What Is Semantics? - Definition & Examples

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  • 0:02 Definition of Semantics
  • 1:26 Examples of Semantics
  • 5:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Angela Gentry
Semantics, or the study of relationships between words and how we construct meaning, sheds light on how we experience the world and how we understand others and ourselves. Explore this concept with a definition and examples, and then check out the quiz to challenge your newfound knowledge.

Definition of Semantics

Philosophers and linguists alike have long debated the intricacies of language, how we construct meaning, and how stationary those meanings really are. You've probably heard the line, 'That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.' Shakespeare asserts here then that a name doesn't matter - it's what that thing or concept really is. Even if we ceased to call a rose a rose, we could still smell its fragrance, feel its velvety petals, and be pricked by its thorns.

image of red rose

You can see from the picture above the mental image I had when I read the word 'rose.' Human communication would become extremely tricky if we all associated completely different meanings with a given vocabulary word. If you said 'mango' when I saw a rose, and we were trying to describe the same thing, you can see where we'd have a problem.

Semantics means the meaning and interpretation of words, signs, and sentence structure. Semantics largely determine our reading comprehension, how we understand others, and even what decisions we make as a result of our interpretations. Semantics can also refer to the branch of study within linguistics that deals with language and how we understand meaning. This has been a particularly interesting field for philosophers as they debate the essence of meaning, how we build meaning, how we share meaning with others, and how meaning changes over time.

Examples of Semantics

One of the central issues with semantics is the distinction between literal meaning and figurative meaning. With literal meaning, we take concepts at face value. For example, if we said, 'Fall began with the turning of the leaves,' we would mean that the season began to change when the leaves turned colors. Figurative meaning utilizes similes and metaphors to represent meaning and convey greater emotion. For example, 'I'm as hungry as a bear' would be a simile and a comparison to show a great need for sustenance.

Let's look at the context of the Shakespearean quote we mentioned earlier:

'Juliet: O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?

Deny thy father and refuse thy name;

Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,

And I'll no longer be a Capulet.

Romeo: (Aside) Shall I hear more, or shall I speak at this?

Juliet: 'Tis but thy name that is my enemy;

Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.

What's Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,

Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part

Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!

What's in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet;

So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,

Retain that dear perfection which he owes

Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,

And for that name which is no part of thee

Take all myself.'

The quote, 'That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,' is actually an example of figurative meaning when we look at the context, the surrounding text that clarifies meaning. Romeo and Juliet's families, the Montagues and the Capulets, were in a notoriously hideous feud, hence the couple's characterization as star-crossed lovers. Juliet uses this metaphor to make the argument to Romeo that his name (his family) does not matter to her; she wants Romeo for himself. Juliet's dialogue about their families would be an example of literal meaning.

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