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Semantics (from ancient Greek σημαίνειν sēmaínein , German 'denote, give a sign' ), also the theory of meaning , is called the theory or science of the meaning of signs . Signs can be any symbols , but in particular also sentences , parts of sentences, words or parts of words .

As far as semantics deals with signs of all kinds , it is a sub-area of semiotics . If it deals solely with linguistic signs, it is a sub-discipline of linguistics .

The semantics of sign systems in general (semiotics)

In the general (semiotic) sense of the theory of signs, semantics is the theory of the meaning of signs (sign meaning ). Depending on the underlying concept of meaning, the concept or the perspective of the semantics varies. In the sense of the general theory of signs , signs are not only linguistic signs, so that semiotic semantics also analyzes natural or technical processes in their sign-like character and interaction.

Charles W. Morris is generally mentioned as the one who established the term semantics in semiotics. He understood semantics to be the relationship between signs and their designates (also: referents ) and the teaching of it.

The concept of semantics used by Morris is different from today's concept of semantics and is also different from that used by Alfred Tarski, which relates to formal languages .

Since Morris, a distinction has been made in semiotics between pragmatics and syntax (called by Morris syntactics ). The extent to which this three-way division is justified can be questioned. In particular, under the influence of the later Wittgenstein and the theory of use, the dependence of semantics on pragmatics is emphasized.

Semiotic semantics are supposed to build on sigmatic by giving data a meaning and then calling it a message .

Semasiology and Onomasiology

Two different directions of questions play a role in semantics. If one thinks about the semantic question of the meaning of linguistic signs from the point of view of the sign (“What does the sign mean?”), Then this perspective is called semasiological . One also speaks of semasiology in a general sense as a synonym for semantics or in a narrower sense as a study of the meanings of words.

If one thinks from the point of view of the object (“How is the object called?”) One proceeds onomasiologically . One speaks of onomasiology in the sense of a theory of designations. A picture dictionary or a dictionary that is arranged according to subject groups and related meanings (for example in Dornseiff ) show an onomasiological perspective.

The semantics of natural languages ​​(linguistic semantics)

Semantics as a sub-discipline of linguistics (linguistic semantics) examines the meaning of linguistic signs . All linguistic utterances that have a meaning can be interpreted as signs . The word form target-st , for example, consists of two parts of the word that meet the condition for characters : The word stem stands for a meaning that can be paraphrased as “wanting to achieve a certain goal”, the ending -st stands for the (grammatical) meaning 2nd person singular . Grammatical meanings are also often referred to as grammatical functions . Now one can say: Semantics as a sub-discipline of linguistics deals with the description and explanation of the meanings of linguistic units and with the possibilities of combining these into complex utterances so that whole sentences and even larger units are created and used successfully in communication can. As historical semantics , it examines how the meanings of the units of language (the linguistic signs) have changed over time.

One has to note here that not all arbitrary components of words are also signs in the sense mentioned: If one breaks down a word form like many into two syllables in the manner indicated , neither of these two syllables has a meaning in itself; only together do they have a shared meaning in the language community, which can be described as “a large number of”. If you break the same word into a lot -e , you get two parts of the word (stem and ending) that are characters . The same as for syllables also applies to individual sounds or letters. They also have no meaning in themselves.

Linguistic signs are all expressions that connect a spoken or written (or other) form with a meaning. In this sense, the smallest significant characters are the morphemes . The word form listed above consists of two parts ( constituents ):

The next larger characters are (complex) words and lexemes , followed by clauses , clauses , sentences and texts . All of these units meet the requirements for “characters”.

Since pragmatics also deals with the linguistic meaning, but from the perspective of what function expressions assume in an act of expression, a clear separation from semantics is difficult or at least dependent on theory. If a distinction is made between sentence meaning and utterance meaning as well as the meaning of the speaker , then semantics deals with the meaning of expression (words and sentences), semantics and pragmatics together with the expression meaning and pragmatics only with the meaning of the speaker.

The semantics are operated from different perspectives and approaches.

Objects and levels of contemplation

Word, sentence, text and discourse semantics

  • The lexical semantics (also: word semantics ) deals with the meaning of words and morphemes as well as with the internal structuring of the vocabulary as a whole.
  • The set of semantics investigated, as seen from the meaning of individual words with a fixed inventory of linking rules the importance of larger syntactic units (namely phrases , sentence members , subsets and complete sentences) is apparent. The interpretation of a sentence must be based on an analysis of its syntactic structure.
  • The text semantics focuses on the analysis of the combination of sentences as real or hypothetical situations to Erzählungs-, description or reasoning contexts.
  • The discourse semantics works on the level of texts of different people who are related to each other (discussion, conversation, course, round table).

