Introducing English Semantics


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If you come across some object which you have never seen before, and you wonder about its origin and its purpose, we can say that you are curious about it. But we can also call the object a curious kind of thing. The same term is used for your subjective feelings and for the supposedly objective properties of this item—a curious person, a curious object. Take these phrases with the adjective happy.

The meaning of a lexeme is, in part, its relation to other lexemes of the language.


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Each lexeme is linked in some way to numerous other lexemes of the language. First, there is the relation of the lexeme with other lexemes with which it occurs in the same phrases or sentences, in the way that arbitrary can co-occur with judge, happy with child or with accident, sit with chair, read with book or newspaper.

These are syntagmatic relations, the mutual association of two or more words in a sequence not necessarily right next to one another so that the meaning of each is affected by the other s and together their meanings contribute to the meaning of the larger unit, the phrase or sentence. Another kind of relation is contrastive. Instead of saying The judge was arbitrary, for instance, we can say The judge was cautious or careless, or busy or irritable, and so on with numerous other possible descriptors. This is a paradigmatic relation, a relation of choice. We choose from among a number of possible words that can fill the same blank: the words may be similar in meaning or have little in common but each is different from the others.

Since we are used to a writing system that goes from left to right, we may think of syntagmatic relations as horizontal and paradigmatic relations as vertical. A compound expression, such as book and newspaper, cautious but arbitrary, read or write puts two lexemes that are paradigmatically related into a syntagmatic relationship.

Slowly we learn from other members of our speech community and from our personal experiences what associations are favorable and which are not connotation. And we acquire an implicit knowledge of how lexemes are associated with other lexemes sense relations. An asterisk inserted before a phrase or sentence in the text indicates that that this is not an acceptable English construction. Each verb below is fairly limited as to the kind of referring expression that can occur as object.

Name one or two nouns that can occur in the object. What colors does red contrast with in these collocations? The above is a meaningful sentence which is composed of smaller meaningful parts. We call this phrase a referring expression. A referring expression is a piece of language that is used AS IF it is linked to something outside language, some living or dead entity or concept or group of entities or concepts.

Most of the next chapter is about referring expressions.

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The entity to which the referring expression is linked is its referent. Another meaningful part is the verb bark, which is also linked to something outside of language, an activity associated, here, with the referring expression a dog. We call this meaningful part a predicate. The use of language generally involves naming or referring to some entity and saying, or predicating, something about that entity. The sentence also has several kinds of grammatical meanings.

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Every language has a grammatical system and different languages have somewhat different grammatical systems. We can best explain what grammatical meanings are by showing how the sentence A dog barked differs from other sentences that have the same, or a similar, referring expression and the same predicate. The grammatical system of English makes possible the expression of meanings like these: statement vs question: A dog barked. Did a dog bark? A dog did not bark. No dog barked. A dog barks.

Introducing English Semantics

Some dogs barked. The dog barked. Grammatical meanings, then, are expressed in various ways: the arrangement of words referring expression before the predicate, for instance , by grammatical affixes like the -s attached to the noun dog and the - ed attached to the verb bark, and by grammatical words, or function words, like the ones illustrated in these sentences: do in the form did , not, a, some, and the. Their meanings are not grammatical but lexical, with associations outside language.

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They are lexemes. All the lexemes of a language constitute the lexicon of the language, and all the lexemes that you know make up your personal lexicon. Four or one? There are four forms and the forms have four different meanings, but they have a shared meaning, which is lexical, and other meanings of a grammatical nature added to the lexical meaning.

We say that these four forms constitute one lexeme—which, for convenience we designate as go. Group b presents a different sort of problem.

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The expression put up with combines the forms of put and up and with, but its meaning is not the combination of their separate meanings. Arm, chair, happy, guitar, lemon, shoe and horn are all morphemes; none of them can be divided into something smaller that is meaningful. They are free morphemes because they occur by themselves. The elements un-, -ist and -ade in unhappy, guitarist and lemonade respectively, are also morphemes; they are bound morphemes which are always attached to something else, as in these examples. The form is fairly easy to determine: in writing it is a sequence of letters, in speech a sequence of phonemes.

