What is semantics?

Semantics is the study of meaning. It is a wide subject within the general study of language. An understanding of semantics is essential to the study of language acquisition (how language users acquire a sense of meaning, as speakers and writers, listeners and readers) and of language change (how meanings alter over time). It is important for understanding language in social contexts, as these are likely to affect meaning, and for understanding varieties of English and effects of style. It is thus one of the most fundamental concepts in linguistics. The study of semantics includes the study of how meaning is constructed, interpreted, clarified, obscured, illustrated, simplified negotiated, contradicted and paraphrased.

Some important areas of semantic theory or related subjects include these:

  • Words and lexemes
  • Synonym, antonym and hyponym
  • Polysemy
  • Homonymy, homophones and homographs

You will find explanations below of how each of these relates to the theoretical study of semantics.

Words and lexemes

As a lexical unit may contain more than one word, David Crystal has coined the term lexeme. This is usually a single word, but may be a phrase in which the meaning belongs to the whole rather than its parts, as in verb phrases tune in, turn on, drop out or noun phrase (a) cock up.

Synonym, antonym and hyponym

Synonym and antonym are forms of Greek nouns which mean, respectively, “same name” and “opposed (or different) name”. We may find synonyms which have an identical reference meaning, but since they have differing connotations, they can never be truly synonymous. This is particularly the case when words acquire strong connotations of approval (amelioration) or disapproval (pejoration). We can see this by comparing terrorist with freedom fighter or agnostic (Greek) with ignoramus (Latin). Both of the latter terms express the meaning of a person who does not know (something). A pair which remains more truly synonymous (but might alter) would be sympathy (Greek) and compassion (Latin). Both mean “with [= having or showing] feeling”, as in the English equivalent, fellow feeling.

Some speakers will not be aware of synonyms, so cannot make a choice. But those with a wide lexicon will often choose between two, or among many, possible synonyms. This is an area of interest to semanticists. What are the differences of meaning in toilet, lavatory, WC, closet, privy, bog, dunny and so on?

Intelligent reflection on the lexicon will show that most words do not have antonyms. When Baldric, in BBC TV’s Blackadder, attempts to write a dictionary he defines cat as “not a dog” – but the two are not antonyms. A cat is not a fish, banana, rainbow or planet, either – it is not anything, but a cat! We can contrast simple pairs like fat/thin but realize that both are relative to an assumed norm. Such lexeme pairs (for example: big/little, clever/stupid, brave/cowardly, hot/cold and beautiful/ugly) are gradable antonyms . True and false may show a clearer contrast. Clear either/or conditions are expressed by complementary antonyms: open/closed, dead/alive, on/off. Another kind (not really opposites at all) are pairs which go together, and represent two sides of a relation: these are converses or relational antonyms. Examples would be husband/wife, borrow/lend, murderer/victim, plaintiff/defendant.

Hyponymy is an inclusive relationship where some lexemes are co-hyponyms of another that includes them. As cutlery includes knife, fork, spoon (but not teacup) these are co-hyponyms of the parent or superordinating term. This traditional term denotes a grouping similar to a semantic field. So cod, guppy, salmon and trout are hyponyms for fish, while fleet has the hyponyms battleship, aircraft carrier, cruiser, destroyer and frigate.


Polysemy (or polysemia) is an intimidating compound noun for a basic language feature. The name comes from Greek poly (many) and semy (to do with meaning, as in semantics). Polysemy is also called radiation or multiplication. This happens when a lexeme acquires a wider range of meanings.

For example, paper comes from Greek papyrus. Originally it referred to writing material made from the papyrus reeds of the Nile, later to other writing materials, and now to things such as government documents, scientific reports, family archives or newspapers.

Homonymy, homophones and homographs

Homonyms are different lexemes with the same form (written, spoken or both). For example, bank is both an elevated area of ground and a place or business where money is kept. You may think these are the same words, but this is not so, since the meaning is an essential feature of a word. In some cases, the same form (as with paper) has the same origin but this will not always be the case. The etymology of a lexeme will tell us where it comes from and how it acquired a given meaning.

Identity of form may apply to speech or writing only. David Crystal calls these forms “half” identical. They are:

  • Homophones – where the pronunciation is the same (or close, allowing for such phonological variation as comes from accent) but standard spelling differs, as in flew (from fly), flu (“influenza”) and flue (of a chimney).
  • Homographs – where the standard spelling is the same, but the pronunciation differs, as in wind (air movement or bend) or refuse (“rubbish” or “disallow”, stress falls on first and second syllable, respectively).

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