Cognitive Linguistics
This page is part of the ongoing
Encyclopaedic Meaning project
Ideas from cognitive grammar
Immediate scope
Scope of predication
Dictionary meaning
Encyclopaedic meaning
Frame semantics
Frame evocation
Semantic frame
Mental space theory
Structural semantics
Windowing of attention

Cognitive linguists often refer to the traditional types of semantics as Structural semantics even though some of them might not be based on Structuralism as such. Cognitive linguists, and many other functionally oriented linguists, have criticized structural semantics for being insufficient and idealistic.


Traditional semantics is often labeled objectivist, and it is argued that, in accordance with the Aristotelian model of categorization, its basic assumption is that meaning refers directly to, or denotes objects and relations in the exterior world.

Semantic features[]

In the approaches labelled "Structural semantics" by cognitive linguists, word meanings, or lexical meanings can be broken down into atomic semantic features, which are in a way the distinctive properties of the meaning of a word.

In accordance with the objectivist bias of structural semantics, semantic features are believed to refer to actual properties, objects or relations in the expterior world.

Some simplified examples of semantic features are (Croft and Cruse 2004: 8, 76):

   Concept           Semantic features
   *MAN              [MALE], [ADULT], [HUMAN]
   *BOY              [MALE], [YOUNG], [HUMAN]
   *WOMAN            [FEMALE], [ADULT], [HUMAN]
   *GIRL             [FEMALE], [YOUNG], [HUMAN]
   *STALLION         [MALE], [ADULT], [EQUINE]
   *MARE             [FEMALE], [ADULT], [EQUINE]
   *FILLY            [YOUNG], [EQUINE]

Each of the concepts would be defined by, or indeed consist, of those semantic features.

Structural relations based on semantic features[]

Word concepts are related to each other by structural lexical relations like synonymy and antonymy. These relations are often attributed to the relations between the semantic features.


In the framework of structural semantics, synonymy is when two or more words share all semantic features:

Form     Walk                                Perambulate
Features MOTION              =              MOTION 
         BY FOOT             =              BY FOOT 
         SELF-PROPELLED      =              SELF-PROPELLED
         MED. VELOCITY       =              MED. VELOCITY
Form     Girl                                Lass
Features FEMALE              =              FEMALE 
         YOUNG               =              YOUNG
         HUMAN               =              HUMAN


In the framework of structural semantics, antonomy is when two or more semantic features of two words are opposite each other:

Form     Walk                                Run
Features MOTION              =              MOTION 
         BY FOOT             =              BY FOOT 
         SELF-PROPELLED      =              SELF-PROPELLED
         MED. VELOCITY       ≠             HIGH VELOCITY
Form     Girl                                Boy
Features FEMALE              ≠              MALE 
         YOUNG               =              YOUNG
         HUMAN               =              HUMAN

Symmetry of structural relations[]

As seen above, relations defined by semantic features, such as sysonymy and antonymy, are presented as totally symmetric in structuralist semantics.

Problems in structuralist semantics[]

Many linguists, such as Fillmore (1982) have pointed out phenomena that present severe problems to the structuralist approach to lexical (and other areas of) semantics.

Asymmetric antonymy[]

Fillmore observes a number of cases where additional connotative facts appear to influence words that are normally considered antonymous such that the relation of anotonymy is asymmetric and more complicated than presented in structuralist semantics.

For example in the boy vs. girl case, it is argued that their semantics involve not only the biological properties captured by the semantic features, but also sociocultural connotative influences. Fillmore points at observations of English in which boy and girl are used differently, reflecting underlying cultural gender attitudes. The difference is that speakers generally stop referring to males as boys at a much younger age than when they stop using girl for females.

Another observation is that certain adjectives, such as the ones expressing vertical extent of entities, differ in terms of antonymy in accordance with the nature of the entity they modify. For example tall and short are anotonyms if the entity is a human, whereas low is antonymous of tall if the entity is a building. In relations to scales that have bottom baselines, the antonymous pair is high vs. low. Again, it seems that additional connotative meaning influences the understanding and use of certain words.

Complex synonymy[]

As with antonymy, Fillmore presents some cases in which synonymy appears to be much more complex than presented in structuralist semantics - again due to connotative factors.

For example, shore and coast would be total synonyms in structuralist semantics because they refer to the same entity in the exterior world, thus sharing all semantic features. There is, however, an important difference - namely, perspective. Shore refers to the LAND BORDERING A LARGE BODY OF WATER AS SEEN IN THE PERSPECTIVE OF THE SEA, while coast refers to the LAND BORDERING A LARGE BODY OF WATER AS SEEN IN THE PERSPECTIVE OF THE INLAND. Thus additional non-denotative meaning actually makes the two words differ in semantics.

A similar case is land and ground which both refer to the DRY SURFACE OF THE EARTH and would share all semantic features, but again perspective causes them to actually differ semantically. Land refers to the DRY SURFACE OF THE EARTH AS SEEN IN THE PERSPECTIVE OF THE SEA, whereas ground refers to the DRY SURFACE OF THE EARTH AS SEEN IN THE PERSPECTIVE OF THE AIR.

Relation that have nothing to do with semantic features[]

Some word concepts are related in ways that cannot be explained in terms of semantic features. They are related because they are parts of the same experiences.

CUSTOMER, MENU, WAITER, ORDERING, EATING, BILL etc. are related each other and to RESTAURANT, because they are all part of our experience of GOING TO A RESTAURANT. TICKET, CHECK-IN, LUGGAGE, BOARDING PASS, PILOT, STEWARDESS, etc. are all related to each other and to AIR TRAVEL, because they are all part of our experience of TRAVELLING BY AEROPLANE. SELL, BUY, PAY, COST, SELLER, MONEY, GOODS etc. are all related to each other and to the event of COMMERCIAL TRANSACTION, because they are all part of our experience of engaging in COMMERCIAL TRANSACTION.

Encyclopaedic meaning[]

Pointing to such observations, cognitive linguists and other functionally oriented linguists argue that the understanding of words and other linguistic signs involves social and cultural and general information about the world (based on our experiences in it and interactions with it) – information which the semantic features do not account for. Without access to this connotative information, or encyclopaedic meaning of language, which part of encyclopaedic knowledge, one would not understand those signs properly.

Arguing that structural semantics fails in capturing the way language really works, cognitive linguists propose theories of semantics based on encyclopaedic knowledge rather than semantic features, such as frame semantics, scope of predication, and windowing of attention.


  • Croft, William A. & D.A. Cruse (2004). Cognitive Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Fillmore, Charles J. (1982). "Frame semantics". In The Linguistic Society of Korea, eds. Linguistics in the Morning Calm. Seoul: Hanshin. 111-37.
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