Meaning in language – semantics vs pragmatics

When we communicate, the most important thing our words seem to convey is a meaning of some sort. It's quite easy for us to intuitively understand what words such as dog 🐕 or cat 🐈 mean. But for a linguist, it's a whole different story.

We usually divide meaning into two, in my opinion artificial, categories: semantics and pragmatics. Semantic meaning is the meaning of a word without it's context. A definition one might find in a dictionary, for example. This means that a sentence "I love ice cream" only means that the person in question loves ice cream. 🍨 A pragmatic meaning of the same sentence might be "Let's go and have ice cream". Pragmatics is meaning in its context, and furthermore it studies how more information is conveyed than what is actually said. While the semantic meaning of a sentence might be just a statement, it's pragmatic meaning might be imperative, like in the previous example. 😮


What characterizes the study of semantics is semantic ontologies. These are networks of words based on their meaning. For example, animal is the hypernym of dog which then again is a hyponym of animal. This is a way of grouping words into super and subcategories semantically. Another closely related concept is meronymy. Meronyms are parts of a whole, such as fingers are meronyms of hand. 🤚

Other ways of categorizing words semantically are synonyms which means words that mean the same thing such as handsome and good-looking. The opposite of this are antonyms that are words of opposite meanings such as good and bad.

An interesting and often misunderstood concept in the field of semantics is polysemy. This simply means that a word has multiple meanings. For example bank might refer to an institution that stores people's money or to a bordering region of a river. Why polysemy is misunderstood is because it's often confused with homonymy. In the case of homonymy, we are not talking about one single word that has multiple meanings but two different words that look alike but mean a different thing. The way of knowing that the words are different is that they behave differently, their inflection might be different or they might be of different part-of-speech. A good example of this is can which can be a verb or a noun.


Ah, pragmatics, this is where things get interesting. Both my BA thesis and MA thesis were related to this phenomenon even though their themes were completely different: T/V-distinction and sarcasm respectively. Pragmatics is definitely a wide field to do research in, and here I am only scratching the surface of it.

You see, some words are just difficult to define in terms of semantics. Like how would you define words such as I or you? Their meaning seems to depend heavily on the context; your I is different to my I. In pragmatics, we call these deictic expressions (or deixis). This means that they "point" to something that depends on the context they are uttered in. When I say I, it points to me and when you say it, it points to you. ☝️

Words such as you and I are personal deixis, but they are not the only kinds of deictic expressions. Spatial deixis refers to words such as here and there. Temporal deixis means expressions of time, such as today or tomorrow. Social deixis can be used to point out social status such as calling someone sir.

It's important to note that pragmatic meaning doesn't limit to deixis, but that all the words, all the utterances we say, have a pragmatic meaning. We might communicate indirectly such as in the example in the beginning of this post. In pragmatics, if we speak directly, we call it on record. And if the communication is indirect, it's off record.


This was just an introduction to the topic. And I'm quite sure I will talk about pragmatics more in the future posts. But in the meantime 👋🏻👋🏻.

P.S you might find my post about meaning in the brain useful too.