Semantics – how to understand it

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Semantics – definition

semantics Semantics is a part of language studies which focuses on the meaning of what is spoken or written.

redbtn It can encompass whole items such as a lecture or an annual report, or the smallest unit of meaning.

redbtn Linguists do not regard the word as the smallest unit, but the components of a word which carry separate items of meaning.

redbtn The smallest unit of meaning in a language is called a morpheme.


redbtn Here are some examples of linguistic study which would fall under the title of semantics:

  • Stylistic analysis of the imagery used in a poem.
  • Analysis of point of view in a novel or short story.
  • A study of tragic themes in Shakespeare’s plays.
  • The study of approaches to translation.
  • Tracing the development of English nouns from the Anglo-Saxon period.


redbtn The semantic level of a statement, whether it be spoken or written, can be seen as the reason for its existence.

redbtn Meaning develops and shifts constantly in any language, and semantic study is often an attempt to chart these changes, using the structure of the language as a yardstick.

redbtn The smallest unit of meaning is known as a morpheme. Words can be broken down according to their morphological make up.

redbtn For instance the word horse is a morpheme, because no smaller part of it can stand alone with any significant meaning.

redbtn The same would be true for words such as big, talk, and giraffe.

redbtn However the word horses is made up of two morphemes:

horse [the animal] + s [which expresses a plural].

redbtn So, even though it is only one letter, s can be a morpheme.

redbtn The following sequence shows how a word of one morpheme can become part of a word with two, then three, then four morphemes or separate units of meaning.

attract 1 morpheme
attract/ive 2 morphemes
un/attract/ive 3 morphemes
un/attract/ive/ly 4 morphemes

redbtn However, where the semantic additions to the words are prefixes [un] and suffixes [ive] and [ly], they are called bound, rather than free morphemes.

redbtn In other words, the semantic additions could not stand alone as units of meaning in the same way as the free morpheme [attract] can.

redbtn We can find words made up of one or more free morphemes — such as mantel/piece.

redbtn Alternatively, they might be made up of one or more free morphemes and one or more bound morphemes — such as ir/regular or dough/nut/ting.

redbtn A word can only be split up into separate morphemes when at least one of the semantic units can stand alone.

redbtn Compare the two following examples:

preposterous 1 free morpheme
un/grateful 1 bound + 1 free morpheme

redbtn The meaning of words is not absolutely fixed. New meanings can be attributed to words if enough people use them. Alternatively, meanings can be ‘lost’. This phenomenon is known as ‘semantic shift’.

redbtn The word ‘gay’ for example, has changed its meaning radically during the past twenty years. The word itself remains, but it has undergone a semantic shift. It’s like using the same box for a changed content.

redbtn Sometimes words can ‘disappear’ from use [even though they might remain in a dictionary]. Most people know and use the word unequal, but very few would know that English once had the term inequal for the same purpose. It is now merely a historical curiosity.

Self-assessment quiz follows …

© Roy Johnson 2004

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