semantics [Gr.,=significant] in general, the study of the relationship between words and meanings. The empirical study of word meanings and sentence meanings in existing languages is a branch of linguistics; the abstract study of meaning in relation to language or symbolic logic systems is a branch of philosophy. Both are called semantics. The field of semantics has three basic concerns: the relations of words to the objects denoted by them, the relations of words to the interpreters of them, and, in symbolic logic, the formal relations of signs to one another (syntax).

In linguistics, semantics has its beginnings in France and Germany in the 1820s when the meanings of words as significant features in the growth of language was recognized. Among the foremost linguistic semanticists of the 20th cent. are Gustaf Stern, Jost Trier, B. L. Whorf, Uriel Weinreich, Stephen Ullmann, Thomas Sebeok, Noam Chomsky, Jerrold Katz, and Charles Osgood. In the linguistics of recent years an offshoot of transformational grammar theory has reemphasized the role of meaning in linguistic analysis. This new theory, developed largely by George Lakoff and James McCawley, is termed generative semantics. In anthropology a new theoretical orientation related to linguistic semantics has been developed. Its leading proponents include W. H. Goodenough, F. G. Lounsbury, and Claude Lévi-Strauss.

In philosophy, semantics has generally followed the lead of symbolic logic, and many philosophers do not make a distinction between logic and semantics. In this context, semantics is concerned with such issues as meaning and truth, meaning and thought, and the relation between signs and what they mean. The leading practitioners have been Gottlob Frege, Lady Welby, Bertrand Russell, Otto Neurath, Rudolf Carnap, Alonzo Church, Alfred Tarski, C. I. Lewis, Ludwig Wittgenstein, J. L. Austin, W. V. Quine, P. F. Strawson, Steven Schiffer, John Searle, H. P. Grice, Saul Kripke, Donald Davidson, and Gilbert Harman.

Since the publication of the influential The Meaning of Meaning (1925) by C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards, semantics has also become important to literary criticism and stylistics, in which the way that metaphors evoke feelings is investigated and differences between ordinary and literary language are studied. A related discipline, general semantics (so called to distinguish it from semantics in linguistics or philosophy), studies the ways in which meanings of words influence human behavior. General semantics was developed by Alfred Korzybski. The key term in Korzybski's system is evaluation, the mental act that is performed by the hearer when a word is spoken. Among the most prominent followers of Korzybski are Stuart Chase, S. I. Hayakawa, and H. L. Weinberg.


A useful introduction to general semantics is H. L. Weinberg, Levels of Knowing and Existence (1959) and F. R. Palmer, Semantics (1981). For semantics in linguistics, see S. Ullman, Semantics (1962) and The Principles of Semantics (1957, repr. 1967); N. Chomsky, Studies on Semantics in Generative Grammar (1972); G. Leach, Semantics (1974); and J. Lyons, Language, Meaning, and Context (1981). For semantics in philosophy, see R. Carnap, Meaning and Necessity (2d ed. 1956); K. and A. Lehrer, The Theory of Meaning (1970); J. F. Rosenberg and C. Travis, ed., Readings in the Philosophy of Language (1971); and D. Davidson and G. Harman, ed., Semantics of Natural Language (2d ed. 1973). For semantics in literary criticism, see K. Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives (1950) and A Grammar of Motives (1955) and the works of W. Empson and P. Wheelwright.

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2016, The Columbia University Press.

Semantics: Selected full-text books and articles

Semantics: A Reader By Steven Davis; Brendan S. Gillon Oxford University Press, 2004
Semantics: Defining the Discipline By Robert A. Hipkiss Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1995
Linguistic Semantics By William Frawley Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1992
Meaning and Truth: Essential Readings in Modern Semantics By Jay L. Garfield; Murray Kiteley Paragon House, 1991
A primary source is a work that is being studied, or that provides first-hand or direct evidence on a topic. Common types of primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, original philosophical writings, and religious texts.
Regularity in Semantic Change By Elizabeth Closs Traugott; Richard B. Dasher Cambridge University Press, 2002
Minimal Semantics By Emma Borg Oxford University Press, 2004
Introducing English Semantics By Charles W. Kreidler Routledge, 1998
Aspects of Semantic Opposition in English By Arthur Mettinger Oxford University, 1994
Lexical Semantics: The Problem of Polysemy By James Pustejovsky; Branimir Boguraev Clarendon Press, 1996
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