Semantics is a sub-discipline of Linguistics which focuses on the study of meaning. Semantics tries to understand what meaning is as an element of language and how it is constructed by language as well as interpreted, obscured and negotiated by speakers and listeners of language.

Semantics is closely linked with another sub-discipline of linguistics, Pragmatics, which is the study of meaning in context. However, unlike Pragmatics, Semantics is a highly theoretical research perspective, and looks at meaning in language in isolation, in the language itself, whereas Pragmatics is a more practical subject and is interested in meaning in language in use.

Geoffrey Leech, Author of Semantics (1974) talks about why he chose to study Semantics…

Professor Geoffrey Leech
Professor Geoffrey Leech

“When I was a student, 55 years ago, the current climate of linguistic thinking was against semantics. This was the era when American structuralism was in the ascendant, and it was considered that meaning could not be studied objectively, and therefore had to be ignored.

At that time (1962) I was working with Michael (M.A.K.) Halliday, the most brilliant mind in British linguistics, who was developing his own theories. I asked him which of two fields (morphology or semantics – both of which I thought needed to be developed within his theory) I should focus on, and he recommended semantics. This pleased me, as it had seemed to me absurd that linguists of that era concentrated on phonetics, phonology and syntax, and ignored meaning.

After all, what is the point of language without meaning?

After that I wrote my PhD thesis on the semantics of English, and it was later published as a book (1969). I was then asked to write a more popular book on semantics for the general reader – a book that came out in the Penguin linguistic series in 1974. The rest, as they say, is history!”