, 1981: 7). In addition, we need to make a distinction between what would seem to be the usual meaning of a word or a sentence and the meaning it has in certain specific circumstances (ibid.: 8). Lyons (1977: 643) has made the distinction in terms of ‘sentence meaning’, which is directly related to the grammatical and lexical features of a sentence, and ‘utterance meaning’, which includes all ‘secondary’ aspects of meanings, especially those related to context.

Hurford and Heasley (1983: 3) have suggested that ‘speaker meaning’ is what a speaker means when he uses a piece of language, whereas ‘sentence or word meaning’ is what a sentence or word means, i.e. what it counts as the equivalent of in the language concerned. The distinction is useful in analyzing the various kinds of communication between people made possible by language.

The following is some examples to show the distinction between the speaker meaning and the sentence or word meaning:

(1) The man was killing his wife while everybody in the family was sleeping so soundly.

(2) The problem is killing me!

The word ‘killing’ used in both sentences has different meanings. In sentence (1), ‘killing’ means ‘causing the death of’ according to The New International Webster’s Standard Dictionary (2006: 269). This sentence implies that the wife was killed. Whereas the meaning of the word ‘killing’ in sentence (2) is not the same as the one in sentence (1). By saying ‘killing’ the speaker in sentence (2) implies that the problem is so pressing that it is getting unbearable for him/her. This ‘killing’ does not get the speaker really killed.

C. The Kinds of Meaning

Any language is a system for expressing meanings through sound patterns, morphological structure, and syntactic organization. Long before linguistics existed as a discipline, thinkers were speculating about the nature of meaning. For thousands of years, this question has been considered central to philosophy. Philosophers have long puzzled over what words mean, or how they relate to reality. They have at times wondered whether words are more real than objects, or they have striven to find the essential meanings of words.

It is due to the fact that although it is relatively easy to determine whether two words or sentences have identical or different meanings, it is much more difficult to determine precisely what meaning is in the first place. In fact, despite many centuries of study, we still know very little about the nature of meaning or how it is represented in the human mind.

Questions on meaning have been approached from many directions. This has brought about some kinds of meaning:

1. Cognitive/Descriptive/Denotative/

The meaning shows the relationship between the concept and the real world. The concept of meaning suits the real world.

e.g. She is planting some roses.

Here, ‘roses’ means ‘a kind of flower’.

Compare: Everything’s coming up roses at last.

Here, ‘roses’ do not have the same meaning as the previous meaning that has something to do with flowers; it does not mean that ‘roses are appearing’ but ‘everything appears in favorable ways’.

2. Connotative/Emotive:

The meaning depends on the speaker/writer’s intention. It involves his or her personal feeling. This may be different from its real or denotative meaning.

e.g. Life is a bitch!

Here, the expression means that ‘life is difficult and unpleasant’ and it involves the speaker’s unpleasant feeling towards life. It does not have anything to do with ‘bitch as a female dog’.

3. Narrowed/Specialized:

The meaning of word is narrowed so that the word achieves a more restricted meaning over the course of time.

e.g. ‘Meat’ now means a particular kind of food, not food in general, as it does in the King James version of Genesis: ‘And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.

4. Widened/Extended:

The meaning of word is widened and the word achieves a more general meaning.

e.g. The words such as ‘bird’ and ‘dog’ once referred to specific types of birds and dogs, not to the species in general.

5. Grammatical/Functional/Structural/Internal:

The meaning is related to intra-language relationships or the meaning is resulted from the function of the word in the sentence.

e.g. I met boys last night.

In this case, we can conclude that the speaker met more than a boy last night because an ending –s in the ‘boy’ indicates and mean ‘more than one’.

6. Lexical/Semantic/External/Dictionary:

It is the meaning as what the dictionary says.

e.g. ‘Fine’ can mean:

(1) of high quality

(2) a sum of money that must be paid as a punishment for breaking a law or rule.

(3)difficult to perceive

7. Construction

It is the meaning that lies in the construction.

e.g. (1) It is my book.

(2) The book is mine.

(3) The woman is her mother.

(4) The woman is hers.

The constructions in those sentences mean ‘possessions’

8. Referential

It is the meaning that is in relation to a referent.

e.g. The tragic death of the English Rose has brought up a lot of controversies.

