Semantic relations (meaning relations)

In the narrow sense are semantic relations relations between concepts or meanings.

The concept [school] should be distinguished from the word ‘school’. [School] is a kind of [educational institution]. This indicates a hierarchical (or generic) relationship between two concepts or meanings, which is one kind among a long range of kinds of semantic relations.


The concept [School] may, for example, be expressed by the terms or expressions ‘school’, ‘schoolhouse’ and ‘place for teaching’. The relation between ‘school’ and ‘schoolhouse’ is a (synonym) relation between two words, while the relation between ‘school’ and ‘place for teaching’ is a relation between a word and an expression or phrase. The relations between words are termed lexical relations. 'School' also means [a group of people who share common characteristics of outlook, a school of thought]. This is a homonym relation: Two senses share the same word or expression: ‘school’.  Synonyms and homonyms are not relations between concepts, but are about concepts expressed with identical or with different signs.


Relations between concepts, senses or meanings should not be confused with relations between the terms, words, expressions or signs that are used to express the concepts. It is, however, common to mix both of these kinds of relations under the heading "semantic relations" (i.e., Cruse, 1986; Lyons, 1977; Malmkjær, 1995 & Murphy, 2003), why synonyms, homonyms etc. are considered under the label "semantic relations" in in a broader meaning of this term.



Some important kinds of semantic relations are:


How many kinds of semantic relations exist?

Is the number of semantic relations finite or infinite? What determines this number? In the quotation below (Rosario & Hearst, 2001) it is stated that there are contradictory views in theoretical linguistics regarding the semantic properties of noun compounds (NCs). Some argues that there exists a small set of semantic relationships that NCs may imply. Others argue that the semantics of NCs cannot be exhausted by any finite listing of relationships. Green (2001, p. 5-6) argues that the inventory of semantic relationships includes both a closed set of relationships (including mainly hierarchical and equivalence relationships) and an open set of relationships. Every time a new verb is coined, for example, the potential for the introduction of a new conceptual relationship arises.

    The answer is propably that any relation between objects (or processes or anything else) may be reflected in languages between the corresponding concepts. "Love" is a relation between some people, e.g. Tom and Clare. 'Tom' and 'Clare' are thus (individual) concepts with the semantic relation 'love'.

    In addition to relations in the world, semantic relations may reflect relations in language including relations between objects and their symbols (as in synonyms). The limit to the number of semantic relations seems to be  relations that nobody have found interesting to conceptualize. Different domains develop  continuously new kinds of semantic relations. Rosario & Hearst (2001) thus identified 38 semantic relations within medicine.

"In this work we aim for a representation that is intermediate in generality between standard case roles (such as Agent, Patient, Topic, Instrument), and the specificity required for information extraction. We have created a set of relations that are sufficiently general to cover a significant number of noun compounds, but that can be domain specific enough to be useful in analysis. We want to support relationships between entities that are shown to be important in cognitive linguistics, in particular we intend to support the kinds of inferences that arise from Talmy’s force dynamics (Talmy, 1985). It has been shown that relations of this kind can be combined in order to determine the “directionality” of a sentence (e.g., whether or not a politician is in favor of, or opposed to, a proposal) (Hearst, 1990). In the medical domain this translates to, for example, mapping a sentence into a representation showing that a chemical removes an entity that is blocking the passage of a fluid through a channel. The problem remains of determining what the appropriate kinds of relations are. In theoretical linguistics, there are contradictory views regarding the semantic properties of noun compounds (NCs). Levi (1978) argues that there exists a small set of semantic relationships that NCs may imply. Downing (1977) argues that the semantics of NCs cannot be exhausted by any finite listing of relationships. Between these two extremes lies Warren’s (1978) taxonomy of six major semantic relations organized into a hierarchical structure.
    We have identified the 38 relations shown in Table 1 [omitted here]. We tried to produce relations that correspond to the linguistic theories such as those of Levi and Warren, but in many cases these are inappropriate. Levi’s classes are too general for our purposes; for example, she collapses the “location” and “time” relationships into one single class “In” and therefore field mouse and autumnal rain belong to the same class. Warren’s classification schema is much more detailed, and there is some overlap between the top levels of Warren’s hierarchy and our set of relations."
(Rosario & Hearst, 2001).

The most commonly used semantic relations have resemblance with lists of categories, for example, with Aristotle’s famous 10 categories:

  1. substance

  2. quantity

  3. qualification (quality)

  4. a relative (relation)

  5. where (place)

  6. when (time)

  7. being-in-a-position (position)

  8. having (state)

  9. doing , (action)

  10. being-affected (affection)

 They have also resemblance with commonly used grammatical categories. Such categories and grammatical relations represent abstractions or generalizations. The former example "love" may thus be seen as a special case of "being affected". Although the number of semantic relations appears to be unlimited, in most cases a limited number of generalized kinds are used in practice. 


How are semantic relations determined? (What are their "warrants")?

