Semantic Barriers of Communication

Definition of Semantic Barriers

Semantic is the study of meaning, signs and symbols used for communication. The word is derived from “sema”, a Greek word meaning signs. Semantic barriers to communication are the symbolic obstacles that distorts the sent message in some other way than intended, making the message difficult to understand.

Humpty Dumpty is an egg which has to understood by the readers if not told.

The meaning of words, signs and symbols might be different from one person to another and the same word might have hundreds of meanings. So, when a message is sent by a sender to a receiver, it might be interpreted wrongly in a communication process causing misunderstandings between them. This can happen due to different situations that form the semantic(of, relating to, or arising from the different meanings of words or other symbols) of the sender and the receiver, known as the semantic barrier. It also arises due to language, education, culture and place of origin (dialect or accent) or most likely their experiences. It is similar to and related to language barriers in a communication.

Types of Semantic Barriers in Communication

Denotative Barriers

Direct meaning of any word which must be shared by two people to understand each other is the denotative meaning. The barriers that arise due to the definition or meaning of a word used differently by sender and receiver is denotative barriers of communication. They disagree on the meaning of a word as they are unaware of the other persons' meaning. For example, the meaning of braces which is used to define the metallic structure to adjust teeth in American English whereas it means a part of clothing in British English.

Connotative Barriers

The implied meaning of a word is known as Connotative meaning. Connotative barrier in communication refers to the difference of meaning according to different abstract situations, contexts, actions and feelings. Both the communicators know both meanings of the word, but use only one meaning according to the context, which might be being used differently in the context. For example, the word astonish can be used to describe surprise as well as startle. The words, when used by someone, can have any of the meaning. The context in which it is used will only let the receiver know what the sender means. Another example is the word god, which is used differently by people following different religions.

Causes of Semantic Barriers in Communication

Homophones, homonyms and homographs


Homophones are the words with same pronunciation but different meaning which might have different spelling too. For example: Words buy, by and bye. They have same pronunciation, but different meanings and spellings.


Homonyms are the words which have the same pronunciation and their spellings are mostly same, but the intended meaning is different. For example, the noun "bear" and the verb "bear" has different meanings but same pronunciation and spelling.


Homographs are the words that have the same spelling but the pronunciation and meaning are different. For example, "The research lead to the discovery of lead". In this sentence, both the words have the same spelling, but different pronunciation and different meanings.

These words can be interpreted wrongly when used unknowingly causing the semantic barrier in a communication process. This, in turn, makes the communication ineffective.

Cultural difference

Many words have fixed meanings in different norms. So, confusion arises in communication due to meaning of different signs and symbols in different cultures, causing semantic barrier. The use of the “Swastika” symbol in Hinduism and for German Nazi cab be taken as an example. The symbol was used by Hitler for his rule and is taken as something to fear, whereas swastika in Hinduism takes it as auspicious and lucky. People belonging to these two cultures take the symbol differently. If people belonging to these two cultures talk or use the symbol, it can lead to conflicts.

[Related Reading: Cultural Barriers to Communication]

Difference in use of words

Words can mean something different in two different languages even though the words have the same pronunciation and spelling. People do not know many languages, so the word used in some language might have a different meaning in the language the person understands. The unfamiliarity with the word might make the listener react in a bad way. The receiver might not understand the message or understand it in a way which is not intended. Sequence of use of words must also be taken care of. Technical words or jargons is also understood differently if the receiver does not have proper knowledge. For example, the word "concha" in Spanish means shell whereas in it means female sex in an offensive language in Argentina.

Body language and gestures

When what you speak and your body language (kinesics) is different, the listener can get offended. Inconsistent body language creates conflict. Sarcasm and contrasts make people confused or doubtful about the intentions. Action and language must always go together to make people trust you. For example, if someone requests you with a catapult posture (hands and elbows behind head) which is used to show intimidation, you will interpret the request as order and might resist doing it.

Use of ambiguous words

A single word can be used in various ways and they have different meanings. The meaning must be clear of all the words used in every sentence. If the meaning of a particular word can be interpreted in many ways, such a word should not be used unless there are no other alternatives. The words people choose to convey their message makes a communication effective or ineffective. Relative words like bright, love, big, small, good, bad, etc. have their meanings only when compared to or in relation to some other things. For example, "a small fish" can be interpreted as of any size. But if the word is used as "a fish smaller than a marble", then the size can be predicted properly.

Differences in dialects

People from different parts of the world use different dialects for the same language and pronounce a word differently. People, who speak more than one language can not speak a particular language they use less in the same way the people whose native language or mother tongue. The mothertongue or the language used most is always prominent and affects the pronunciation of other languages. Dialects or use of different words to give the same meaning according to places makes communication less effective. It causes semantic barrier as meaning of words are different. For example, the dialect of speaking English by an Australian is different than than of an American. People from Australia use the word "autumn" whereas Americans use the word "fall".

Filtering by senders and selective perception by receivers

Prejudices of people make them only listen to and interpret the things they want to. They always do it their way. They understand the way they want to. Similarly, the sender also sends only the information they want to. They withheld the information that they do not want the receiver to understand. Both of them use the words that serve their interest and objectives. The sender filters before sending and the receiver perceives selectively which shapes the meaning of the message. The message must be according to the level of understanding of the receiver and in the same way filtering before sending must be done. For example, a magazine which has middle aged women as target will filter their articles and will not include anything about business. That is filtering. A reader looking at the magazine will skip the articles which is not of his/her interest. That is selective perception.

[Related Reading: Psychological Barriers to Communication]

When semantic barriers are less in any communication, the communication is effective and gets the desired results can be obtained.