Semantics is the study of meaning in language. We know that language is used to express meanings which can be understood by others. But meanings exist in our minds and we can express what is in our minds through the spoken and written forms of language (as well as through gestures, action etc.). phonological, morphological and syntactic processes are organized in such a way that we can convey meaningful messages or receive and understand messages. ‘How is language organised in order to be meaningful?’
This is the question we ask and attempt to answer at the level of semantics. Semantics is that level of linguistic analysis where meaning is analysed. It is the most abstract level of linguistic analysis, since we cannot see or observe meaning as we can observe and record sounds. Meaning is related very closely to the human capacity to think logically and to understand. So when we try to analyse meaning, we are trying to analyse our own capacity to think and understand, our own ability to create meaning. According to Leech, Semantics concerns itself with:
“giving a systematic account of the nature of meaning”
In Semantics, what we study largely concerns with sense and reference. It has been explained earlier that signs refer to concepts as well as to other signs. A sign is a symbol that indicates a concept. This concept is the reference, which refers in turn to some object in the real world, called the referent. The relationship between linguistic items (e.g. words, sentences) and the non-linguistic world of experience is a relationship of reference as illustrated in the diagram given by Ogden and Richards. The objects in the real world are referents, the concept which we have of them in our minds is the reference and the symbol we use to refer to them is the word, or linguistic item. As we have seen, we can explain the meaning of a linguistic item by using other words. The relation of a word with another word is a sense-relation. Therefore, sense is the complex system of relationships that holds between the linguistic items themselves. Sense is concerned with the intra-linguistic relations, i.e. relations within the system of the language itself, such as similarity between words, opposition, inclusion, and pre-supposition. Sense relations include homonymy, polysemy, synonymy and antonymy. When the linguistic elements and larger structures relate to the experiential side of communication or the ‘the non-linguistic world of experience’, we are talking of reference. The relationships that hold among elements of language are known as sense relations. Palmer says:
“The dictionary is usually concerned with sense-relations, with relating words to words”
Homonyms are different items (lexical items or structure words) with the same phonetic form. They differ only in meaning, e.g. the item ‘ear’ meaning ‘organ of hearing’ is a homonym of the item ‘ear’ meaning ‘a stem of wheat’. Homonymy may be classified as: (a) Homography: a phenomenon of two or more words having the same spellings but different pronunciation or meaning, e.g. lead /led/ = metal; lead/li:d/ = verb. (b) Homophony: a phenomenon of two or more words having the same pronunciation but different meanings or spellings, e.g. sea/see, knew/new, some/ sum, sun/son. It is difficult to distinguish between homonymy and polysemy as in polysemy, the ‘same’ lexical item has different meanings, e.g. ‘bank’, ‘face’: Two lexical items can be considered as synonyms if they have the same denotative, connotative and social meaning and can replace each other in all contexts of occurrence. But still complete synonymy is rarely possible. Antonyms are lexical items which are different both in form as well as meaning. An antonym of a lexical item conveys the opposite sense, e.g. single-married, good-bad. Another kind of sense-relationship is hyponymy. Hyponymy is the relation that holds between a more general and more specific lexical item. For example, ‘flower’ is a more general item, and ‘rose’, ‘lily’, etc. are more specific. The more specific item is considered a hyponym of the more general item—’rose’ is a hyponym of ‘flower’. The specific item includes the meaning of the general. When we say ‘rose’, the meaning of ‘flower’ is included in its meaning. ‘Rose’ is also hyponymous to ‘plant’ and ‘living thing’ as these are the most general categories. There are other sense relations ass collocation, euphemisms, dysphemism and the like. In general, all these sense-relations are peculiar to a language and every language develops its own system of sense-relations. In short, the study of meaning and its manifestation in language is called ‘Semantics’ and this manifests through sense-relations. Words are tools; they become important by the function they perform. As a result, words form certain kinds of relations which are called name-sense relations.