Semantics comes from greek semantikos, meaning "significant," from semainein "to show, signify, indicate by a sign," from sema "sign". Broadly speaking, semantics is "the study of the relationships between signs and symbols and what they represent". Those signs or symbols can take on virtually any form so long as they also represent something other than themselves. Jerry Fodor, American philosopher and cognitive scientist provides an apt definition of a semantic theory of language, saying "a semantics theory of a language, natural or artificial, is [...] the part of a grammar that is concerned with the relations between symbols in the language and the things in the world that
they refer to or are true of". The "things in the world that symbols refer to or are true of" constitutes "meaning" in this description, however others define "meaning" as an idea or inner concept.
Questions of semantics become apparent when ambiguity arises within a language, where a single sign or symbol, such as a word, can express two distinct meanings. For example, "I haven't slept for ten days" is ambiguous on account of for. Either we interpret the speaker to be saying that he has been without sleep over a period of ten days, or that he is saying he has not continuously slept for a duration of ten days. Because we know nothing more about the statement we can only interpret what we think is most likely. Puns exploit this sort of ambiguity, either in the words themselves or how they sound, to achieve a humorous effect. In prose a writer intends to communicate a relationship among meanings. To that end semantic ambiguity will likely be a detriment. Whereas in poetry, in which words operate both as signifiers and as things in and of themselves, ambiguity might enable a multitude of meanings to surface. A highly succesful poem can employ ambiguity to evoke a particular meaning which has no analogous signifier in that language.
In many instances of daily life we are adept at discerning meaning from otherwise insufficient language either spoken or written. The branch of linguistics that deals with the contribution of context to meaning, as opposed to semantics which studies meaning coded into language, is known as pragmatics. A field as abstract as semantics might be questioned for its usefulness. Geoffrey Leech, emeritus professor of linguistics at Lancaster University, puts this into practical context, saying "If we view Semantics as the study of meaning then it becomes central to the study of communication which in turn is an important factor in how society is organised".
1. Richmond , H. Thomason. "What is Semantics?." Last modified 2012. Accessed November 25, 2012. http://web.eecs.umich.edu/~rthomaso/documents/general/what-is- semantics.html.
2. University of Sheffield, "Why is semantics studied? ." Last modified 2012. Accessed November 25, 2012. https://sites.google.com/a/sheffield.ac.uk/all-about- linguistics/branches/semantics/why-is-semantics-studied.
3. Fodor, Jerry. "SEMANTICS–AN INTERVIEW WITH JERRY FODOR." Revista Virtual de Estudos da Linguagem, ReVRL 5, no. 8 (2007).