Definition of Semantics

We are going to talk about something pretty cool: semantics. It might sound like a fancy word, but it is about how words carry meaning. Think of it as the secret sauce that makes our language work. Semantics helps us understand why we say what we say. So, sit back, relax, and take a journey into the world of semantics definition.

What do experts say …

  1. Semantics is the study of meaning (Lyons, 1977).
  2. Semantic is the technical term that refers to the study of meaning since meaning is a part of language (Palmer, 1981, p.1).
  3. Semantics is the study of meaning in language (Hurford & Heasley, 1983).
  4. Semantics is the study of meaning communicated through language (Saeed, 1997).
  5. Semantics is the part of linguistics that is concerned with meaning (Sebastian, 2002).
  6. Linguistic semantics is the study of literal, decontextualized, grammatical meaning  (Frawley, 1992).
  7. Linguistic semantics is the study of how languages organize and express meanings  (Kreidler, 1998).
  8. Semantics is the study of meaning in language (Geeraerts, 2010).

The statements above emphasize that semantics is a field of study focused on understanding the meaning within language. Scholars from various backgrounds and periods have consistently defined semantics as the investigation of meaning, highlighting its integral role in linguistics.

Additionally, there is recognition that semantics encompasses literal, grammatical meaning and the broader organization and expression of meanings within languages. This convergence of perspectives underscores the central importance of semantics in studying language and its meaning.

What is meaning?

A noise that I make when I speak, a scribble that I produce when I write words in English, or a sign-language gesture I make are physical objects that convey meanings; they are about something.

We use language to communicate, to talk about things in the world, people and their properties, relations between people, events, in short, about how the world is, should be, could have been …

The property of ‘aboutness’ of linguistic signs (or symbols) is one of the defining properties of natural languages. It is what a semantic theory of natural languages tries to capture.

Can we define meanings in terms of their physical properties? The answer is ‘no’. There are three main arguments for this answer:

  • Generally, there are no physical features that all meaningful noises or sets of marks have in common, which differentiate them from other signals or noises.
  • Usually, there is no resemblance between a name and the thing it is the name of. Linguistic forms usually lack any physical resemblance with the entities that they stand for.
  • Not only do languages vary in their vocabularies, but also, within one language, the relation between the words and what they stand for may change.
    Gold is getting more and more expensive. What idea, concept, thought or image do you think of when you hear this sentence? For every person, the word gold evokes a different picture, idea, or concept; that does not prevent us from using the word with the same meaning. It means that the word gold applies to something general or even universal.

In sum, the connection between a word and what it stands for is arbitrary. The arbitrariness of the linguistic sign” (Ferdinand de Saussure, 1916, Cours de linguistique générale) is one of the defining properties of human language. Thus:

  1. The meaning of words cannot be derived from their physical properties,
  2. The meaning cannot be reduced to real-world objects or their perception and
  3. The meaning cannot be reduced to the particular image in my or your mind.

The meaning is derived from the relations between words, concepts and things in the real world. Ogden and Richards (1923) attempted to define meaning, namely:

  • Other words related to that word in a dictionary
  • The connotations of a word
  • The thing to which the speaker of that word refers
  • The thing to which the speaker of that word should refer
  • The thing to which the speaker of that word believes himself to be referring
  • The thing to which the hearer of that word believes is being referred to.

These definitions refer to many different ways in which meaning is understood. One reason for the range of definitions of meaning is that words (or signs) in a language are of different types.


  • Frawley, W. (1992). Linguistic semantics. L. Erlbaum Associates.
  • Geeraerts, D. (2009). Theories of lexical semantics. OUP Oxford.
  • HUHFORD, J., & Heasley, B. (1983). Semantics: A Coursebook, Cambridge Univ.
  • Kreidler, C. (2002). Introducing English semantics. Routledge.
  • Leech, G. (1981). The study of meaning. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
  • Lyons, J. (1977). Semantics: Volume 2 (Vol. 2). Cambridge University Press.
  • Ogden, C. K., & Richards, I. A. (1923). The meaning of meaning London: Kegan Paul. Trench & Trubner.
  • Palmer, F. R. (1981). Semantics. Cambridge University Press.
  • Sebastian, L. (2002). Understanding semantics. UK: Hodder Arnold.
  • Saeed, J. I. (1997). Semantics. Oxford: Blackwell.
Tenry Colle
Tenry Colle

Hi! My name is A. Tenry Lawangen Aspat Colle. I am a motivated and resourceful English educator. In addition, as the owner of @rymari.translation17 has shaped me to be a punctual and dependable translator of Indonesian to English and vice versa.

One comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *