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What Is Semantic Analysis?

By Megan Shoop
Updated May 23, 2024
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Semantic analysis is the study of semantics, or the structure and meaning of speech. It is the job of a semantic analyst to discover grammatical patterns, the meanings of colloquial speech, and to uncover specific meanings to words in foreign languages. In literature, semantic analysis is used to give the work meaning by looking at it from the writer’s point of view. The analyst examines how and why the author structured the language of the piece as he or she did. When using semantic analysis to study dialects and foreign languages, the analyst compares the grammatical structure and meanings of different words to those in his or her native language. As the analyst discovers the differences, it can help him or her understand the unfamiliar grammatical structure.

When studying literature, semantic analysis almost becomes a kind of critical theory. The analyst investigates the dialect and speech patterns of a work, comparing them to the kind of language the author would have used. Works of literature containing language that mirror how the author would have talked are then examined more closely.

In narratives, the speech patterns of each character might be scrutinized. For instance, a character that suddenly uses a so-called lower kind of speech than the author would have used might have been viewed as low-class in the author’s eyes, even if the character is positioned high in society. Patterns of dialogue can color how readers and analysts feel about different characters. The author can use semantics, in these cases, to make his or her readers sympathize with or dislike a character.

An author might also use semantics to give an entire work a certain tone. For instance, a semantic analysis of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn would reveal that the narrator, Huck, does not use the same semantic patterns that Twain would have used in everyday life. An analyst would then look at why this might be by examining Huck himself. The reason Twain uses very colloquial semantics in this work is probably to help the reader warm up to and sympathize with Huck, since his somewhat lazy-but-earnest mode of expression often makes him seem lovable and real.

Linguists often use semantic analysis to examine foreign languages. Most languages do not share exact grammatical patterns, nor do many foreign words have exact translations. In these instances, it is the job of the linguist to show examples of the foreign grammar in his or her native language. For instance, a linguist studying Spanish might explain that language’s juxtaposition of nouns and adjectives by saying that, in Spanish, a blue house is actually a 'house blue.'

The above example may also help linguists understand the meanings of foreign words. Inuit natives, for example, have several dozen different words for snow. A semantic analyst studying this language would translate each of these words into an adjective-noun combination to try to explain the meaning of each word. This kind of analysis helps deepen the overall comprehension of most foreign languages.

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