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  Semantics (from Greek semantikos, ‘significant’), in symbolic logic, is the task of reading meaning into sentences. In pure logic, it is always emphasized that the symbols are merely symbols, and that words like ‘true’ and ‘false’ are no more than labels which persist for historical reasons. In the wider field of mathematics, and even more so in the applications of mathematics to other areas, these terms are taken at their face value and are interpreted by using semantics.

In linguistics, semantics deals with the way meaning is organized and interpreted within languages. A perennial theme is the need to account for the relationship between the two central concepts, reference and sense. Reference can be thought of as the relationship between a language expression and the actual thing which is being talked about. An immediate problem arises with the realization that a single language expression can very often be used to refer to several quite different things (for example, the phrase ‘Queen of England’ refers to a different person when uttered in 1890 as against 1990). A further complication is that separate expressions may refer to the same object, or referent. A well-known example is provided by the phrases ‘Morning Star’ and ‘Evening Star’, both of which refer to the planet Venus. It is clear that very few expressions in a language bear a fixed reference. Most referring expressions can only be interpreted by taking into account the context in which they are uttered.

In contrast with reference, sense relations are not derived through allusion to the external world or context of utterance. Instead, the sense of an expression is akin to the dictionary definition of a word, in so far as words are typically defined in terms of other words. Meaning is often considered to be compositional, since the sense of a complex expression can be worked out by combining the senses of its constituent elements. It has been suggested that certain concepts are semantically basic, or primitive, since their sense cannot be broken down any further into separate sub-components (for example, ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘want’, ‘think’, ‘this’). However, if certain concepts cannot be defined in terms of any other constituent, the possibility is raised, unpalatable to some, that we are born ready-equipped with these meanings. If they are not innate, it is difficult to conceive how they could otherwise be defined or understood.

The sense relations of natural language expressions can be dealt with more rigorously within the framework of a meta-language, or semantic representation. Formal systems of logic are often used to represent meaning in this way since they are especially useful for revealing the conditions which establish whether a sentence is true or false. However, the psychological status of semantic representations is highly controversial, since not all semanticists accept the idea that they describe how meaning is actually represented in the mind.

A complicating factor in syntactic theory is that the syntax of a sentence can exert a profound influence on the way its meaning is interpreted, as the following examples demonstrate: (a) Sarah hates David. (b) David hates Sarah. Despite being composed of identical words, these two sentences clearly have different meanings. Hence, the order of words in the sentence, a syntactically-controlled phenomenon, can exert an influence on its meaning. This kind of interaction between syntax and semantics is extremely complex and continues to present semantic theory with some of its greatest challenges. SMcL MS

Further reading G.N. Leech, Semantics: the Study of Meaning; , F.R. Palmer, Semantics.



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