Semantics

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Semantics

  1. 1. Introduction: Every language plays the role of communication only because it manages toconvey what the speaker means. Words have a great effect depending on whatmeaning are they conveying. Jokes, satire, philosophy etc can only bedistinguished on the bases of their meanings. Thus everyone is interested inmeaning. Linguistic studies are interested in the meaningful aspect of any language.It also studies how the same words can convey different meaning with the changeof context or intonation. Semantics is the branch of linguistics which involvessystematic meaning of language and linguistic semantics is concerned with theorganization of language to express meaning. 1Semantics: The word semantics is derived from the Greek word, semanino, meaning, tosignify or mean. Semantics is part of larger study of signs semiotics. It is he partthat deals with words as signs (symbols) and language as a system of signs (wordsas symbols).2 Semantics as a term was first formally used by Breal in 1897. He was thefirst to bring to the fore in a formally acceptable way, the nature of meaning inlanguage. The first attempt to study meanings was by Philosophers whichexamines the relationship between linguistic expressions and the phenomena theyrefer to in the external world.. This can be traced to as far back as Plato’s andAristotle’s works. Linguistic semantics emphasizes the properties of naturallanguages while pure or logical semantics is the study of the meaning ofexpressions using logical systems or calculi.3Area: The area of focus in this project is the ‘semantic roles’. But before that ageneral introduction is needed about the basic organization of grammar thatconveys meaning. It can be roughly termed as sentence and proposition. A sentence contains certain information, but the same information can bepresented in different sentences and in parts of sentences; the informationpresented, apart from the way it is presented, is called a ‘proposition’. A proposition can be seen as consisting of a predicate and various nounphrases (referring expressions), each of which has a different role.1 Kreidler, Charles W, Introducing English Semantics, London EC4P 4EE, Routledge, 11 New FetterLane2 Robert A. Hipkiss, Robert A. Semantics Defining the Disciplines. New Jersey 07430:Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, inc., Publishers 10 Industrial Avenue Mahwah.3 Palmer, Frank Robert. Semantics. New York: Cambridge University Press 1976, 1981.
  2. 2. Sentence and Proposition:A traditional way of defining a sentence is ‘somethingthat expresses a complete thought.’ This definition is a rather strange way ofexplaining since it assumes that we know what a complete thought is and with thisknowledge can determine whether something is or is not a sentence. But surely theprocedure must be reverse. Sentences are more knowable than thoughts. In spiteof individual differences, speakers of a language generally agree about what is or isnot a sentence in their language. For example, • Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams. • waking from troubled dreamsThe first example is a complete sentence as it begins with a capital letter and endwith a full stop. However, both have the same semantic content i.e conveying thesame meaning. They have same relation to an action or possible action performedin certain place by a single person. It can be said that both the examples arereferring to the waking up of the same person i.e Gregor Samsa. The difference isgrammatical. The first example declares something, makes a sentence.The second expression can be part of statement like, Waking from troubled dreams, Gregor Samsa felt distressed.The semantic content shared by this expression is a ‘proposition’. A propositioncan be verified as true or false. E.g Gregor Samsa didn’t up from troubled dreamsis the negation of this proposition, and did Gregor Samsa wake from troubleddreams? is a question about it. A proposition can be expressed in different sentences. For example, • The bedding was hardly able to cover it. • The bedding was able to cover it hardly.A single proposition can be expressed in different sentences through different‘focus.’ For example, • Drops of rain made him feel sad. • Drops of rain were the ones which made him feel sad.In the approach taken here, first proposition has a focus on sad and the second’sfocus is on drops of rain. A sentence may add a focus and may add the in differentplaces and in different ways. A proposition, then, can be realized as severaldifferent sentences. A proposition is something abstract but meaningful. It can beexpressed in different sentences and in parts of sentences, perhaps withdifferences of focus but always with the same basic meaning. An English sentence has certain kinds of modification that, together, arecalled inflection. It includes tense (the distinction between present troubles, pasttroubled); aspect which usually shows the continuity of an action (is waking) andmodality which refers to auxiliary words (may wake, could wake, should wake). The description of a sentence is a syntactic analysis while the descriptionof a proposition is a semantic analysis. A syntactic analysis is the account of thelexemes and function words in a sentence, describing how these combine intophrases, and shows the functions that these lexemes and phrases have in thesentence. These functions are recognized as subject, predicate, object,complement and adverbial.
