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In linguistics, semantics refer to the study of meaning in words, phrases or sentences and how they are joined. ‘Semantics’ as a linguistic term was invented in the 19th century only, but its nature and subject of meanings have been debated for thousands of years by philosophers. In general, a semantic analyst focuses on the conventional meaning of the word, instead of what the speaker means by it. This classification differentiates between the general meaning and objective meaning of a given word or phrase. The cultural or varying subjective meanings are overlooked in a strict semantic analysis. For instance, the word ‘knife’ in English refers to a sharp steel instrument which denotes its conceptual meaning. On the other hand, associative meaning of knife may be signified as ‘painful’ in terms of subjective experience.
Semantic features help an analyst to identify and understand the structural meaning of a sentence. We experience certain oddity in sentences which vary the sentence formation and give a framework for lexical and compositional semantics, for instance:
Man painted the car.
Car painted the man.
Grammatically, both sentences are correct. The problem arises in the semantic meaning which highlights the oddness of the two given sentences. The conceptual meaning of car significantly differs from the word man, especially when these nouns are used with such a verb as ‘paint’. The verb denotes the ability of these subjects to be able to paint. ‘Car’ do not have this property but man does, hence the second sentence is semantically incorrect.
In semantics, certain terms highlight the lexical relationship between words such as:
- Synonyms: It refers to different which carry the same meaning. For example, both necessary and essential signify the urgency of something.
- Antonyms: These are words with opposite meanings. For example, big-small, happy-sad, true-false etc.
- Hyponymy: Certain forms denote the association of meaning in two different words. For instance, pairs such as rose-flower, banyan- tree highlight the concept of inclusion. The meaning of ‘flower’ is included in the meaning of ‘rose’ and ‘tree’ includes the meaning of banyan.