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Semantics in language determines the relationship between signifiers and what they signify. Although images and body language can be included as signifiers in a wider study of semantics, linguistic semantics deals strictly with words and their meanings. Semantics is a subfield of linguistics specializing in the study of meaning.
For students of semantics in language, signifiers have multiple levels of meaning. The simplest level, also known as the first order of signification, is the denotation of a word. Denotation refers to a strictly literal understanding, and the object referred to is known as the denotata. For example, the noun phrase “brown bear” signifies a large omnivorous mammal known scientifically as the ursus arctos.
Various cultural or emotional meanings attached to a word provide one or more deeper levels of meaning. These subjective meanings are known as connotations. For example, a camper might hear “brown bear” with a connotation of fear and panic. On the other hand, “brown bear” might mean friendship, comfort, and security for a child who plays and sleeps with a stuffed animal.
The field of formal semantics, or model theoretic semantics, was pioneered by philosopher and mathematician Richard Montague in the mid twentieth century. Montague showed how all sentences could be broken down into subjects and predicates. These parts could be compared to mathematical concepts, particularly those in the branch of mathematics called typed lambda calculi, in order to evaluate its meaning. This theory is also known as Montague grammar.
Although Montague’s theory of semantics in language is one of the first and most commonly accepted, various philosophers have created other systems. For example, the theory of truth-conditional semantics was developed by Donald Davidson shortly after Montague published his work on formal semantics. Truth-conditional semantics evaluates the truth of a sentence by looking to specific, real world examples. Other theories include conceptual, lexical, and computational semantics.
Those who are not linguistic experts can still see the effect of semantics in language in the form of a semantic dispute. A semantic dispute is a disagreement over the meaning of a word. Spouses might argue over purchases but actually be arguing over the definition of cheap, expensive, or reasonable. Semantic disputes can range from ridiculous to nationally significant. Many court cases have been judged over the meaning of legal phrases, such as “cruel and unusual punishment” and “separate but equal.”