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Italian Semantics

What Does It Mean?


Within the prism of languages, we've seen the facets of sounds (phonology), transformations (morphology) and rules (syntax). However, the most important function of language is to convey meaning, a task which is studied by semantics. Gennaro Chierchia, author of the book "Semantica," has this to say of semantics: "Expressions in our language 'mean' something and this allows us to communicate. The object of [semantics] is to understand how this happens."

The first, and possibly most important, distinction within the field of semantics is between connotative and denotative meaning. There are three ways of defining and distinguishing the two. First, denotation is the direct or explicit meaning of a word while connotation is ideas associated with it or suggested by it. For example, dog has a denotative meaning of "domestic canine" and connotative meanings of "ugly" or "aggressive."

The second definition of denotation is what a word normally elicits for most speakers of a particular language, whereas connotation describes what a term calls to mind for an individual because of personal experience. The word house, for instance, conjures a picture of the structure itself (denotative meaning) in the mind of any native speaker. However, one person may think of warmth and comfort (connotative meanings) when he or she hears the word house because of positive memories the word draws out. While different associations enrich a language, they can also lead to difficulties. Because many words (especially adjectives) elicit different sensations for different speakers, there is an added layer of difficulty in translating these words. Take, for example, the many different degrees of the word sad—down, blue, gloomy, miserable, depressed, distressed, to name a few. Trying to carry into another language the various associations people have with them may cause distorted or even lost meaning.

The final distinguishing characteristic between denotative and connotative meaning is history. Denotative definitions refer to the historical meaning of a word. For example, in Latin the word vulgar meant "commonplace"; this is its denotative meaning. Over time, the negative associations (connotative meanings) of the term prospered and replaced the original meaning. Today almost no one uses vulgar in any context other than "gross" or "inappropriate." We are able to track the history of vulgar due to the work of a popular branch of linguistics called etymology, which traces the history of linguistic forms (the bits such as prefixes, suffixes and words).

When discussing Italian morphology, I explained the lexicon and its storage functions. Morphemes were described as the smallest linguistic units that carry semantic meaning. In some instances the morpheme is a free morpheme (one that can stand on its own, such as the word problema) or root word. From this base, morphological rules work to create other forms such as the plural problemi. However, roots are not always immediately obvious. For example, the root of vado is and- (from andare). In this case, the morpheme is a bound morpheme (one that cannot stand on its own). While at first glance it may seem that developing an entirely new lexicon for a foreign language will overload your brain (even with the morphological shortcuts I suggested), there are others you can use to help minimize the amount of information you store in your new lexicon. These shortcuts appear in the form of cognates.

Cognates (or parole simili) are words that have a common origin and therefore similar meanings such as the English problem and Italian problema. Through etymology we see that many languages are related and are therefore likely to share meanings. For example, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, French and Romanian are all sister languages in the Romance family as descendants of Latin. Latin, in turn, is a descendant of Indo-European, an ancient language family whose daughter groups also include English. By recognizing foreign words which look similar to ones in your native language, you can learn to anticipate their definitions without having to memorize their meanings separately. Always relying on similar words having identical definitions, though, has its pitfalls. There are some tricksters known as "false cognates" or "false friends." These are words which look as though they should have identical definitions but do not. For example, the Italian word parenti means "relatives," not "parents," the anticipated definition.

Certainly the best incentive to learning a foreign language is to be able to express thoughts with others. It expands the human experience to be able to communicate with someone in his own language. What joy to be able to order something as simple as a panino in Italian from your favorite café in Italy!

About the Author: Britten Milliman is a native of Rockland County, New York, whose interest in foreign languages began at age three, when her cousin introduced her to Spanish. Her interest in linguistics and languages from around the globe runs deep but Italian and the people who speak it hold a special place in her heart.

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