Saturday, April 6, 2013

Intro to Linguistics: Semantics

In the past few weeks, we've begun to look at various fields of linguistics in our new Intro to Linguistics series. So far, we've covered phonetics (the study of speech sounds), phonology (the study of how sounds are combined to create meaning), and morphology (the study of word structure and formation). Today we'll be looking at the field of semantics, which deals with the study of linguistic meaning.

Semantics focuses on the relationships between words and phrases, as well as the rules for combining words in order to create phrases and sentences. There's a seemingly endless list of terms for various relationships between words, so we'll just list some of the most important and interesting ones below.

homonyms - These are words pronounced (and sometimes also spelled) the same. For example, the words left (opposite of right) and left (past tense of "leave") are homonyms.

Has this cat fallen in a pail or a bucket? Your choice.
synonyms - Words with the same or similar meanings, such as "pail" and "bucket". 

antonyms - These are words that are semantic opposites. For example, hot and cold are gradable antonyms because more of one is less of the other. Pairs like alive and dead are complementary antonyms, because the negation of one is the meaning of the other (not alive = dead). There are also relational antonyms, where the opposites only make sense in the context of the relationship between the two words. Sounds confusing, but it's just talking about word pairs like aunt and niece or teacher and student

hyponyms - Words that are a specific term within a more general category. For example, orange is a hyponym of color.

hypernyms - The opposite of hyponyms, meaning that color is the hypernym of orange.

metonyms - They're a figure of speech used when something is not called by its name, but instead by something associated with it. We've covered metonymy as well as two specific types of metonyms, synecdoche and generic trademarks, in recent months.

The study of semantics looks at thematic roles which tell the semantic relationship between verb and noun phrases in a sentences. It also deals with figures of speech such as metaphors and idioms. Another semantic term is anomaly, which refers to what happens when you break semantic rules and create nonsensical expressions. An example of a semantic anomaly would be the phrase "the cat sewed the milk". It's not ungrammatical, but it is nonsensical since milk cannot be sewn, nor can cats sew with their tiny adorable paws, as far as we know!