Modern day ontology is a highly applied field and can be used to develop taxonomic systems, for example medical classifications of diseases, catalogues of financial concepts, etc.

I think it is generally parked / classified together with “information science”. But that kind of semi-formal ontology (not a looser, more philosophical or metaphysical kind) strikes me as a superset of semantics.

“Language” as we know it appears to be something like a set of messages. I am thinking of a Wittgensteinian language game where a language could just be different grunts understood to refer to different commands for building a house. The diversity of features and ways language can be, seems to come from compositionality more than anything, the ability to put things together and call it its own thing.

Ultimately, your language is some composition of some primitive elements, but the concept of a primitive has its own difficulties, since if there is a way to express it as composite, for example, the color orange not as a qualia but as the composition of yellow and red, then it ceases to be a primitive. On the other hand, if a primitive is truly primitive and has no further inner information or structure, it seems to me like it can’t contain any information at all - “whereof one cannot speak therefore must one be silent”. By definition, a primitive element in some system purported to enable ‘meaning’, the ability to ‘mean’, can’t have any meaning to begin with, otherwise it’s not a primitive.

This makes me think of language as fully “intensional” - the meaning of things comes as the relationship some element in a system has to all the other elements in that system. I think this is very Saussure / structuralism, but I’m not sure. It’s also a very mathematical viewpoint.

If language is actually a fully intensional system, where whatever we think of as an extension (a real world referent from signifier to signified) is actually an intension as well, human language at least appears to have the hierarchy:

  1. Messages / meanings (semantics, discourse, language of thought)
  2. The pieces of those meanings are also meanings (compositionality, semantics, syntax)
  3. Those pieces are made of smaller pieces (phonology)

In some ways I think you can descend forever, as long as the next layer of the system uses compositionality to represent the elements on the level above it. Thus, there are say, trillions of possible “meanings”, but the whole system could be broken down into very few pieces, like just binary: 0100010110100010 - that could be the lowest level message, in a 738-levels high compositional system.

I think ontology is the level in the hierarchy above semantics. Syntax is kind of subservient to semantics: sometimes people say linguistic meaning is a particular structure in the mind which doesn’t have the sequential aspect of a spoken sentence - a sentence gets parsed/unraveled into a different type of structure - syntax is the temporary linearization of though, like JSON is the serialization of programming objects.

So, syntax takes elements from semantics in a way, and composes them. Similarly, semantics takes components from ontologies. Ontologies are like meta-semantics, they explore variations in how the whole system of meaning could be, and there are various options.

So, is ontology ultimately a field of linguistics?

  • 1
    It features in a lot of areas, like lexical semantics and ethnography and computational linguistics, but it's more a case of classifying what characteristics are prominent or missing in a culture's presupposed ontology. Here's a sample ontology for English verbs of cutting, from an undergraduate semantics class.
    – jlawler
    Jul 15 at 16:30
  • 3
    Ontology is a branch of philosophy. Syntax does not take elements from anything. Syntax is the form of some combination of elements in language. As for language being composition of primitive elements, they just sounds very iffy. Language can be many different things...
    – Lambie
    Oct 30 at 16:30
  • correx: a composition of primitive elements. And that just sounds iff. Also, what are primitive elements anyway?
    – Lambie
    Oct 30 at 22:40
  • "Modern day ontology is a highly applied field and can be used to develop taxonomic systems, for example medical classifications of diseases, catalogues of financial concepts, etc." <- What are some textbooks that teach you how to develop a good ontology?
    – Fomalhaut
    Nov 4 at 8:57


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