Semantics: Linguistics and Meaning

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A short story of semantics

Why study semantics?
Semantics (as the study of meaning) is central to the study of communication; and as communication becomes more and more a crucial factor in social organization, the need to understand it becomes more and more pressing. Semantics is also at the centre of human mind – thought processes, cognition, conceptualization – all these are strongly connected to the way in which we classify and convey our experience of the world through language. Semantics can be defined as a branch of linguistics; it is an area of study parallel to, and interacting with syntax and phonology. While syntax and phonology study the structure of expressive possibilities in language, semantics studies the meaning that can be expressed. Nearly all linguists have accepted a linguistic model in which semantics is at one end and phonetics at the other, with grammar somewhere in the middle. However, until recently, semantics has been the ‘Cinderella’ of linguistics, a branch that had been abandoned to philosophers and anthropologists. But in the past20 –25 years there has been a swing away from the view that semantics is a messy, unstructured intellectual no-man’s-land on the fringes of linguistics, and little by little it has acquired a central position in linguistic studies. The concentration on semantics has come not only from linguists, but from logicians, too. Consequently, in semantics we witness an unusual convergence of disciplines; the techniques and investigations of philosophy and cognitive psychology, in particular, have helped to lay a more solid foundation for linguistic studies.

A short history of semantics
Although semantics is consider a rather young branch of linguistics, interest in today’s problems of semantics was alive already in ancient times. Antiquity
In ancient Greece, philosophers dealt with the problem of the way in which words acquired their meaning. One of the questions they tried to find an answer to was the following: Why is a thing called by a given name? The answers provided made the Greek philosophers divide into two ‘parties’: on the one hand we have the adepts of the physei theory, and on the other hand the adepts of the thesei theory. Let us now briefly present these two points of view. a) The physei theory. Some philosophers considered that the names of things were arrived at naturally, that they were somehow conditioned by the natural properties of the things themselves. An example provided by them is that of the letter rho [ρ] which seems apt to express motion, since the tongue moves rapidly in its production; hence, its occurrence in such words as rhoein ‘to flow’. Other sounds like [s], [f] and [ks], which require greater breath-effort in production, seem suitable to appear in words like kseon ‘shaking’. Despite the inadvertences of such correlations, the adepts of the physei theory kept on believing that it is the physical nature of sounds in a name that can tell use something about its meaning. b) The thesei theory. Some other philosophers held the opposite view, namely that names are given to things arbitrarily through convention. The physei – thesei controversy was discussed by various philosophers of the time, one of the most representative one being Plato. He wrote a dialogue entitled Cratylus in which the two discussants are Cratylus, the partisan of the physei theory, and Hermogenes, the defendant of the thesei point of view. The two positions are debated by Socrates, who in an attempt to mediate between the two discussants, points out an interesting fact, i.e. that there are two types of names: simple names and compound names, which are divisible into smaller constituent elements and analysable into the meaning of these constituents. Two other dialogues by Plato, Theatetus and Sophists mark an important step in the development of semantics. In them, he dealt with problems such as the relation between THOUGHT, LANGUAGE and the OUTSIDE WORLD....
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