Goals of semantics
Semantics is the branch of linguistics that studies meaning, particularly meaning as it is
conveyed by language.
We can start out by asking what meaning is.
Meaning is a characteristic of symbolic systems; language is by far the most elaborate and
powerful symbolic system that has ever been found.
Our sentences are complex symbols,
physically realized in speech or writing, which bear meanings and thus express our thoughts.
Clearly, there is more to thought than the language that expresses it.
Thought can exist in
the absence of language, since many animals can behave in a sophisticated and rational fashion
without having anything like human language.
It also seems clear that we experience thought
in ways that are very direct and not linguistic.
There is no need for thought to occur in a linear
sequence, as our words must; and moreover that our
thoughts are not particularly
expressible in language.
The development of a theory of thought is at present an active but speculative activity,
involving psychologists, philosophers, cognitive scientists, and scholars in the field of artificial
One vindication for a proposed theory of thought would be if it could be embodied
in a system that could think and reason like a person.
This remains a distant goal.
Our focus in semantics is not quite as grand; we just want to know how language expresses
The problem faced by semanticists is to study the ways in which language embodies
thought, without a well-developed theory of thought to go by.
This problem has not stymied
research, however, because there are plenty of ways to conduct careful research that don’t
require a full theory of thought to make progress.
For instance, one strategy that has been
followed (it originates in the field of philosophy) is to develop formal systems that determine the
of sentences (properties of the world that must hold for sentences to be true),
often in a small, artificially-constructed world.
This kind of approach requires a fair amount of
development and will not be taught here; instead, in the interested of a unified course I want to
cover aspects of semantics that interact most closely with syntax.
Some aspects of linguistic meaning
We will cover three aspects of linguistic meaning.
A book on this topic I have enjoyed, written from a sober but exploratory viewpoint, is
Donald Griffin (University of Chicago Press, 1992).
It’s probably unnecessary to give an example, but for what it’s worth:
imagine a parent who sees his
toddler put in danger from an unleashed dog:
the experience is direct and primal, and depends in no way on an
internalized utterance “That dog is a threat to my child” or the like.
The dog, the child, the teeth are all part of the
thought, but the thought is probably complete before it is ever embodied in NP’s, VP’s, etc.