Syntax & Semantics – Introduction


In order to talk about language at this level we need to make many distinctions that we did not overtly think about when studying grammar at school

First, we must note that languages are organized on two levels:
– level of expression’ in which the message is encoded

– level of content
this level encompasses both the organization of words into sentences and the meanings that are associated with those words

As linguists we need a comprehensive knowledge of both levels of organization, because language is abstract and messages can be encoded in either sounds or writing

Although the level of expression, in principle, extends to both written and sound systems, in practice, most attention is often focused on the expression of language in sound.

Hence, the study of the level of expression of sounds belongs to phonetics and phonology (which we will study next semester).

Study of the level of content is split between syntax and semantics.

Traditionally a third component, dealing with the structure of words, was also recognized ‘morphology’.

Syntax is the component of the grammar that deals with the system of rules and categories that underlie sentence formation in human language.

Like other linguistic systems, the syntactic component of the grammar is also both creative and systematic.

Speakers of a language can combine words in new ways to form sentences that they have never before heard or seen.

However, not all combination of words will give well-formed sentences.

For example:

*Copies made student a the

A student made the copies

English speakers recognize that the pattern in 1. is not permissible in English; however the same words arranged in a different order form an acceptable structure in 2.

A sentence is judged by speakers to be grammatical if they believe it to be a possible construction in their language.

The study of syntax focuses mainly on the ‘architecture’ of grammatical sentences, paying particular attention of the ways in which words are combined to form various sentences.

This analysis of the structure of sentences is traditionally known as ‘parsing’.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary:
– to resolve (a sentence etc.) into its component parts of speech and describe them grammatically.

In linguistics the ‘component parts’ of a sentence are called a ‘constituents’ and the whole procedure of analysis is known as ‘constituent structure analysis’.

As we said before, the domain of syntax involves the study of how different components join to form larger units.

Yet, there is more to language than just form.

In order for language to fulfill its most crucial function — communication, utterances must also convey a meaning.

The branch of linguistics that focuses on meaning is semantics.

Long before linguistics existed as a discipline, thinkers were speculating about the nature of meaning.

Contributions to semantics have come from a diverse group of scholars ranging from Plato and Aristotle to twentieth century scholars.

Semantics is sometimes problematic as it is quite difficult to determine precisely what ‘meaning’ is.

Despite many centuries of study, we still know very little about the nature of meaning or how it is represented in the human mind.

Even with all its constraints and difficulties, the study of language is different and exciting.

Of course, no complete grammar of any language as yet been written.

Even the enormous amount of work done on the syntax of English, has not solved all problems of English; instead it has only served to increase the number of complexities that need to be investigated.

Thus, people (like us) with little training in linguistics can find much to occupy our attention.

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By azu