Introduction to Linguistics
  18.01.07 Semantics

18. 01. 2007 Semantics- interpreting signs

Learner's diary

  • Words, stems etc. are signs
    • everybody has a structure in his head and everybody knows how to DO something (implicit knowledge) but only special people ( for example linguists as far as the science of language is concerned) know how to DESCRIBE what they are doing.
    • example in class: everybody knows how to turn a corner on a bycicle but it was quite hard to describe how we actually do that
    • -> linguistic competence

  • Conceptual world vs. the actual world
    • two domains of language signs
      • -> conceptual/ cognitive/ mental world
      • -> actual domain of interaction and behaviour by people at a given time and place
    • Chomsky:
      • competence (implicit knowledge)
      • performance ( actual use in concrete situations)
    • Knowledge of a language
      • implicit knowledge that everybody has
      • explicit knowledge about the language that only linguists have
  • Sense vs. Reference
    • "Meaning" has two different meanings
      • Sense ( general aspect) -> lexical and sentence meaning
      • Rereference ( a specific, concrete aspect) -> The actual object, ... which an expression refers to
      • example in class: The planet "Venus" is also called "Morgenstern" or "Abendstern" in German, both "Morgenstern" and "Abendstern" refer both to the object "Venus", therefore their reference is the same but the sense of both expressions are different

  • Meaning
    • What is meaning?
      • Wikipedia (24.1.07) (
        • In linguistics, meaning is the content carried by the words or signs exchanged by people when communicating through language. Restated, the communication of meaning is the purpose and function of language.
    • What has a meaning?
      • Everything (for example signs)
    • Verbal signs
      • phoneme ( meaning: encode words, forming syllables)
      • morphemes, words  ( form words, functional part of sentence, complex states/ properties/ events)
      • sentences ( part of texts/ propositions)
      • texts ( component of dialogue/ speech acts)
      • dialogue ( social interaction/ create social relationship)
    • Nonverbal signs
      • gestures ( support the meaning of what you are saying)
      • traffic signs ( tell you what to do or what not to do )
    • signs in different modalities/ media
      • visual
      • acoustic
      • tactile ( for example shaking hands)
      • olfactory  ( for example wearing perfume -> attract other people)

  • Semantic sign types
    • Index
      • a sign with a relationship of physical proximity with its meaning ( place, cause, ...)
      •  Example: I Sherlock Holmes found a hair next to a bush ( place) he would conclude that is must have been left by a horse
    • Icon
      • a sign with a relationship of similarity with its meaning ( can be visual or acoustic or any other sense)
        • A portrait of a person has a huge similarity with the person ( or at least it should)
        • An icon on your computer desktop is similar to what you are going to do when you click on it
        • Acoustic icons are for example onomatopoea
    • Symbol
      • a sign with an abitrary relationship with its meaning
        • Heart is a symbol of love

  • Descriptive vs. subjective meanings
    • if somebody says "The concert was very good" then he actually doesn't say anything about the concert itself but only about his attitude towards the concert. As well as appraisive expressions ( like "Very good"), taboo expressions are also only subjective attitudes.
    • Concerning the difference between German and English, it is easier to use taboo expressions in a foreign language than in your mother language, because you feel a greater distance to these expressions.

  • Lexical semantics
    • dictionary definitions of meaning
      • definiendum
      • definiense
        • genus proximum
        • differentia specifica
    • semantic components
      • property components
        • abstract vs. concrete


          human vs. nonhuman
        • animate vs. inanimate

        • male vs. female

        • young vs. old

        • -> child: concrete, human, animate, male or female, young

        • -> woman: concrete, human, animate, female, "old"

      • relation components

        • bigger, parent, ...

        • -> grandfater: your mother's or father's father

        • -> aunt: you mother's or father's sister

    • Semantic relations

      • There are 5 different kinds of semantic relations. First of all there is taxonomy ( generalisation/ specialisation relation) which seperates its properties into hyper/ hyperonyms and hyponyms. Secondly there is meronomy ( part - whole relation). A fingernail is a part of your finger. Your finger is a part of your hand. Your hand is a part of your arm, so actually your fingernail would be a part of your arm ( you would probably not say that). Further there are synonyms ( same meaning), antonyms ( either the opposite, something complementary or inverse) and co- hyponyms.


    •  Semantic prototypes

      • if you ask someone to tell you an example of a bird, he or she would rather say "robin" than "penguin" or "ostrich", because the main "feature" of a bird for many people is that it can fly. Prototype Theory says that, because of special properties, some items out of one category are more central than others. 

I liked today's lecture as it was well structured, with a lot of examples and "activities" for us students to do. I also liked the repetition of definitions, which were connected with the new material. I think at the end the presentation was a bit too fast, especially the part with the texts where we were asked to find the qualifiers and the conjunctions. But all in all it was quite interesting.



  • class homepage



ein Bild

1: symbol and index, 2: icon, 3: symbol, 5:symbol

6: index, 7: symbol, 8: icon, 9: index

10: symbol, 11: index, 12: symbol, 13: symbol, index, icon  

  • Compositional meaning

    • derived word:
      • unattainable
      • un- : negation
      • -able: changes wordclass attain (v) - attainable (adj)
    •  compound word
      • roundabout
      • exocentric compound: changes meaning
      • changes wordclass round(adj.) + about ( prep.) = roundabout (n)
    • sentence:
      • these cats chased twenty mice

        (cf.: twenty mice chased these cats)
      • colourless green ideas sleep furiously

  • Tasks on lexical semantics

    • Find examples in English and German of
      • indices, icons, symbols
      • icons: portraits, photos, pictures
      • index: signs which tell you which way to take in an emergendy situation
      • symbols: cross for church, heart: love


    • Find examples of at least 3 appraisive expressions in English and German
      • good/ gut
      • great/ grossartig
      • bad/ schlecht
    • Find examples of at least 3 taboo expressions in English and German
      • shit/ scheisse
      • Arschloch/ asshole
      • fuck/ Mist
    • What would be a prototypical car, dog, dog, (find 3 more examples)
      • dog: German Shepheard
      • Car: Golf
      • furniture: chair
      • pet: dog
      • drink: water 

    • Make your own definition for “casting show”
    • Describe the meaning of
      • The Scissor Sisters sing. -> profession
      • Today the Scissor Sisters sing. -> concert

  • Tasks on quantification

    Find paraphrases for

    • many urged passionately...-
    • ... heeded not a word - disregarded every word
    • All of it was foretold - nothing was unexpected

What can you deduce from “not everybody came”?

  • nobody came
  • somebody came
  • not many came
  • somebody did not come (X)
  • many did not come

Tasks on conjunctions

If John is tired, then he drinks coffee.

  • What can you deduce from this?
  • If John drinks coffee, then he is tired.
  • If John drinks coffee then he is not tired.
  • If John does not drink coffee, then he is not tired. (X)

John drinks coffee and Mary drinks red wine.

  • What can you deduce from this?
  • John drinks coffee or Mary drinks red wine.
  • John doesn’t drink coffee or Mary doesn’t drink red wine.
  • It is not true that John doesn’t drink coffee or Mary doesn’t drink red wine. (X)

Figure out some more logical equivalences using


  • If I like English then I like Spanish


  • Not all sheep are white
  • -> Some sheep are white
  • -> It is not true that if I do not like English then I like Spanish 
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