  3. 3. The Syntactic Analysis of SentencesSubject Predicate Object AdverbialHe thought.It showed a lady.He Lay on his armour-like back.He Felt itch upon his belly.Subject Predicate ComplementSamsa was a travelling salesman. When inflection-including Tense-is separated from proposition, we see thatthe forms of the verb be (am, is, was, were) have no meaning. They are clearlypart of the syntactic structure of sentences but not of the semantic structure. Insemantic analysis every proposition contains one predicate and a varying numberof referring expressions (noun phrases) called arguments, like he thought. Thepredicate may be verb, an adjective, a preposition, or a noun phrase.Semantic Roles: Every single sentence-every proposition has one predicate and a varyingnumber of referring expressions or ‘arguments’. The meaning of a predicate isdetermined by how many arguments it may have and what role those argumentshave. An account of the number of arguments that a predicate has is called the‘valency’ of that predicate. Valency theory is a description of the semantic potentialof predicates in terms of the number and types of argument which may co-occurwith them. The valency may vary from zero, one and two. They are briefly defined asfollows: • Valency zero: it refers to the predicate that has no particular subject. Hence the verb it contains is a zero-argument verb. • Valency one: one-argument predicates contain a verb that has a subject but no object which means it is an intransitive verb. The argument contains a subject and a predicate in the roles of o actor/action o affected/event o theme/description o theme/identity
  4. 4. • Valency two: the sentences having subject and object both are known to have two-argument predicates. The arguments may occur in the role of o Agent/action/affected o Agent/action/effect o Actor/action/place o Affecting/affect/affected o Affected/affect/affecting o Theme/link/associate The possible Semantic relations were introduced in generative grammarduring the mid-1960s and early 1970s as a way of classifying the arguments ofnatural language predicates into a closed set of participant types which werethought to have a special status in grammar. A list of possible semantic roles is asfollows: • Actor: the role of an argument that performs some action without affecting any entity. • Affected: the role of an argument that undergoes a change due to some event or is affected by some other entity. • Affecting: the role of an argument that, without any action, affects another entity. • Agent: the role of an argument that by its action affects some other entity. • Associate: the role of an argument that tells the status or identity of another argument. • Effect: the role of an argument that comes into existence through the action of the predicate. • Place: the role of an argument that names the location in which the action of the predicate occurs. • Theme: the role of an argument that is the topic of a predicate that does not express any action, a stative predicate.Introduction to text:Application: 1. Valency zero: a) It’s shocking. Here ‘it’ is the subject but ‘it’ doesn’t name anything, its neutral. Shocking is a zero-argument verb. In the text, ‘it’s shocking’ is a clause of the sentence ‘It’s shocking, what can suddenly happen to a person’. Here this clause has no particular subject. It is Gregor Samsa’s dialogue, addressing the head clerk and explaining his change of condition. This clause refers to the whole situation but not naming one particular subject, yet it has a predicate conveying a meaning. 2. Valency one: a) ‘What’s happened to me?’ he thought. Argument + predicate
  5. 5. Actor action He thought In this sentence, ‘he thought’ is one argument clause. It has no object thus thought is an intransitive verb. He is the ‘actor’, while thought is the ‘action’. Actor’s action never affects another entity like in this sentence. It occurs in the beginning of a paragraph and is followed by the sentence suggesting that it wasn’t a dream. Further in the paragraph there is the description of his room. Hence, he thought is an independent clause with no need of an object to convey its meaning, rather suggesting his through his dialogue. It is justifying its semantic role. b) Gregor realized that it was out of question Argument + predicate Affected event Gregor realized In this sentence, there is again one argument with no object. Yet, here thenature of argument is different. The verb here is the event which the subjectundergoes. In this sentence, Gregor undergoes the process of realization, thus getsaffected by it. In the paragraph of the text, he realizes that letting