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Frame semantics is a linguistic idea that states that single words are not often meaningful without a larger framework of meaning. In general semantics, each word has its own associations and connotations for speakers of a given language. The idea of frame semantics is that these individual words need a larger network of words and meanings in order for a listener or reader to understand a single word in context. This idea has been studied extensively in linguistics, to see how people use individual words and units of speech.
Experts refer to frame semantics as a coherent set of related ideas that form the basis for associations with specific words. For example, in general syntax, linguists look at the various meanings and associations for the word “buy.” In frame semantics, linguists and other experts argue that the word “buy” may not be semantically useful without a greater set of words. In this example, some of those words would be the words acting in the transaction, such as “buyer” and “seller,” as well as words for other involved nouns, like “goods” and “services.” Other parts of the frame could include more abstract nouns like “transaction” or “purchase.”
One way to understand frame semantics is to look at ambiguous single words. In the above example, the word “buy” can refer to an actual trading arrangement between two people, or it can reference something more abstract. With ambiguous single words, the frame semantics shows a more concrete set of meanings. For example, if the set includes phrases like “buy time” and “make additional arrangements,” the listener or reader can understand that the word “buy” no longer refers to a single concrete financial transaction.
Another way to understand this areas of semantics is to use the context of a specific field or industry. People often refer to fields and industries is having their own jargon or lingo. Using these sets of words can make an ambiguous single word conform to the context of that specific field or industry.
Some of those who study frame semantics identify a word as a “category of experience.” These single units can make up what some call a script, and others refer to as a structural set of expectations. Linguists, psychologists, and others use these theoretical constructs to analyze how people use words and phrases in practice. Here, frame semantics provides a more specialized sub-set of overall semantic study.