31131 - Semantics (LM)

Course Unit Page

Academic Year 2020/2021

Learning outcomes

The course is an introduction to the study of meaning in language, and how meaning is encoded in constructions belonging to different structural levels (morphology, syntax, discourse). The course focuses on the following aspects: lexical semantics; grammatical semantics; meaning representation; meaning, cognition and categorization; meaning and variation. Students will become familiar with the main theoretical models within the field, as well as with research methods and tools (including computational ones) for the collection and analysis of linguistic data, from both an intra-linguistic and a cross-linguistic perspective.

Course contents

Module 1 (prof. Francesca Masini)

The course is an introduction to the study of meaning in natural language and to the ways in which meaning is "packaged" in linguistic constructions that belongs to different structural levels (morphology, syntax, discourse). The following general questions will be tackled:

  • What is meaning? What is the difference between denotation and connotation, sense and reference, meaning and encyclopedic knowledge?
  • What kinds of semantic relations do we have? And how can we account for sense extensions and figurative language?
  • What is the difference between lexical semantics and grammatical semantics? What kinds of meanings are conveyed by lexical items, and what are conveyed by morphological, syntactic and discourse structures?
  • What is the relation between meaning and cognition, between language and thought?
  • How do we represent meaning? Which are the main relevant theoretical models?
  • How does the "packaging" of meaning vary across different languages?

After a general overview, we will focus on two topics: (i) the interaction between semantics and word classes (or parts of speech), in particular verbs; (ii) the competition between forms in the expression of meaning and on the notion of semiotic ecology, in both a theoretical and a typological perspective. During the course, we will introduce some tools and computational resources for the investigation of meaning.

Module 2 (prof. Simone Mattiola)

In this second part of the course we tackle the issue of cross-linguistic variation in the coding of meaning and of the representation of this variation by the tool of semantic maps. We also focus on the problems typologists face when they address "unconventional" phenomena (such as "lists") which are scarcely represented in traditional grammars, like list constructions.

NOTA BENE – This is an advanced course in linguistics. A basic knowledge of general linguistics is required. Students who have no prior knowledge of the field are strongly advised to study an introductory linguistics textbook before the classes start (e.g. Graffi & Scalise 2013 or Berruto & Cerruti 2011).



  • Nick Riemer (2010). Introducing Semantics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press [all except chapters 4 and 6].


Further readings on specific topics will be given during classes. All materials used during the course (slides, articles, etc.) are part of the readings for the oral exam for students who attend classes.

Extra readings for students who do not attend classes

Teaching methods

All topics will be discussed with reference to data from different languages. An introduction to IT tools for the collection and analysis of relevant linguistic data will also be offered.
In addition to traditional lectures, students will be involved in lab/group activities (reading and discussion, analysis of linguistic data).

NOTA BENE – The first part of the course will be taught online via Teams. Later, we will move to face-to-face lessons. Students will be informed in due time.

Assessment methods

The final oral exam aims at assessing the theoretical notions acquired by the students during the course, as well as their ability to tackle with specific questions and to analyze concrete cases of linguistic analysis. For students who attend classes, the teacher will also take into account their work during classes (seminars and lab/group activities) in determining the final grade. Students who don't attend classes should instead study the extra readings listed in the bibliography. All students are kindly requested to inform the teacher about their attending classes or not at the beginning of the course.

As for the assessment, the ability of the students to give clearly expressed, correct and complete answers will be considered. Besides, clarity and argumentative rigor will be evaluated. Those students who demonstrate to have a global and harmonious knowledge of the subject and its specific language/terminology, to communicate ideas in a proper and clear way and to have acquired adequate analysis skills will get high grades. A partial knowledge of the subject and its specific language/terminology, an overall fair but not perfect way of communicating, and less refined analysis skills imply average grades. A limited knowledge of the subject and its specific language/terminology and poor communication and analysis skills imply low grades. Those students who prove to have an inadequate and/or insufficient knowledge of the subject (in both its theoretical and applied parts) and its specific language/terminology will fail the exam.

Teaching tools

PowerPoint presentations and/or printed handouts will support the lectures. Computational tools and web resources for data analysis will also be displayed through a projector.

All materials will be published online every week and are part of the readings for the oral exam for students who attend classes.

Office hours

See the website of Francesca Masini

See the website of Simone Mattiola