Semantics is the study of meaning in language. We know that language is used to express meanings which can be understood by others. But meanings exist in our minds and we can express what is in our minds through the spoken and written forms of language (as well as through gestures, action etc.).
The sound patterns of language are studied at the level of phonology and the organisation of words and sentences is studied at the level of morphology and syntax. These are in turn organised in such a way that we can convey meaningful messages or receive and understand messages. ‘How is language organised in order to be meaningful?’ This is the question we ask and attempt to answer at the level of semantics. Semantics is that level of linguistic analysis where meaning is analysed. It is the most abstract level of linguistic analysis, since we cannot see or observe meaning as we can observe and record sounds. Meaning is related very closely to the human capacity to think logically and to understand. So when we try to analyse meaning, we are trying to analyse our own capacity to think and understand, our own ability to create meaning. Semantics concerns itself with ‘giving a systematic account of the nature of meaning’ (Leech).
Difficulties in the Study of Meaning
The problem of ‘meaning’ is quite difficult, it is because of its toughness that some linguists went on to the extent of excluding semantics from linguistics. A well-known structuralist made the astonishing statement that ‘linguistic system of a languagedoes not include the semantics. The system is abstract, it is a signaling system, and as soon as we study semantics we are no longer studying language but the semantic system associated with language. The structralists were of the opinion that it is only the form of language which can be studied, and not the abstract functions. Both these are misconceptions. Recently a serious interest has been taken in the various problems of semantics. And semantics is being studied not only by the linguists but also by philosophers, psychologists, scientists, anthropologists and sociologists. Scholars have long puzzled over what words mean or what they represent, or how they are related to reality. They have at times wondered whether words are more real than objects, and they have striven to find the essential meanings of words. It may be interesting to ask whether words do have essential meaning. For example, difficulties may arise in finding out the essential meaning of the word table in water table, dining table, table amendment, and the table of 9. An abstract word like good creates even more problems. Nobody can exactly tell what good really means, and how a speaker of English ever learns to use the word correctly. So the main difficulty is to account facts about essential meanings, multiple meanings, and word conditions. The connotating use of words adds further complications to any theorizations about meaning, particularly their uses in metaphor and poetic language. Above all is the question : where does meaning exist: in the speaker or the listener or in both, or in the context or situation ?
Words are in general convenient units to state meaning. But words have meanings by virtue of their employment in sentences, most of which contain more than one word. The meaning of a sentence, though largely dependent on the meaning of its component words taken individually, is also affected by prosodic features. The question whether word may be semantically described or in isolation, is more a matter of degree than of a simple answer yes or no. It is impossible to describe meaning adequately any other way except by saying how words are typically used as part of longer sentences and how these sentences are used. The meanings of sentences and their components are better dealt with in linguistics in turns of how they function than exclusively in terms of what they refer to. Words are tools; they...