Semantics is basically about the meanings words have. When looking at semantics, we’re considering words separately and in the phrases they appear in, rather than thinking about the overall effect of the whole (that would be more of a pragmatic issue).

Key semantic terms:

  • Denotation – the dictionary definition
  • Connotation – meanings we associate with a word: spinster connotes old/ugly/miserable
  • Collocation – words which are strongly associated or often found together: vast majority
  • Antonym – opposite: day/night
  • Synonym – same/similar meaning: bright/clever/smart (often synonyms have the same denotation but may have different connotations to create shades of meaning)
  • Euphemism – putting something in a ‘nicer’ way, covering up the truth: passed away, sleeping with
  • Dysphemism – also not directly saying the thing, but using harsher words: kicked the bucket, banging
  • Idiom – everyday metaphor, not literally true but understood by most/all within a cultural context: raining cats and dogs, dressed to the nines
  • Simile – comparing two things using “like” or “as”
  • Metaphor – comparison without “like” or “as”, non-literal phrase
  • Hyperbole – exaggeration: I’ve told you a thousand times!
  • Oxymoron – contradictory or opposing terms put together: brilliant darkness (not just a clash, and the words need to be next to each other)
  • Metonym – using a part of something, or something associated with it to stand in for it: the crown (meaning monarch) skirt (meaning girl/woman)
  • Semantic field – a group of words related by meaning.  For example, in the field of furniture we have things like: chair, table, lamp, sofa etc etc.  In this example field, the word furniture is the hypernym and chair etc are the hyponyms.  In other words, the hypernym is the head word/title and the hyponyms are the lower terms.  A hyponymic list is (unsurprisingly) a list of hyponyms: “He ate hungrily.  Meat, potatoes, vegetables all were shovelled…”

Here are some examples of effective uses of semantics:

  • LANGUAGE/LANG-LIT: MODE ANALYSIS – semantic features may be different in different modes, e.g. written language is more likely to be figurative than spontaneous speech.
  • LANGUAGE: CHILD LANGUAGE – children’s early spoken words tend to come from a small range of semantic fields, e.g. toys, food, social words, people.  Children’s early writing also tends to reflect their interests or school topics, e.g. a 6 year-old may use a range of football-related terms in a story, or they may use several words from the field of dinosaurs.
  • LANGUAGE: DIALECT – words may be used differently in different linguistic varieties e.g. youth dialect uses ‘gay’ and ‘sick’ differently to the standard.
  • LANGUAGE: CHANGE – semantic shifts such as pejoration/amelioration, weakening, broadening/narrowing are worth discussing.
  • LANG-LIT: COMPARATIVE ANALYSIS -semantic analysis is likely to focus on imagery in the poetry coursework, while the exam analysis may require consideration of the semantic fields used.  It is likely, for example, that a literary text may use a greater range of lexis within the main semantic field than a transcript of spontaneous speech would.  It is also probable that the written texts may use secondary semantic fields metaphorically more than the spoken text will.