(The underlined expression refers to Princess Diana of England)

9. Idiomatic

The meaning of a combination of words may come up differently from the meaning of its individual words.

e.g. It is raining cats and dogs; we will have to cancel our plans to go out.

(The underlined expression means ‘heavily’)

10. Propositional

It is the meaning that appears when we limit the meaning of something.

This sort of meaning can be much found in science and mathematics or something to be exact.

e.g. (1) One year is equal to twelve months.

(2) The sun rises in the east.

(3) Heaven must be good.

11. Central

It is the meaning that any word posses when it serves as the central of an expression.

e.g. The man works hard to be the breadwinner of his family.

(From this sentence, we catch its central meaning; that is the man is a hard worker.)

12. Pictorial

It is the meaning of something that is connected with the feeling of the listeners or readers.

e.g. The killing is so brutal!

(This expression may arise the listeners’ or readers’ feeling of hatred toward the killer.)

D. The Aspects of Meaning

The meaning of something may be viewed from different aspects. The aspects of meaning include:

1. Sense

This deals with the idea or the intended message.

e.g. ‘… Congratulations Ayaan Hirsi Ali for being named Reader’s Digest European of the Year 2006. She should be proud of having the courage to fight the battle for oppressed women in our society. Not everyone has the guts to do that. I know the great risk and resistance faced by most Muslim women who are honest and outspoken. Hirsi Ali has triumphed in establishing a platform to voice issues that are considered taboo among Muslims. She has given women, especially Muslim women throughout the world, a wake-up call to make changes in their lives for the better…’

The intended message of the passage is that Hirsi Ali is a brave and honest woman.

2. Feeling

This has a connection with the feeling of the speaker or writer.

e.g. The word ‘Congratulation’ in the previous passage reveals the feeling of the speaker/writer that he or she is very happy with what the woman has done.

3. Tone

This deals with the speaker’s or the writer’s attitude toward his/her listeners or readers. This aspect is closely related to the aspect of feeling.

e.g. ‘… I realized that I was no longer that idiot kid I had been, and I wanted to change my life. Everybody said no to me. I didn’t have a formal education. I came from no influence, no money. There was no obvious reason to give me a job. I couldn’t afford to fail. I had to make a living- I needed to make money …”

In this case, the speaker/writer is showing everyone that he is now somebody that they can count on.

4. Intention

It is the speaker’s/writer’s aim or the effect he/she is trying to say.

e.g. In the previous passage, it implies that the speaker/writer intends to make an impression on people and show his self-determination to change his life for the better.


Not only linguists are interested in the study of language. Anthropologists, philosophers, psychologists, and teachers of languages have been interested in language, and linguistics has close ties with each of the other disciplines. These ties have been stronger at some times than others as interests change and as the influence of one discipline on another grows or diminishes (Wardhaugh, 1972: 13).

This section takes up the connections between semantics and related disciplines. While it is firmly anchored in the theory of grammar, semantics, more than most other areas of linguistics research, is a focus for interdisciplinary activity. Computer science, logic, philosophy, pragmatics, and psychology have all contributed important ideas to linguistic semantics and have been influenced by developments in semantic theory (Lappin, 1997: 5).

The connections between Semantics and some other related disciplines are described as follows:

A. Semantics and Linguistics

Semantics is the technical term used to refer to the study of meaning, and, since meaning is a part of language, semantics is a part of linguistics or the ‘scientific study of language (Palmer, 1981: 1). Semantics is a component or level of linguistics of the same kind as phonetics or grammar. Moreover, nearly all linguists have, explicitly or implicitly, accepted a linguistic model in which semantics is at one ‘end’ and phonetics at the other, with grammar somewhere in the middle. If language is considered as an information system, or more strictly as a communication system, it will associate a message (the meaning) with a set of signs (the sounds of language or the symbols of the written text) (ibid.: 5).

B. Semantics and Anthropology

Anthropologists are concerned with language as an essential part of the cultural and behavioral patterns of the people they study. The linguist would be unwise to ignore the fact that language functions within such patterns. One specific area of anthropological research that has particularly interested students of semantics is that of kinship, for the varied and intricate kinship relations of many societies are revealed in the equally intricate semantic patterns of the kinship terminology (Palmer, 1981: 14).

