How is semantics studied?

The study is semantics is highly theoreticalThe main researchers are philosophers who study semantics in a more theoretical manner. Some examples of these philosophers can be seen on the who does semantics? page. 

Lexical semantics can be defined as 'the study of meaning', therefore semanticists are interested in the lexical meaning of words rather than grammatical meaning. It is not so much a practical topic but one that requires thinking rather than doing and does not really require any experiments. It is about studying language in isolation and not language in use. Some semanticists see native speakers as having semantic competence.

The study of semantics also ties in with other fields of linguistic study:

  • Pragmatics- it would be impossible when studying semantics not to come into contact with pragmatics. Some theoretical approaches have got rid of the distinction between semantic and pragmatic competence. However, it is important to make the distinction between a word's contribution to the meaning of an utterance and the contributions of context (pragmatics). Pragmatic issues have been touched upon in many lexical semantic issues, like polysemy
  • Morphologythere is a question of whether word class is semantically determined. 
  • PsycholinguisticsMost lexical semantic issues can be addressed from a psycholinguistic perspective, and psycholinguistic methods offer evidence concerning how words and meanings are organised in the mind. 
  • Language acquisition– Unlike grammar, vocabulary is acquired throughout life, so some of the issues in lexical acquisition can be addressed from an adult first- or second-language angle.

What is semantic competence?

It consists of the ability to judge which strings of words form grammatical sentences. Similarly, semantic competence consists of the ability to determine the meaning of a particular string of words. Since a particular string of words may correspond to more than one syntactic structure, we can take semantic competence to consist of the ability to determine the meaning of a particular syntactic structure. This ability also consists of the ability to determine the relationships between the meanings of distinct syntactic structure. Therefore, the study of semantics is mainly based on the intuitions of native speakers as we know on a subconscious level.[1]

Changes in the study of semantics

In the last twenty-to-thirty years there have been changes in the traditional ways of studying semantics.

Chomskian linguistics and the nativist view sees all semantic notions as inherent. However, this view was thought of as being unable to address many issues such as metaphor and semantic change, where meanings within linguistics change over time. 
On the other hand, cognitive linguistics views semantics, as an innate finite meaning inherent in a lexical unit which can be used to generate meaning. This challenge to the traditional Chomskian views is motivated by factors external to language, i.e. language is not a set of labels stuck onto things but "a toolbox, the importance of whose elements lie in the way they function rather than their attachments to things."[2]
 
One tool used in the study of Semantics: Syntax trees
 
Semantics also uses our theoretical knowledge of how language works on a broader level to explain and formally note how meaning works. We can present how words are arranged in utterances through drawing syntax trees- this may sound strange but hopefully the video below will help to show you one way semantics can be studied.

Syntax Trees


Photo of the material discussed in the video
 
If you'd like to have a closer look at the structurally ambiguous sentence and its paraphrases and trees that were discussed in the video please take a look at the photos below. (Click to enlarge)


Finding out more

Please follow the links below to other sections of the web site if you'd like to find out more about the topics covered in the video. 
  • Please follow this link if you'd like to find out more about what meaning is and how it is created.
  • Please follow this link if you'd like to find out more about structural ambiguity, and see some examples.
  • And if you'd like to find out more about syntax trees, you can follow this link to the Syntax section of this web site.

Understanding how Semantics is studied: Example Research
 
You can also find out more about how semantics is studied by following the links below to see examples of real research that has been done in the field:
Key concepts in how semantics is studied:

Pragmatic competence- The ability to use language in a contextually appropriate fashion.
Polysemy-
A word that has two or more similar meanings.
Chomskian-
The linguistic period where the famous linguist, Noam Chomsky, was prevalent. 
Cognitive linguistics- 
A branch of linguistics that interprets language in terms of concepts, which underlie its forms. 
Structural ambiguity- 
refers to a sentence or clause with multiple possible meanings. 
Syntax- The arrangement of words or phrases.