Semantics is the study of meaning in language, whether natural (such as English) or artificial (such as that used in computer programming). Stemming from the Greek word semaino, which roughly translates as “to signify,” semantics essentially examines the words and phrases that compose a language—referred to as “signifiers”—in terms of what they denote, or mean.
Key figures in twentieth-century semantics, when the field grew rapidly, include Richard Montague, Noam Chomsky, and Donald Davidson. Throughout the twentieth century, semantics was most prominently aligned with philosophy, but it is a field of study that also crosses over into mathematics, logic, computer science, and literary theory.
Despite its generalized definition and prevalence as a term in modern society, semantics can be a highly technical, often misunderstood field of linguistic study. Several of the theories that form the backbone of the discipline are rooted in logic and mathematics. For example, formal semantics, most often associated with Montague, employs a mathematical framework to dissect the construction of linguistic expression, using notation to diagram the elements of language. Truth-conditional semantics, pioneered by Davidson, is another complex subfield of semantics that asserts that the meaning of a sentence or phrase is linked to—is in fact the same as—its truthfulness. These and other similar theories, such as lexical semantics, illustrate the strong bond among the fields of linguistics, logic, and mathematics.
In the world of technology, semantics has become a key component of computer programming, sharing some theoretical similarities with linguistic semantics. Computer-science semantics also deals with the properties of language, albeit artificial ones that focus on programming. Specifically, semantics studies the process by which a computer language is executed. Thus, it has to do with executable commands—if the language used to process a command is incorrect, the command will not work for the specific software or hardware. Whether in linguistics or computer programming, semantics deals with deriving meaning from a string of words, symbols, or phrases.
A highly complex, interdisciplinary field of academic study, semantics is continually evolving, as new linguistic theories emerge about the connection between words and their meanings.
—Christopher Rager, MA
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