Hjørland (2007) discusses the following possibilities:


a) Query/situation specific or idiosyncratic 

b) Universal, Platonic entities/relations

c) “Deep semantics” common to all languages (or inherent in cognitive structures)

d) Specific to specific empirical languages (e.g. Swedish)

e) Domain or discourse specific

f) Other (e.g. determined by a company or by a workgroup, “user oriented”)


In information retrieval the basic functions for semantic relations may be conceived as contributing to the increase of recall and precision. The inclusion of synonyms and broader terms in a query may, for example, contribute to increased recall. The differentiation of homonyms and the specification of terms may increase precision. In this way may the widely use of standard semantic relations used in thesauri be explained functionally. There are, however, recommendations that the number of relations should be expanded: 

"The participants [in a NISO 1999 workshop on standards for electronic thesauri] recommended that a much richer, hierarchically organized, set of relationships be developed. . . . There is reason to expect that provision for semantic relations in controlled vocabularies will become much more extensive in a future standard . . ." (Milstead, 2001, p. 65).


How should we explain this demand for a much richer set of relationships than ordinarily used in, for example, thesauri? The answer may imply a criticism of the traditional recall/precision way of understanding information retrieval.  What information searchers need are maps that inform them about the world (and the literature about that world) in which they live and act. They need such maps in order to formulate questions in the first hand. In order to formulate queries and to interact with information sources are advanced semantic tools often very useful. This is propably especially so in the humanities, where concepts are more clearly associated with world views. In Germany the concept of conceptual history ("Begriffsgeschichte") is an illustration of this point: Historians and other humanist researchers have realized that in order to use sources from a given period, you have to know what the terms ment at the time. Therefore they have developed impressive historical dictionaries which provide detailed information about conceptual developments within different domains just as they have developed methodological principles on how to work with historical information sources (cf., Hampsher-Monk; Tilmans & Vree, 1998). 


An example of a semantic tool developed in this tradition is Reallexikon der deutschen Literaturwissenschaft (Weimar, 1997-2003), which provide the following information for each term:

This example is mentioned because it illustrates the existence of important work which may inspire LIS to a broader approach to semantic relations.

Not much research has investigated whether different domains need different kinds of semantic tools displaying different kinds of semantic relations. Roberts (1985) is an exception arguing for the importance for specific kinds of relations in the social sciences. Hjørland (2004) argued that "traditional standardized and universal tools like thesauri may perhaps be better suited for technological fields, while historical dictionaries in the tradition of Begriffsgeschichte may be better suited for the humanities."




Bean, C. A. & Green, R. (Eds.). (2001). Relationships in the organization of knowledge. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.


Green, R. (2001). Relationships in the organization of knowledge: An overview. IN: Bean, C. A. & Green, R. (Eds.). Relationships in the organization of knowledge. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers. (Pp. 3-18).


Green, R.; Bean, C. A. & Myaeng, S. H. (Eds.). (2002). The semantics of relationships. An interdisciplinary perspective. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers. 


Hampsher-Monk, I.; Tilmans, K. & Vree, F. van (Eds.). (1998). History of Concepts: Comparative Perspectives. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.


Hjørland, B. (2004). Theory of knowledge organization and the feasibility of universal solutions. At: Eighth International ISKO Conference London Friday July 16th 2004.


Hjørland, B. (2007). Semantics and Knowledge Organization. Annual Review of Information Science and Technology, 41, 367-405.


Löbner, S. (2002). A summary of “Meaning relations” (CH 5). IN: Understanding Semantics. London: Arnold Publishers.


Michel, D. (1997). Appendix B: Taxonomy of Subject Relationships. IN: ALA. American Library Association. ALCTS. Association for Library Collections & Technical Services. Final Report to the ALCTS/CCS Subject Analysis Committee. Subcommittee on Subject Relationships/Reference Structures.


Michel, D. (1999). Appendix B: Taxonomy of Subject Relationships. Part  1 (Direct link):


Part 2:


Milstead, J. L. (2001). Standards for relationships between subject indexing terms. IN: Bean, C. A. & Green, R. (Eds.). Relationships in the organization of knowledge. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers. (Pp. 53-66). 


Roberts, N. (1985). Concepts, structures and retrieval in the social sciences up to c. 1970. Social Science Information Studies, 5, 55­67.


Rosario, B. & Hearst, M. (2001). Classifying the semantic relations in noun compounds via a domain-specific lexical hierarchy. In: Proceedings of Conference on Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing; June 2001. p. 82-90.


Weimar, K. (Ed.). (1997-2003). Reallexikon der deutschen Literaturwissenschaft Band 1-3. 3. neubearb. Aufl. Berlin : Walter de Gruyter.


Wellisch, H. H. (1995). Indexing from A to Z. 2nd edition. New York: H. W. Wilson.


Wellisch, H. H. (2000). Glossary of terminology in abstracting, classification, indexing, and thesaurus construction. 2nd. ed. Medford :  Information Today, Inc.

WorldNet 2.0. A lexical database for the English language. Princeton: Princeton University, Cognitive Science Laboratory. Available at:





See also: Syndetic structure




Birger Hjørland

Last edited: 15-07-2007