Definition of Semantic
Semantic refers to the different meanings of words, phrases, signs, or other symbols. The study of these meanings is called semantics. Just as important as the individual meaning of a certain word in semantics (i.e., the denotation) is the relationship between different signifiers and how meaning in one word influences meaning in another word or sign. Semantics allow us to communicate and to “read” the world and people around us in all sorts of meaningful ways.
The word semantic comes from the Ancient Greek word σημαντικός (sēmantikós), which means “significant” or “having meaning.”
Common Examples of Semantic
The function of semantics is all around us, both in our speech as well as in our body language and the signs we obey. For example, a certain gesture might be rude in one culture while commonplace in another (such as pointing directly at a person). Even certain words that we might think have a certain specific meaning can change drastically from one context to the next. For example, consider the word “white.” The word probably conjures up a color without hue. But there are numerous uses of the word white in which the sense of “white” is relative to other things. Here is a short list of ways in which we use the word white:
- White wine
- White skin
- White noise
- White lie
None of these things is altogether “without hue.” Indeed, the first two examples refer to a color which is simply not as dark as other wines and skins. The other two examples are metaphorical uses of the word white, as neither has any color at all, being intangible concepts. Indeed, much of semantic meaning relates to figurative language and the way we understand how meaning can shift to refer to a new thing.
Indeed, many of the signs we have created in the twentieth and twenty-first century are relatively arbitrary. Red, yellow, and green do not inherently mean stop, slow down, and go, respectively, and yet we have made that so. Advances in technology have required that we learn new semantics constantly, such as what a power button should look like, how to show an email address, and the meaning of certain popular abbreviations. The words “friend,” “tweet,” “follow,” and even “at” have taken on new semantic meaning in our current social media world.
Significance of Semantic in Literature
Semantics are all important in literature, just as they are in all forms of communication. In a sense, semantics are a form of intertextuality on a micro level, as every iteration of usage of a word or sign either reinforces its meaning as it has been used before or subtly changes that meaning. Words and symbols do not exist in a vacuum; often their meaning is dependent on a contrast between a certain word and either its opposite or a similar word. Native English speakers know there is a difference between the following words: house, home, shack, abode, accommodation, property, pad, residence, address, dwelling, habitation, and so on. All of these words have almost exactly the same denotation, and yet there are few circumstances in which these words could be used interchangeably. Each one gains meaning by being just separate enough from the rest in terms of formality, feel, connotation, etc.
Thus, when an author chooses a certain word there is much more meaning behind that choice than just the simple definition of a word. This has to do with diction, but also all the subtle ways that certain language can conjure up different imagery or tone. There may be an allusion at work, or subtext. The ways that semantic examples can affect every aspect of a narrative are limitless.
Examples of Semantic in Literature
Though there are examples of semantics in every single piece of literature ever created, the following four examples from literature show the way the authors have navigated the concept of semantics head-on. In the first two examples we see the way that naming things changes them, and in the second two examples we see the consequences of destroying language and meaning.
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.
(Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare)
In this excellent example of semantics, Juliet separates the man she loves from the name he is called. She points out that the word “rose” has nothing to do with the smell or form of the actual flower. Indeed, Romeo the man need not have anything to do with his name “that is my enemy.” Unfortunately for both young lovers, their names have more meaning than just mere syllables, and lead both to the enmity between their families and their deaths.
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.
(Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov)
The opening lines to Vladimir Nabokov’s creepy masterpiece Lolita are an excellent semantic example in which the narrator Humbert Humbert contemplates the different names both he and the world give his young lover. Her given name is Dolores (“on the dotted line”), and she has different names at school and with Humbert. Each of these names is a different representation of her personality.
It was a monotonous job, and Yossarian was disappointed to learn that the lives of enlisted men were only slightly more interesting than the lives of officers. After the first day he had no curiosity at all. To break the monotony he invented games. Death to all modifiers, he declared one day, and out of every letter that passed through his hands went every adverb and every adjective. The next day he made war on articles. He reached a much higher plane of creativity the following day when he blacked out everything in the letters but a, an and the. That erected more dynamic intralinear tensions, he felt, and in just about every case left a message far more universal. Soon he was proscribing parts of salutations and signatures and leaving the text untouched.
(Catch-22 by Joseph Heller)
In Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, the protagonist Yossarian is given the job of censoring letters home from men at war. He decides to censor so much of the language that the messages contain no information at all anymore. In a piece of irony, Heller writes that this makes the messages “far more universal.” Indeed, without any semantics whatsoever, a message could mean anything because there is nothing for the meaning to be based upon.
“It’s a beautiful thing, the Destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well. It isn’t only the synonyms; there are also the antonyms. After all, what justification is there for a word, which is simply the opposite of some other word? A word contains its opposite in itself. Take ‘good,’ for instance. If you have a word like ‘good,’ what need is there for a word like ‘bad’? ‘Ungood’ will do just as well – better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of ‘good,’ what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like ‘excellent’ and ‘splendid’ and all the rest of them? ‘Plusgood’ covers the meaning or ‘doubleplusgood’ if you want something stronger still. Of course we use those forms already, but in the final version of Newspeak there’ll be nothing else. In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words – in reality, only one word. Don’t you see the beauty of that, Winston? It was B.B.’s idea originally, of course,” he added as an afterthought.
(1984 by George Orwell)
The Party in George Orwell’s dystopian classic is opposed to the concept of semantics, arguing that there is no need for a diversity of meaning. The goal of the Party is for all the citizens to both think and be alike. One of the main ways of achieving this is limiting language so that no one can communicate in such a way as to incite dissent.
Test Your Knowledge of Semantic
1. Which of the following statements is the best semantic definition?
A. The set of rules and processes that govern the structure of a language, specifically word order.
B. The meaning of words and symbols, and the relationship between meanings.
C. The style of speaking or writing as dependent upon choice of words.
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2. What does the following quote from George Orwell’s 1984 have to do with semantics?
“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten.”
A. Semantics demonstrate the range of thought and expression available to humans, and the Party in Orwell’s dystopia wants to limit the range of meaning so that people will be unable to think about things that are in confrontation to the Party’s ideas.
B. The Party wants to expand the range of meaning so that humans will become increasingly separated from each other, both in thought and also in emotion.
C. Semantics allows people to say one thing and mean another, and the Party wants to encourage these acts of white lies.
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3. We generally think of the ocean as blue. However, in the Odyssey, Homer famously referred to the sea as “wine-dark.” What does this fact have to do with semantics?
A. In Homer’s day the sea was objectively blue, he just didn’t know it.
B. The sea was a different color in Homer’s time, and it has since changed to blue.
C. There was, perhaps, no word that meant “blue” in the way we now know it, and thus Homer’s labelling of the sea as “wine-dark” was a way of comparing it and contrasting it to other meanings and colors.
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