What is semantics?

We explain what semantics is and the components with which it assigns meanings. Also, what is a semantic family and examples.

  1. What is semantics?

A branch of linguistics dedicated to the study of meaning is called semantics . Its name comes from the Greek term  sëmant ik ó s  (“relevant meaning”) and together with phonetics, grammar and morphosyntax, it constitutes one of the main approaches to the organized study of verbal language .

The semantics face the linguistic sign from the interest in its intangible part, that is, its mental, conventional and abstract part: the meaning. This means that he is interested not only in the way in which the meanings of words are formed from their components (their roots and aggregates), but also in the way in which meanings change over time and become others, changing along with the culture that uses the language.

In addition, semantics deals with accidents of meaning, such as synonymy , antonymy, polysemy and lexical-semantic families, as long as the study does not leave the place of the eminently verbal, since the nonverbal areas of the communication other disciplines dealing as pragmatic. 

The minimum unit of semantics is the  sema : the smallest portions of the word endowed with verifiable proper meaning. The same word, thus, contains different semes that relate it to others.

  1. Meaning Components

Commonly, semantics comprises two components or ways of assigning meaning, which are:

  • Denotation . The “standard” meaning of the words, the one recorded by the dictionaries and constitutes their “official” sense, more obvious, more referential.
  • Connotation . Those secondary senses that are attributed to a term and that do not have to do directly with the referent enunciated, but with certain characteristics attributed to him by certain culture.

An example of the latter is the word “harpy”, whose denotative meaning is that of mythological animals of ancient Greece, who attracted the sailors with their song and after making them shipwreck against the rocks, they proceeded to devour them.

The denotative meaning of “harpy”, on the other hand, is transmitted by imaginary association to women who consider themselves evil, cruel, unbearable or treacherous.

  1. Semantic families

SemanticsA semantic family is a set of words that share a common sema.

In the language, relations of association, similarity, comparison or of various kinds arise between meanings: mental images of the things that make up reality. Many times, this relationship also has a related component between different meanings that allows them to be organized like a tree: a semantic family.

It can be said, then, that a semantic family is a set of words that share a common sema. This usually occurs between words that share their grammatical category (word type), for example:

  • Tree: shrub, leaves, roots, flowers, fruits, wood, branches …
  • Book: sheets, cover, library, bookstore, reading, literature …
  • Sport: athletics, tennis, baseball, soccer, basketball …
  • Bread: bakery, sandwich, wheat, oven …
  1. Semantics Examples

Some examples of connotation and denotation of meanings are:

  • That car is painted  black  (denotation: color)

That man’s intentions seem to be  black  (connotation: evil, murky, secret)

  • He had an   open heart operation (denotation: the organ)

He told me that his girlfriend had broken his  heart  (connotation: feelings)

  • The plane is  flying  over Edinburgh (denotation: the real action)

I will fly  to the supermarket to see if I arrive before it closes (connotation: go fast)

  • I left the exam sheet  blank  (denotation: no writing)

My cousin wants to marry in  white  (connotation: correctly, formally, traditionally)

  • Yesterday we adopted a  dog  (denotation: the animal)

That man is a  dog  (connotation: unfaithful, promiscuous, abusive)

  • I will  lift  the pencil from the ground (denotation: take from the ground)

I want to  get up  to Ezekiel’s cousin (connotation: fall in love, conquer)

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