In terms of the history of science, it should be noted that word and morpheme semantics are traditionally the main subjects of linguistic semantics. Sentence semantics were added later.

It is discussed to what extent the Fregesche principle (the meaning of a complex linguistic unit results from / is a function of the meaning of its components) is valid in natural languages. If the answer is yes, the definition of the linking functions is seen as one of the main tasks of semantics:

SINN(der Apfel ist rot) = f(SINN(der), SINN(Apfel), SINN(ist), SINN(rot))

Meaning of the lexical semantics

Research into the meaning of words has traditionally been the main topic of linguistic semantics. The examinations are carried out under different aspects:

  • Structure of the meaning of a simple word from elementary meaning elements ( semen ); The meaning of a word can then be represented as a certain configuration of its semes, which together form its sememe ( component analysis ). The semem is a hierarchically ordered structure, consisting of the sememes of the word. It should differ from that of a synonymous word in at least one semester. Hundsnurscher (1970: 43) suggested an analysis example for the word “chest”.
  • Contribution of morphemes to the meaning of a complex word. The overall meaning of an inflected form of a word, a derivation or a compound can often only partially be derived from the meaning of its morphological components. Lexicalizations play a particularly important role in older educations .
  • The position of a word in a word field . The aim here is to find out exactly how a certain word differs in its meaning from other, meaning-like words.
  • The meaning relationships that exist between words: antonymy , homonymy , hyponymy , hyperonymy , polysemy and synonymy .

Historical (diachronic) versus synchronous semantics

Semantics can be operated in a diachronic and / or in a synchronous perspective. Until Ferdinand de Saussure († 1913) a diachronic approach prevailed in linguistics.

The historical semantics deals with meaning change of words in the passage of time. Another important research approach to historical semantics is etymology , which, in addition to the development of sounds, also deals with the development of the meaning of morphemes and words. The earliest work on historical semantics comes from Antoine Meillet , Wilhelm Wundt , Léonce Roudet, Jost Trier and Herman Paul. Stephen Ullmann's work has been considered authoritative since the 1950s . Since the 1960s there have been extensive research projects in philosophy and history, which can be counted among the research on historical semantics under the heading " conceptual history ". Since the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 21st century, there have been attempts (such as by Andreas Blank, Peter Koch and Joachim Grzega) to rearrange historical semantics while taking cognitive linguistics into account .

The synchronic semantics is the semantics of the importance of linguistic characters (a specific natural language), as used in a given time by a specific group as a means of communication, refers.

Diachronic and synchronous approaches do not have to contradict each other, but can complement each other in a meaningful way. Thus, the diachronic-structural semantics “applies the principle of the structuredness of the vocabulary not only to the synchronous consideration of the system, but also to explain the history of language, more precisely: the change of meaning. A change in meaning is a change in the structure of the vocabulary. "

Dynamic semantics versus static semantics

From a dynamic semantics is in contrast to so-called static theories of meaning then spoke when about the importance of (linguistic) unit (word, sentence, text) in system-theoretical terms "as an update function ( update function is) perceived" by a system state ( Context, information status) before the utterance / processing of this unit is transferred to a new system status (context, information status) after the utterance / processing.

Formal semantics

Basic features and protagonists of formal semantics

Formal semantics was originally the semantics of formal, artificial languages ​​within formal logic. In addition to these formal semantics of logic, there is now also a formal semantics of natural languages ​​that make use of logical means of description.

Under the influence of Augustus De Morgan , George Boole , Alfred Tarski and Richard Montague , the formal semantics defines sentence meanings using the truth conditions and describes them with a "formulaic metalanguage [...] based on the principles of the philosophical discipline logic". The point of criticism is that shades of meaning can be lost.

Model theoretical semantics (Tarski semantics)

The model-theoretical semantics (also: truth-functional semantics ) - by Richard Montague - (English: model-theoretic semantics ) is a direction of formal semantics which, following Alfred Tarski's work, undertakes the semantic interpretation of artificial and natural languages ​​by saying that they “mean equates to a precisely defined interpretation in a model. "

“In model theory semantics, the complexity of extensions is limited by defining small models with a manageable extension for a certain world and a certain time. These models are small excerpts of the world with the help of which the meanings of linguistic expressions can be determined. "

In this context, a distinction must be made between object language and metalanguage . The formal language as an object language is interpreted in a model. The model consists of an individual area ( universe ) and a value assignment or interpretation function that assigns each non-logical constant of the object language its denotation in the model.