the chief clerkgo, without any explanation was not a good idea. Hence, the subject itself isaffected by the event and is independent of an object. Justifying its semantic role,it is conveying the correct meaning in the text. c) Gregor is ill. Argument + predicate Theme description Gregor ill In this sentence, the predicate is not a verb, but describing Gregor’scondition which is ill. The subject is the topic or theme of the whole argument. Inthe text, it is his mother who is telling his sister that is unwell. Hence, thisinformation conveys a complete meaning without an object, thus justifying itssemantic role of valency one. d) Samsa was a travelling salesman. Argument + predicate Theme identity Samsa traveling salesman This sentence gives information about the central character of the story. Ittells about his profession thus giving him an identity. The subject is no way in needof an object to describe its identity so it is a single argument predicate. It iscontributing to the meaning of the story.Valency two: a) The chief clerk now raised his voice. Argument1 + predicate + argument2 Agent action Affected Chief clerk raised voice Here the subject has an object to define the verb. This sentence is followedby the fact the chief clerk calls Samsa and asks what the matter with him was.Without the mention of second argument, the meaning would have beenincomprehensible. Thus roles of both the arguments are justified by the meaningsthey convey. b) He’s made a little frame.
  6. 6. Argument1 + predicate + argument2 Agent action effect He made frame Here the subject did some action as a result of which something comes intoexistence. Thus he refers to Gregor whose mother was telling the chief clerk thathe likes to create things in his leisure time and he has made a little photo frametoo. Thus without second argument, the meaning would be incomplete. Hence, theneed for the role of second argument is justified. c) He’d fall right off his desk! Argument1 + predicate argument2 Actor action place He fall off desk The subject is undergoing a change with reference to a location. Gregorthought of telling his boss that it’s easy to sit behind a desk and rebuke others. Hethought this action of his would make the boss fall off from his desk. Thus toconvey the complete meaning, a location or place was needed after the action.Hence the second argument justifies its role. d) You are causing serious and unnecessary concern to your parents. Argument1 + predicate aargument2 Affecting affect affected You concern parentsHere you refer to Gregor whose chief clerk is telling him that his behavior isconcerning his parents i. e that they are being affected by it. He says this becauseGregor wasn’t coming out of his locked room in the morning. Only mentioning theone argument with the role of affecting subject wouldn’t have been enough hence asecond argument was needed which conveyed the whole meaning through definingthe entity being affected. Hence the semantic role is justified. e) Chief clerk was a lover of women. Argumennt1 + predicate + argument2 Affected affect affecting Chief clerk love women Gregor thinks that his sister would be in a better position to convince hisemployer. So in this sentence role of first argument is that of the affected, here thechief clerk is affected by the love of women. ‘Women’ play the role of affecting inthe second argument. Without the presence of the latter argument, meaning wouldhave been incomplete. The semantic role is fulfilled in conveying the wholemeaning. A similar example is as follows, f) He was curious to know what they would say when they caught sight of him. Argument1 + predicate + argument2 Affected affect affecting He curious what they would sayHere the affect is an adjective followed by a preposition. Gregor is affected by thecuriosity of what everyone would think when they would see him in the form of avermin. He was anxious about their opinion. So the opinion is affecting Gregor. If
  7. 7. only the phrase ‘he was curious’ was used in the text, it would have been difficultto judge what about. Hence the semantic roles are justified because they areconveying the complete meaning.Discussion: The semantic roles theory can be successfully applied to a chapter of FranzKafka’s novella Metamorphosis. It is seen that instances of all the roles comprisingactor, action, theme, event, identity, agent, affected, affect, affecting and placewere found in the text. All of them were effectively justifying the roles incontributing the meaning of the sentence of which they were a part as well as tothe overall meaning of the text.

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