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Semantics - PowerPoint PPT Presentation

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Semantics. The Study of Meaning in Language. Semantics Is …. The study of meaning in language. It deals with the meaning of words (lexical semantics). And how meaning of sentences (compositional semantics) is derived from words. Principle of Compositionality.

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The Study of Meaning in Language

Semantics is
Semantics Is

  • The study of meaning in language.

  • It deals with the meaning of words (lexical semantics).

  • And how meaning of sentences (compositional semantics) is derived from words.

Principle of compositionality
Principle of Compositionality

  • The principle stating that the meaning of a sentence is determined by the meaning of its wordsand by the syntactic structure in which they are combined.

  • AKA: Frege’s principle (Gottlob Frege)

Lexical vs compositional semantics


man: 2-legged mammal, (relatively) hairless, male sex,

dog: 4-legged mammal, hairy, canine, definitely loyal


Dog bites man. (happens all the time; not too interesting)

Man bites dog. (newsworthy)

Lexical vs. Compositional Semantics

Language a multifaceted phenomenon
Language:A multifaceted phenomenon!

  • Language meaning communicates information about the world around us (language as a system of symbols)

    • Symbols are things that stand for or refer to other things. Language with information content.

  • Meaning is processed in the mind of the speaker/hearer (that is, cognitive & psychological).

  • Meaning is a social phenomenon(contexts important)

  • Meaning of words/sentences have various relationships among themselves (antonyms, synonyms, etc.) (can be studied independently)

Theories of meaning

  • Four theories to the meaning of words:

    • Dictionary meanings

    • Mental image

    • Referents

    • Componential

Dictionary meanings
Dictionary Meanings

  • demand (N)

    • the need or desire that people have for particular goods or services

  • desire (N)

    • a strong hope or wish

  • wish (N)

    • the act of wishing for something

  • wish (V)

    • to hope that something will happen

Problems with dictionary meanings
Problems with dictionary meanings

  • Understanding meaning of word involves understanding all the words in definition

  • Circularity

    • pride: the quality or state of being proud

    • proud: feeling or showing pride

More problems with dictionary meanings
More problems with dictionary meanings:

  • They are NOT theoretical claims about the nature of meaning, but a practical aid to people who already speak a language. They are usually paraphrases.

  • They may be a way of learning the meaning of some words, but there is much more to word meaning than the dictionary definition. Why?

Mental image
Mental image

  • Is a graphic representation in one’s mind of a referent (when I say table, you "draw" a table in your mind)

  • There is much more to meaning than a simple mental image. Why?

    • People may have very different mental images for same word

      (lecture– from perspective of student vs. teacher)

    • Some words, even though having meaning, have no real definite image

      (honesty, or the)

    • Mental images are usually a prototype or standard of the referent

      (bird: what bird? -- image may exclude atypical examples)

But bird also includes
But birdalso includes…

Advantages of prototype theory
Advantages of prototype theory

  • Provides some insight into the way we conceive of certain ideas/objects

  • Evidence from experimental psychology

    • reaction time: typical member < atypical member

  • Prototypes may help children learn the meanings of new words

Disadvantages of prototype theory
Disadvantages of prototype theory

  • Culturally and socially dependent.

    • prototypes can vary across populations.

  • Many words have no clear mental images.

    • forget, things, without, concept, …..


  • Have to do with the fact that words usually stand for (refer to) actual objects or relations in the world.

    • Example:“Dubya”, “Florida”, “Disney World.”

  • There is much more to meaning than a referent. Why?

    • It would exclude from language fantasies, speculations, and fiction.(Santa Claus refers to what?).

    • The fact that two words (or expressions) refer to the same thing does not indicate that they mean the same thing.(Queen Elizabeth = Queen of England in 2005?).

    • What referents do these words have:forget, the, some…?

Componential theory
Componential Theory

  • The meaning of a word is specified by smaller semantic components

  • Semantic components are primitive elements of meaning expressed as binary features (+ or -)

Semantic decomposition


[+ human]

[+ female]

[+ adult]


[+ human]

[- female]

[+ adult]


[+ human]

[+ female]

[- adult]


[+ human]

[- female]

[- adult]

Semantic decomposition

Advantages of componential theory
Advantages of componential theory

  • Captures similarities among semantically related words

  • Groups meanings into natural classes (like phonology)

Disadvantages of componential theory
Disadvantages of componential theory

  • Difficult to analyze abstract concepts

    • What are the semantic components of blue?

      • [+ color]? [+ blueness]?

  • Meaning of semantic components is sometimes no more explanatory than the words they are specifying

Meaning relationships within lexical semantics
Meaning relationshipsWithin Lexical Semantics

  • There are many ways for words to be related:

    • Morphologically

      • lift ~ lifted (same stem)

    • Syntactically

      • call ~ take (both transitive verbs)

    • Phonologically

      • knight ~ night (both [naIt]

    • Semantically

Semantic relationships
Semantic relationships

  • Semantic relationships indicate a similarity in meaning between two words.

    • “crayon” and “pencil.”

    • But not “pencil” and “refrigerator”, for example.

Semantic relationships1
Semantic relationships

  • The semantic relationships we will discuss here are:

    • Hyponymy

    • Synonymy

    • Antonymy

    • Scalar/gradable pairs