Generative semantics

The generative semantics is included in group of generative grammar theories. The term is used differently in the specialist literature:

  1. in a broader sense - but misleading because of the risk of confusion with Lakoff's variant - for the semantic components of generative grammar , which Noam Chomsky included in the transformation grammar (TG) with the standard theory (1965-1970) - in contrast to his older aspect version , which only takes into account the grammatical categories and relations of the sentence. The terms semantic grammar or - above all - interpretive semantics are also used synonymously .
  2. for the semantic theory of Jerrold Katz and Jerry Fodor , which is mostly referred to as interpretative semantics .
  3. in the narrower sense of grammars that were used in the 1960s and a. by George Lakoff , James D. McCawley, Paul M. Postal, and John Robert Ross, in response to Chomsky's neglect of semantics in his TG. This definition is used in the following - as in the main article.

Prehistory of Generative Semantics in the definition (3):

Chomsky developed his model of Generative Grammar in connection with his criticism of American taxonomic structuralism (see also: The Linguistics Wars: Development of the Debate ), which only selected objectifiable phenomena of grammar as the subject of research and determined the distinctive basic building blocks by segmenting and classifying, whereby the Word meaning was not taken into account, also in the first version of Chomsky's Generative Transformation Grammar (TG). The discussion about the semantic component within the TG triggered the dispute among North American scientists known as Linguistics Wars and led to the conception of Lakoff's Generative Semantics , e.g. Sometimes with recourse to European linguists who had gone other ways than the American structuralists:

  • Louis Hjelmslev et al. a. Already in the 1930s, the correspondence of content and expression related to a common structure, the elements and relations of which were described with algebraic formalization. The word meanings were broken down into the smallest oppositional features, as was the phonemes .
  • In the 1950s, Lucien Tesnière's dependency grammar examined the dependency of the clauses v. a. from verb.

Common (Lakoff et al. Broke away from these ideas in the course of the Linguistics Wars ) are the various theories of generative grammar (more under: Fodor's cognitive science basis, constituent analysis and comparison with Generative Semantics (GS) by George Lakoff ):

  • the concern to grasp the system of language scientifically more precisely than in the traditional linguistic teachings of individual languages ​​by breaking down words into their smallest components (the atomic predicates ) (according to the methods of the American structuralists) and examining from which abstract basic rules the sentences are derived ( generated ).
  • The second approach is the postulate that the language system in the brain functions similarly to a computer. By Jerry Fodor's view of the diverse structures and meanings may linguistic utterances ( surface structure ) on a control apparatus (the deep structures are returned), on the one hand by transformations ( transformations ) generates the speech using ( generated ) and on the other hand allows understanding. Accordingly, the linguists adopted the mathematical symbols of graph theory - used in computer science - in connection with algorithms for their notations : the basic form for the constituent analysis is the tree graph .
  • Jerry Fodor describes the abstract basic structures as the language of the mind , which is localized in individual regions of the brain and can be reproduced through causal sequences and rules. Since he assumes a genetic disposition, he assumes that everyone has this language competence and that it is possible to model a universal basic language that spans the sub- languages for an ideal speaker or listener. When learning to speak, the child only needs to acquire the lexical units and morphemes and connect them to the structures. Chomsky et al. a. implement this approach in generative transformation grammar : It not only wants to explain creation, but also recognition.
  • Linked to these aspects is the design of a natural logic whose calculi correspond to the properties of natural languages. The generative grammar theories were oriented u. a. to Rudolf Carnap . As a representative of logical empiricism, he worked on a logical analysis of language based on the model of physical language, which he regarded as the universal language of science.

Interpretative semantics

→ see also: The semantic theory, prehistory, the model of semantic interpretation, discussion, literature

→ see also: Jerry Fodor and Noam Chomsky, Semantic Theory and Transformational Grammar

  1. The term refers to the semantic theory ( the structure of a semantic theory ) by Jerrold Katz and Jerry Fodor .
  2. The semantic components of the extended version of Noam Chomsky's transformation grammar are also referred to as interpretative semantics, which is also misleadingly called generative semantics .

Structural semantics

The expression structural semantics (also: structuralist semantics, structural semantics ) is used to describe “different models of the description of meanings which are committed to structuralism and which deal primarily with the analysis of lexical units .” Structural semantics postulates that the meaning of a word or Lexems cannot be isolated, but can only be analyzed and described via their relationship structure to other words or lexemes within a language system.

These are semantics in which it is assumed that the content ( signifié ) side is structured. “They assume that the vocabulary of a langue , more precisely: its entire signifié stock, is structured in itself and does not consist of individual contents that are independent of one another (to some extent de Saussure; the representatives of the word field theory), or that initially the individual signifié is structured in itself, i.e. it can be analyzed in smaller units (Hjelmslev, Leisi), and that consequently the entire signifié reservoir of a langue is structured (Pottier, Greimas, Coseriu). "

“The formation of a“ conceptual field ”, the establishment of the morphosemantic fields (relational complex of forms and meaning concepts formed by a set of words), the semic analysis of the lexemes, in short, everything that can contribute to the organization of the semantic universe, is part of this discipline. "

The structural semantics "understands meaning as a relationship between sound form and representation (expression and content) determined by the position of a word in the language system."