C. Semantics and Philosophy

If the relationship of linguistics to anthropology has weakened in recent years, the one between linguistics and philosophy has strengthened during the same time. Linguists are interested once more in questions of meaning after passing through a period in which they almost disregarded the study of meaning. For a long time no suitable procedures seemed to exist for investigating questions of meaning, consequently, meaning in language was largely ignored because it was felt that nothing worthwhile could be said in the absence of suitable procedures. Today, on the other hand, linguist wonder why a sentence does not make any sense, or why is has ambiguity, and so forth (Wardhaugh, 1972: 13).

Some philosophers have suggested that many, if not all, philosophical problems can be solved by the study of ‘ordinary language’. Some of the work of such philosophers has had an impact upon linguistics. An older and more traditional area of philosophy that has interested linguists is that of logic. Logic makes us of concepts that are found in ordinary language, e.g. those of ‘and’ and ‘or’ and relies ultimately for its validity on what we judge to be logically correct (Palmer, 1981: 13).

D. Semantics and Psychology

The relation between psychology and linguistics is judged so important that it has given rise to a subject called ‘Psycholinguistics’. Essentially the psychological approach to language lies in the attempt to understand how we process language both in its production and reception. It can be said that the role of meaning seems far more important, even in dealing with grammatical issues (Palmer, 1981: 14).

Linguists share an interest with psychologists in the “human” properties of language, in language learning, and in “creativity”. Psychologists and linguists have an interest in linguistic phenomena, the former to explain behavior in general, the latter to explain linguistic behavior in particular (Wardhaugh, 1972: 14).

E. Semantics and Language Teaching

Although languages are learned, they must also occasionally be taught, or there must be some teaching about linguistic matters (ibid.: 14) and Semantics is one of them.

The major goal of taking a language course is to enable students to develop communicative competence comprising of linguistic, sociolinguistic, discourse, and strategic competence (Celce-Murcia and Olhstain, 2000: 16). The competence in lexical resources offered by Semantics belongs to the communicative competence.

Semantics may thus provide insights into the meaning of language which is helpful to a language teacher in keeping up with the description and explanation of the phenomenon of the language and the social context of language use as well. It can also be used as the source of data about the language by the teacher and to set out clearly the steps to be undertaken in the design of learning materials in particular.


To sum up, Semantics is defined as the term used to the study of linguistic meaning. The problem of Semantics is an attempt to understand how it is that words and sentences can “mean” at all, or better perhaps, how they can be meaningful. Semantics is concerned with the way we relate our language to our experience. In other words, we have two kinds of Semantics: one dealing with semantic structure and the other one dealing with meaning in terms of our experience outside language.

Linguists are not the only scholars who have been interested in Semantics. The subject has also been of concern to philosophers, anthropologists, and psychologists, and there is no doubt that linguistics has gained a great deal from scholars in all three disciplines. In addition, Semantics may relate itself to the area of language teaching.


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Celce-Murcia, Marianne and Olshtain, Elite. 2000. Discourse and Context in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Frawley, William. 1992. Linguistic Semantics. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Hurford, James R., and Heasley, Brendan. 1983. Semantics: A Course book. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lappin, Shalom (ed.). 1997. The Handbook of Contemporary Semantic Theory. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

Lyons, John. 1977. Semantics: Volume 1.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ogden, C. K. and Richards, I. A. 1923. The Meaning of Meaning. London: Rountledge and Kegan Paul.

Palmer, F. R. 1976. Semantics. London: Oxford University Press.

Robins, R. H. 1980. General Linguistics: An Introductory Survey: Third Edition. London and New York: Longman Group Ltd.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. 1916. Course de Linguistique Generale (Translated into English by Wade Biskin, 1974). Fountana: Collins.

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Wallwork, J. F. 1978. Language and People. London: Heinemann Educational Books.

Wardhaugh, Ronald. 1972. Introduction to Linguistics. McGraw-Hill, Inc.

The New International Webster’s Standard Dictionary: School and Office Edition. 2006. Trident Reference Publishing.

Yule, George. 1996. Pragmatics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Yule, George. 2006. The Study of Language: Third Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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