Meaning and the semantics

Lexical semantics and compositional semantics

What is lexical semantics?

Lexical semantics deals with a language's lexicon, or the collection of words in a language. It is concerned with individual words (unlike compositional semantics, which is concerned with meanings of sentences.)

Of the many ways that lexical semantics can be studied, we'll look in general terms at the meaning relationships that word meanings have with one another and the semantic features that help to differentiate similar words. Lexical semantics focuses on meanings in isolation, that is, without attention to their contribution to reference or truth conditions.

Meaning Relationships

There are many ways for two words to be related. We've already seen a number of ways:

  • morphologically related: lift/lifted which both share the same stem
  • syntactically related - write/paint both verbs
  • phonologically related - night/knight, which share the same pronunciation.

Another way two words can be related is semantically. For instance, the word pot is intuitively more closely related semantically to the word pan than it is so the word floor. The reason, clearly, is that both pot and pan have meanings that involved the act of cooking, while floor does not in any obvious way.

a. homonyms

Homonyms, also called homophones (meaning "same sound") are pairs of words that have different meanings with identical sounds. For example:






Homonyms are words that have different histories, called a word's etymology, and probably had different pronunciations back in history. For example, the words fair and fare are pronounced identically today but have completely different origins:


gloss: visually beautiful, become clear and sunny, other meanings

from: ME fair, fager from OE faeger "clear"


gloss: "a transportation charge, food and drink, others

from: ME faren "to travel, go" from OE faran

(ME = Middle English, a period from about 1066 to the 1400s)
(OE = Old English, from AD 400 to 1066)

Here's another example:


gloss: two corresponding things designed for use together

from: ME paire from OF from Latin paria "equal things"


gloss: to trim off an outside, excess, or irregular part of

from: ME from MF parer "to prepare or trim" from Latin parare "to prepare"

(MF = Middle French, from approx. 1400 - 1611)
(OF = Old French, from approx. AD 842 - 1400)

By the way, the etymologies of words also help to explain spelling. For example, the silent letters and in the word knife were pronounced at one point in history but were lost over time. We'll look at historical linguistics in an upcoming module.

B. hyponyms

We can say that word X is a hyponym of word Y if in all possible scenarios, X's set is always contained in (is always a subject of) Y's set. Koa, oak, and cedar as well as wood are hyponyms of tree.

Consider the words poodle and dog. Suppose that the current set of poodles includes Princess. The current set of dogs will then include at least this dog and possible others as well (such as Buttercup the Rottweiler and Killer the Chihuahua.) Dog is a hyponym of animal; poodle is a hyponym of dog.


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