Basic Semantic Concepts (Part 1 of Biblical Language Linguistics)

April 8, 2022 // The Biblical Languages Podcast


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In this episode of the Biblical Languages Podcast, Kevin Grasso shares six core concepts that are essential for doing the task of semantics.


There are many different ways to do semantics and different schools of thought on how to analyze meaning. The longest tradition of doing semantics comes from philosophy and mathematics. An important early modern mathematician in this tradition is Gottlob Frege, who applied mathematical principles to language in a new way in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Many discussions in formal semantics, which seeks to use mathematical tools to analyze language, begin with Frege who made enormous contributions in this area, and many of the ideas we will discuss today have their roots in his work.
Task of semantics: “It is the task of semantics to describe all those features of the meaning of utterances of linguistic expressions which stay invariable in whatever context these expressions may be used. This invariable element we may call the meaning proper of a linguistic expression.” (Kratzer 1977:337)
Example sentence: The bear escaped from the zoo.

Six Core Concepts

  1. Functional vs. lexical morphemes
  2. Compositionality
  3. Entailment vs. Implicature
  4. Meaning vs. use
  5. Sense vs. reference
  6. Truth-conditions

Functional vs. Lexical Morphemes

Functional morpheme - A meaningful grammatical element that usually has a logical meaning (examples are italicized).
Lexical morpheme - A meaningful lexical element that usually has an abstract meaning with at least some elements that cannot be logically represented (examples are underlined).
The bear escaped from the zoo.
Languages have a limited set of functional morphemes, but a potentially unlimited number of lexical morphemes.
The task of lexical semantics deals with lexical morphemes, whereas the task of formal semantics deals functional morphemes.
We should approach lexical morphemes differently than functional morphemes. Wittgenstein famously argued that we could not come up with a precise definition of game, since there were some things that may or may not be considered a game. Lexical morphemes are notorious for having these kinds of meanings. Many have fuzzy boundaries. However, functional morphemes are different. The tools we use to analyze a morpheme like the -ed past tense suffix are different than those we would use to analyze a word like escape. The past tense suffix we can define simply as a temporal relationship between two intervals. We usually say that the event occurred before the present moment, for example. This is the kind of meaning that we can provide a logical representation for.


"Anything that deserves to be called a language must contain meaningful expressions built up from other meaningful expressions. How are their complexity and meaning related? The traditional view is that the relationship is fairly tight: the meaning of a complex expression is fully determined by its structure and the meanings of its constituents—once we fix what the parts mean and how they are put together we have no more leeway regarding the meaning of the whole. This is the principle of compositionality, a fundamental presupposition of most contemporary work in semantics." (Szabó 2020)
Our understanding of a sentence is dependent upon the meaning of each of the components and how they combine, but we usually do not actively think about the contribution of each component. This allows us to combine words into novel sentences and still be understood.
Compositionality may occur at the level of the morpheme, word, or phrase (as in idioms).
  1. To analyze one morpheme, you need to know the meaning of other, surrounding morphemes.

    Example: The bear escaped from the zoo vs. The bear escaped from the zoos

  2. How morphemes combine, or where they are in the sentence) may affect how we interpret them.

    Example: Quick, the bear escaped from the zoo! vs. The bear escaped from the zoo quick!

Entailment vs. Implicature

Entailment - An inference that necessarily holds given the truth of a statement.
Implicature - An inference made based on the specific context in which the statement is made, but which may be cancelled.
  1. The bear escaped from the zoo entails:
    • The bear escaped
    • An animal escaped from the zoo
    • The bear moved
    • The bear was in the zoo
    • etc.

  2. As an answer to the question What escaped from the zoo? the utterance The bear escaped from the zoo implicates that a lion did not escape from the zoo, for example, even though the statement The bear escaped from the zoo does not entail that the lion did not escape.
Meanings can be invariable and necessary (semantics) or variable and cancellable (pragmatics). Both meanings are real, but implicated meaning is context-dependent.

