Formal Semantics

Formal semantics is an approach to SEMANTICS1, the study of meaning, with roots in logic, the philosophy of language, and linguistics, and since the 1980’s a core area of linguistic theory. Characteristics of formal semantics to be treated in this article include the following: Formal semanticists treat meaning as mind-independent (though abstract), contrasting with the view of meanings as concepts “in the head” (see I-LANGUAGE AND E-LANGUAGE and MEANING EXTERNALISM AND INTERNALISM); formal semanticists distinguish semantics from knowledge of semantics (Lewis 1975, Cresswell 1978), which has consequences for the notion of semantic COMPETENCE. A central part of the meaning of a sentence on this approach is its TRUTH CONDITIONS, and most although not all formal semantics is model-theoretic, relating linguistic expressions to model-theoretically constructed semantic values cast in terms of truth, REFERENCE, and possible worlds. This sets formal semantics apart from approaches which view semantics as relating a sentence just to a representation on another linguistic “level” (LOGICAL FORM) or a representation in an innate LANGUAGE OF THOUGHT. The formal semanticist could accept such representations as an aspect of semantics but would insist on asking what the model-theoretic semantic interpretation of the given representationlanguage is (Lewis 1970). Formal semantics is centrally concerned with COMPOSITIONALITY at the SYNTAX-SEMANTICS INTERFACE, how the meanings of larger constituents are built up from the meanings of their parts on the basis of their syntactic structure, and with the relation between compositional SENTENCE MEANING and meaning in discourse
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