Feature semantics

The feature semantics (also: feature semantics) form meaning compositionally from individual features that differ in meaning. A concept is filled with characteristics that give the overall meaning : Boy has the same characteristics as girls (+ human, -adult) but a difference in characteristics (+ male / female). With the feature semantics , the truth values ​​of the truth-functional semantics can be determined particularly comprehensibly on the basis of the +/- dichotomy of the features.

The semantics of characteristics faces many points of criticism:

  1. Characteristic semantics seem to be suitable for the description of Concrete. However, when it comes to abstract terms, it quickly reaches its limits. How should you z. B. Describe a word like democracy semantically?
  2. A characteristic semantic description is insufficient for many parts of speech, e.g. B. Pronouns.
  3. According to feature semantics, things must have certain features in order to belong to a category. Thus, a necessary feature of Vogel is e.g. B. that he can fly. However, there are elements in almost all categories that do not have all of the necessary characteristics. In the case of birds this would be e.g. B. the ostrich or the penguin, both of which cannot fly.

Prototype semantics

In contrast to feature semantics , prototype semantics does not use individual features ( semes ) to determine a lexical meaning , but prototypes. She tries to integrate conventionalistic or mentalistic theories of meaning into the semantics.

Semantics of formal languages

The semantics of logical languages

The logical semantics (also: pure semantics ) has the task of formal languages (of propositional logic , predicate logic to interpret etc.). The meanings are not explored, but rather determined by explicit rules. One also speaks of formal semantics (logic) (for formal semantics of linguistics, see above).

Intensional versus extensional semantics

Following the distinction between extension and intension of a linguistic expression, semantics can be operated more intensively (intensive semantics) or extensional (extensional semantics) .

The distinction between intension and extension correlates with that between content and scope or meaning and meaning in the sense of Gottlob Frege (1892). However, Frege uses the term meaning in a different sense from that used today. He defines

  • Meaning as the content that results from the relations of signs, words, sentences, etc. to one another in the system of language (similar to meaning with intension),
  • Meaning as the content that results from the relation between signs and world (similar to meaning with extension).

Frege clarifies the distinction using the example of the pair of terms morning star and evening star , which both have the same meaning because they designate the planet Venus. However, the meaning of the expressions is obviously different. Since this differentiation is no longer easily comprehensible according to today's usage of words, the pair of termsmeaning (meaning) - designated ” is now predominantly used instead of Frege's terminology , meaning and meaning are viewed as synonymous. Frege's differentiations have also found great resonance in linguistic semantics.

The semantics for non-modal logics are extensional. This means that the expressions of the formal language are only assigned extensions.

Modal logic languages, on the other hand, are interpreted through an intensive semantics, such as through the semantics of the possible worlds .

Truth-functional semantics

The truth-functional semantics were "formalized into a systematic procedure" by Alfred Tarski in 1944. She traces the meaning of a sentence back to the question of the truth of a sentence, since the concept of truth is easier to grasp than that of meaning. It is a semantic that "understands the concept of meaning as a function between linguistic expressions and the world and uses the truth of statements as a criterion of their meaning."

This is worked out in the model theoretical semantics .

Semantics in Computer Science

Semantics in computer science is a use case of logical semantics. Here is for formal programming languages in addition to the syntax of a formal semantics defined. This is used in the field of predictability theory , complexity theory and especially the verification of computer programs ( correctness ).

Semantics in other areas

Information theory

In information theory , the semantics of an information sequence is understood to mean the meaning of this information sequence. A pure random sequence has no semantics (but a very high information content ).

Systems theory

The sociological system theory understands semantics to mean the entire stock of knowledge (the official memory and the basic cultural heritage) of the social system, which is permanently, reusable and socially available. System-specific semantics each contain socially significant guiding principles that are worth preserving and that have resulted from the standardization of feeling, thinking, acting and speaking.

Philosophy of language (philosophical semantics)

For the analytic philosophy semantics is an important area. For a long time, the philosophy of language was understood only as semantics. It was only through Wittgenstein's work in the 20th century that pragmatics became an equally important part of the philosophy of language.

visual communication

In visual communication , optical media can be examined and analyzed in their various forms of appearance ( posters , advertising spots , pictograms and others) using the terms of semantics.


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Web links

Wiktionary: Theory of meaning  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Wiktionary: semantics  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

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