Semantics vs pragmatics


Semantics and pragmatics are two fields of linguistics. Both of them concern with study of meaning of humans speech signs. However, each of which tackles meaning from a different angle. Semantics pays attention to the literal meaning of words ( dictionary meaning), whereas pragmatics concerns with the intended meaning of an utterance ( what does the speaker mean?). For instance, when someone says " it is cold here" , semanticist will explain the meaning of each lexeme as it is in a dictionary; pragmatist will explain it by saying the speaker wants you to turn on the heater.

Although the difference between the two disciplines sounds easy, it is very complicated practically. Due to the overlapping between them , there is no clear cut boundaries separate the two areas. In this article , we will pin point the main differences between semantics and pragmatics.

What is semantics?

" I see semantics as one branch of linguistics, which is the study of language: as an area of study parallel to , and interacting with, those of syntax and phonology, which deal respectively with the formal patterns of language, and the way which these are translated into sounds. While syntax and phonology study the structure of expressive possibilities in

language, semantics studies the meaning can be expressed" (Leech.1981). A major branch of linguistics devoted to the study of meaning in language (Crystal, 2008).

What is pragmatics?

According to Crystal (1985) “Pragmatics is the study of the aspects of meaning and language use that are dependent on the speaker, the addressee and other features of the context of utterance”. It is hard to find a satisfactory definition of the term pragmatics because of its, somehow, modernity and ramifications.Therefor, Levinson, in his book Pragmatics, mentioned more than eight definitions of pragmatics.

Borderline between semantics and pragmatics

Actually, the distinctions between semantics and pragmatics are streaks or thin lines; we can set out these lines by tracing the historical origin, components, theory, and methodology of each of them.

Traditionally, before pragmatics , the study of " semiotics" , the study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation, was a job of semantics and syntax. However, they failed in some explanation of meaning or they could not find suitable interpretations for some utterances. Therefore, there were some data without scientific descriptions. In 1938, Morris distinguished three distinct branches of inquiry: syntactics (or syntax), being the study of "the formal relation of signs to one another ", semantics, the study of "the relations of signs to the objects to which the signs are applicable" , and pragmatics, the study of "the relation of signs to interpreters". After Morris' distinction, the abandoned data were belonged to pragmatics.

Thus, the first line to differentiate semantics from pragmatics is that all those data which do not capture by semantics theory go to pragmatics.

Under a component view,semantics and pragmatics are complementary to one another in the study of meaning.However, semantics , due to its dealing with truth-conditional aspect of language , is less comprehensive than pragmatics. Therefore, pragmatics has been defined as meaning minus truth-conditions. Thus, aspects of an utterance that can be described either true or false will be under the tent of semantics, others will be belonged to pragmatics. For example , the following sentences describe a 25 years old male.

- He is a man. it is true, thus it belongs to semantics

but if we say

- He is a child. it is false , thus it belongs to pragmatics

Therefore, the second line between semantics and pragmatics is the truth- conditions.

Semantics is always restricted to decontextualized analyses of words or sentences meaning. Whereas pragmatics takes into account the impact of the context on the analyses of utterance meaning.For example , I am hungry , semantically means that feeling when someone does not eat for a certain period of time; pragmatically, depending on the context, means can we postpone the meeting? , let's go to a restaurant, or I could not understand your speech ...etc. Accordingly, we can describe pragmatics as a functional linguistic area i.e, it describes the language use ( performance ), while semantics is a formal linguistic area ( competence).

The verb to mean, in semantics, is interpreted as what does X mean? Whereas , in pragmatics , is interpreted as what do you mean by X?