But meaning is more difficult to determine. In other pairs, numerous in English, such as steak and stake, pronunciation is identical but spelling is different, reflecting the fact that the words were once different in their phonological form. English also has pairs of homographs, two words that have different pronunciations but the same spelling; for example, bow, rhyming with go and referring to an instrument for shooting arrows, and bow, rhyming with cow and indicating a bending of the body as a form of respectful greeting.

Lexicographers and semanticists sometimes have to decide whether a form with a wide range of meanings is an instance of polysemy or of homonymy. A polysemous lexeme has several apparently related meanings. The noun head, for instance, seems to have related meanings when we speak of the head of a person, the head of a company, head of a table or bed, a head of lettuce or cabbage.

If we take the anatomical referent as the basic one, the other meanings can be seen as derived from the basic one, either reflecting the general shape of the human head or, more abstractly, the relation of the head to the rest of the body. Dictionaries recognize the distinction between polysemy and homonymy by making a polysemous item a single dictionary entry and making homophonous lexemes two or more separate entries. Thus head is one entry and bank is entered twice.

Producers of dictionaries often make a decision in this regard on the basis of etymology, which is not necessarily relevant, and in fact separate entries are necessary in some instances when two lexemes have a common origin. Two lexemes are either identical in form or not, but relatedness of meaning is not a matter of yes or no; it is a matter of more or less. Examine the different occurrences of the verb ask in the following sentences: 6 Fred asked Betty where his golf clubs were.

Sentences 6 and 7 are about questions, requests for information. Sentence 8 is not a request for information but a request for a kind of action. A request for information has no such relation to the information sought; it is about what the addressee may know at the time of asking. Now, do we have two homonymous verbs ask, or is there just one verb which happens to have two meanings? Before deciding, it may be useful to look at the correspondences in six languages related to English, three Germanic and three Romance. The context in which ask occurs determines whether information or a favor is being requested.

Therefore, there is no lexical ambiguity. Is this a single lexeme? If you think it should be considered as more than one lexeme, how would you divide? Several nouns are listed below. Each is followed by two or more illustrations of how the lexeme is used or by two or more short definitions. A following utterance, for example, is likely to carry information about depositing or withdrawing money, on the one hand, or, on the other hand, fishing or boating.

For instance, seen is a form of the verb see while scene is an unrelated noun; feet is a plural noun with concrete reference, feat is a singular noun, rather abstract in nature; and so on. Ambiguity occurs also because a longer linguistic form has a literal sense and a figurative sense. Two points are obvious.

First, the meaning of a sentence derives from the meanings of its constituent lexemes and from the grammatical meanings it contains. So if you know all the lexical and grammatical meanings expressed in a sentence, you know the meaning of the sentence, and vice versa. Second, at least if the sentence is a statement, if you know the meaning of the sentence, you know what conditions are necessary in the world for that sentence to be true. You know that if this sentence is true, the sentence Albert Thompson did not open the first flour mill in Waterton is false a contradiction. Truth-conditional semantics is based on the notion that the core meaning of any sentence any statement is its truth conditions.

Any speaker of the language knows these conditions. If a given sentence is true, does this make another sentence also true, or does it falsify the other sentence, or is there no truth relation? Matters of truth and logic are of more importance in truth-conditional semantics than meanings of lexemes per se. Chapter 5 contains more about truth-conditional semantics. We are not yet finished with the dimensions of meaning. Often we derive more meaning from what we hear or read than what is actually in the message.

Perhaps this is due to an intuition we have or to the fact that the speaker or writer infers something—hints at some further meaning. In semantics we are not interested in intuitions or hints but we are interested in the instances when the language of the message implicates some additional meaning that accounts for our inference. We understand what it means even though we are unfamiliar with Felman College if such an entity exists because we know the lexical and grammatical meanings of the components and we can deduce that Felman College names an entity similar to some that we do know.

And we can infer more than this. From the phrase one team we infer that the larger discourse contains information about at least one other team. Is this in the meaning of the lexeme team? Is a team composed of people necessarily in competition with another team or other teams?

Does our inference come from the fact that one team is paradigmatically related to a second team, another team, and so on? Next, compare: 12 One team consisted of the six students from Felman College. Sentences 11 and 12 tell the same thing about the composition of the team but 12 is more informative—has more meaning—about students from Felman College.

From 11 we can infer that there were at least six students from Felman College.

Introducing English Semantics Introducing English Semantics
Introducing English Semantics Introducing English Semantics
Introducing English Semantics Introducing English Semantics
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