Meaning vs. Use

Meaning - The specific contribution of a morpheme to the interpretation of any utterance (its entailments)
Use - The interpretation of a morpheme in a specific context (its entailments plus its potential implicatures)
  1. The word escape entails something moved locations. This is its meaning.

  2. Some uses of escape have an inference of moving quickly away from a location, but this does not always hold. For example:
    • Inference of quick movement: The bear was too fast for the zookeepers. He escaped from the zoo.
    • No inference of quick movement: The bear's cage was not shut properly. Even though he was an old bear that moved slowly, he escaped from the zoo.
Harder problem: does the past tense morpheme in English always entail that an event occurred in the past? If the bear escaped from the zoo, we would have heard reports about it (no entailment of the event having occurred).

Sense vs. Reference

Sense - The thought expressed by the word which does not depend on the context. The means by which a word refers to something in the world.
Reference - "What the speaker intends to refer to, or pick out, through the use of that expression...reference will be partly determined by contextual factors." (Birner 2012:111)
  1. Words may have different senses but refer to the same entity or event: The bear escaped from the zoo vs. The bear ran away from the zoo vs. The large black furry, carnivorous animal escaped from the zoo, etc.
  2. Words may have a sense but no reference: The dinosaur escaped from the zoo.


"To know the meaning of a sentence is to know its truth-conditions. If I say to you There is a bag of potatoes in my pantry you may now know whether what I said is true. What you do know, however, is what the world would have to be like for it to be true. There has to be a bag of potatoes in my pantry." (Heim and Kratzer 1998:1)
The key word here is that we are describing the meaning of a sentence. While knowing the meaning of a particular morpheme can be described as knowing its particular contribution to any context, an entire sentence is different in that all the morphemes have combined to form a complete thought. We do not usually parse out the meaning of each individual morpheme in communication, but we look at complete thoughts and try to determine whether the thought corresponds to what we know to be true in the world or not.
This also allows us to understand novel sentences. In order to successfully communicate with someone, they have to understand what the world would have to be like in order to make your statement true. There may be more meaning in a statement (for example, implicatures may be present), but at the most basic level, they have to be able to pair the words with the appropriate world in order to accurately say they know what the sentence means.
There is more to sentence-meaning than truth conditions, and although there is currently a lot of debate and nuance about this notion in the linguistics literature, it is still an essential concept to understand when doing semantics.


There are many different issues in semantics and many topics that we could have covered to introduce the field. To recap, we focused our attention on the following:
  1. Functional vs. lexical morphemes
  2. Compositionality
  3. Entailment vs. implicature
  4. Meaning vs. use
  5. Sense vs. reference
  6. Truth-conditions
These were chosen not necessarily because they are the most discussed concepts in semantics, but because they help us to do semantics. As we discussed in the beginning of the episode, Angelika Kratzer gives us a good description of what semanticists do: they attempt to describe the invariable meaning of a morpheme. In other words, they try to give the morpheme's contribution to the context.
Each concept we discussed helps us to accomplish this task. In order to determine a morpheme's meaningful contribution, we should first know what kind of meaning it encodes, whether a logical meaning in a functional morpheme or a more abstract meaning in a lexical item. We should also have a theory about how the morpheme interacts with other morphemes in the context, or how the morpheme combines compositionally with other morphemes. Next we should look at the kinds of inferences that arise from the morpheme to determine whether they are entailed or just implicated by the morpheme. This allows us to separate out a morpheme's uses, its particular interpretation in a given context, from its meaning, its entailed contribution to any context. A morpheme's meaning, or meanings, can be described as its sense, or senses, since it is the way in which something is referred to in the real world. And finally, morphemes combine to form sentences, and we can describe the meaning of a whole sentence as its truth-conditions. We know the meaning of a sentence when we know what the world would have to be like in order to say the sentence is true.
With these concepts, we can begin to do semantics. In other words, we can take a morpheme and try to figure out what it means.

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The Biblical Languages Podcast hosts discussions and interviews related to learning the biblical languages and issues relevant to biblical exegesis. Episodes cover topics in 4 major categories: language acquisition, linguistics, cultural backgrounds, and exegesis.

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