Discuss theories of meaning with reference to semantics.

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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Let's start with semantics while understanding that the eNotes format doesn't allow for great detail on such a broad question as this.

Semantics is the study of meaning. Meaning, what we mean when we think then express something (verbally or in writing), is embedded in language thus in words. We might easily turn that the other way round and say meaning is embedded in words thus in language.

There are two linguistic classes that encode meaning. The first is lexical words. These are words that relate to significant content. The second is grammatical words. These are words that convey no significant content but carry significant function.

Lexical words define what is meant by an expression. If I say the sexton is slow then say the opossum is slow, the lexical words will define who or what slowness relates to. They will also say what a given entity is: slow. These are examples of and this is an illustration of lexical words.

Grammatical words, on the other hand, convey function. Common examples of grammatical words are {and, but}. One includes, that being {and}, while the other excludes, {but}. These convey no significant meaning about who or what (as lexical words do) but perform necessary functions. Two more examples are {if, or}. The first sets a condition, something depends upon something else: I will go if it is sunny (condition). The second is another way of excluding though it may also point out options: it was Bob or Mary (exclusion); you may have a dog or a pool (options).

Other grammatical words are those that define grammatical categories such as interrogative, declarative, or conditional sentences. Still other grammatical words are those that define grammatical syntax such as Subject, adverbial clause, Complement, and prepositional phrase. These examples show just a few of each type.

Semantics examines and theorizes about meaning through lexical words, those words that encode the significant content of expressions (as opposed to significant function of expressions).

There are many theories of semantic meaning. Some approaches are Referential Theory, Operational Theory, and Semantic Field Theory. Each approaches the quest for understanding meaning through various concepts and analyses. All examine lexical words (some may examine grammatical words as well).

Referential Theory of meaning, growing from Saussure's signification and reference concepts, posits that meaning exists where thought and expression interface in linguistic formality where meaning is defined in semantic symbols (semantic = lexical words; symbol = signifier).

Functional Theory of meaning, Halliday's expansion of Firth's ideas, emphasizes speech analysis (as primordial, before script) and defines semantic meaning in terms of the speaker's operation upon the signifier and/or signified. In other words, lexical meaning resides in the speaker's expression of thought (operation) as much as in the signified's (the object's) real or abstract existence and use.  

As you see, semantics might be called the primary tool of theories of meaning since meaning is analyzed in terms of the semantic units (lexical words) comprising expressions of thought and/or operations upon signifiers. [This illustration unavoidably excludes the particulars of theories other than these two illustrated herein.]

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