Linguistic Semantics
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Linguistic Semantics

William Frawley

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eBook - ePub

Linguistic Semantics

William Frawley

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This volume is a comprehensive, up-to-date, and readable introduction to linguistic meaning. While partial to conceptual and typological approaches, the book also presents results from formal approaches. Throughout, the focus is on grammatical meaning -- the way languages delineate universal semantic space and encode it in grammatical form. Subjects covered by the author include: the domain of linguistic semantics and the basic tools, assumptions, and issues of semantic analysis; semantic properties of entities, events, and thematic roles; language and space; tense, aspect, and the internal structure and temporal ordering of events; modality, negation, and the epistemology of the speaker; and modification and attribution. In contrast to most current treatments of semantics, this book is accessible to the beginning student of semantics and linguistics and also useful to the advanced practitioner. A textbook and reference work in a single volume, it can be used in a number of disciplines: psychology, computer science, and anthropology as well as linguistics.

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Semantics and Linguistic Semantics: Toward Grammatical Meaning

In this chapter we define linguistic semantics as the study of literal, decontextualized, grammatical meaning. We begin with the difference between literal and implicational meaning and then illustrate meaning that has grammatical relevance. We contrast this view of meaning with that given by philosophical semantics, focusing on two basic questions: Is meaning possible? What kinds of meanings are possible? We show how linguistic semantics positions itself differently from philosophical semantics on such issues as the kinds of meaning that languages grammaticalize and the structural and empirical methods of semantic analysis. We close with a consideration of grammatical conditions on meaning and the relation of semantics to morphology.
Linguistic semantics is the study of literal meanings that are grammaticalized or encoded (i.e., reflected in how the grammar of a language structures its sentences). Defined as such, linguistic semantics is a branch of both semiotics, the study of meaning in general, and semantics, the study of linguistic meaning in particular. But linguistic semantics is narrower than either semiotics or semantics, focusing as it does on meanings that are actually reflected in overt form differences.
To see exactly what linguistic semantics admits and excludes, we begin with an example that illustrates grammatical meaning in contrast to other kinds of meaning. Thereafter, we examine the position of linguistic semantics in relation to semantics in general so that we can delimit more precisely the domain of linguistic semantics.
1.21. Literal and Implicational Meaning
What does (1) mean?
1. Tom bought some rice.
We want to know what state of affairs or situation in the world the expression represents. This is its literal or representational meaning. The literal meaning of a linguistic form contrasts with its implicational meaning, or what the expression suggests about the speaker’s intentions or the hearer’s expected response to what has been said.
From the standpoint of literal meaning, (1) represents a situation with an event, ‘buying,’ and certain participants, ‘Tom’ and ‘rice.’ This state of affairs is uncontroversial and not open to dispute; it is decidable irrespective of the speaker or the circumstances. Certainly, (1) may be representationally false—there may have been no such state of affairs—but that does not affect its literal meaning, only the fidelity of the representation.
What does (1) say about the speaker’s intentions or expectations of us in response, the implicational meaning? Unlike the literal meaning of (1), answers to this question are open to dispute. Perhaps the speaker wants to indicate something about Tom’s life. Perhaps the speaker is lying, and is deliberately presenting us with a false representation, and perhaps we recognize this. For this implicational meaning, we must decide why something has been articulated or what has been suggested by the words. We can determine this only by situating the sentence, or putting it into a real context with a real history and a set of real circumstances.
These two views of the sense of (1) point up the clear difference between literal and implicational meaning. Literal meaning is determinable outside of context; it comes with its own set of facts. Literal meaning is thus said to be decontextualized. Implicational meaning is not so decidable; everything must be calculated by a hearer, working from the expression in relation to perceived intentions and circumstances. Implicational meaning is thus said to be contextualized.
Linguistic semantics is concerned with literal, decontextualized meaning that, furthermore, is associated with the grammatical structure of language. Grammatical structure, like literal meaning, exists outside of the contexts in which it is used. A speaker of German does not choose, on one day, to mark nouns in the dative case, and then choose on another day to mark the same nouns, in the same structure, in the accusative. The grammatical structure of German, like the linguistic meanings associated with that structure, is simply not negotiable. The intentions of a speaker of German, on the other hand, are not a matter of either grammatical structure or the literal meanings associated with grammatical structure. They are negotiable, and they are outside our purview.
1.22. Encoding and Grammatical Meaning
Now that we have a grasp of the nature of decontextualized meaning, let us look at how literal meaning is bound up with the mechanisms that language has for grammatical expression. Consider (1) again. This sentence gives overt form to both the event, ‘buying,’ and the participants, ‘Tom’ and ‘rice,’ by grammaticalizing them: They appear as structural categories, nouns and verbs, that are essential to the formation of sentences in English. By definition, the analysis and description of the event and its participants fall under the purview of linguistic semantics because the event and its participants have grammatical relevance.
What other literal information in (1) is given grammatically relevant form? In the situation described, we know that Tom carried out the event and acted on the rice. Moreover, we know this because of the form of the sentence in English, not because of the intentions of the speaker or anything connected with context and implication. The structure of English is such that the subject, which frequently (but not always) correlates with the actional doer, generally precedes the verb, which in turn usually precedes the object, which frequently (but not always) denotes the actional receiver. The participants in an event have some connection to the relative order of the forms that compose the expression as a whole. Obviously, in other languages, the formal facts differ, and order may matter less than explicit marking on the forms that represent the participants. But both the use of word order and explicit marking are reflexes, overt manifestations, of the grammatical status of literal meaning.
For comparison, let us now ask a different question: What is not grammaticalized in (1)? The form of (1) signals nothing about the social status of the speaker of the sentence or about the social status of the participants in the event. Is the speaker married or not? How much money does the speaker of the sentence make? To what social class does Tom belong? Is Tom educated? None of this is encoded. This is not to say that such information is irrelevant. Knowledge of the social status of the speaker and the participants in the event does bear on the overall comprehension of the sentence, its implications and its uses, but this information is not encoded in (1). Nor is structural encoding of the social status of speaker and participants necessarily ruled out in English or in any other language. In the many languages that have honorifics (Japanese, e.g., see chap. 3)—markers of the social position of speakers, hearers, and participants—this kind of information is clearly grammaticalized. But in (1), social status is not a grammatical fact because there is no structural reflex of it.
As a limiting case, consider a literal meaning that is never translated into syntactic form. There is no way in English to mark the eye color of the participants in (1). Certainly we could say Blue-eyed Tom bought some rice, but the phrase blue-eyed is not a grammatical reflex: It is not necessitated by the design of English as a system. There are no verbs in English, for example, that require that their subjects be blue-eyed. Nor does eye color appear to be grammatically necessitated by any other language. Linguistic semantics is about literal grammatical meanings, and for better or worse, eye color loses out in the enterprise.
This elementary discussion of grammatical meaning raises some general summary questions that drive our subsequent inquiry into linguistic semantics. If linguistic semantics is the study of grammaticalized meaning, then:
1. How do we decide what kind of information is within the purview of linguistic semantics?
2. How do we decide what is and is not grammatical meaning?
3. What can we expect to be grammaticalized in the world’s languages?
The rest of this book is a tabulation of some of the received answers to these questions as well as a manual of procedures for finding solutions to problems that remain open. But before we consider the solutions in more detail, we turn to the idea of meaning in general—philosophical semantics—to set the stage for our more narrow pursuit of grammatical meaning.
Traditionally, to make an inquiry along the lines of the questions raised at the end of the last section, we would turn first to the philosophical literature to ask about the nature of meaning itself. It is worthwhile to look into this work briefly to see how linguistic semantics falls out as a well-circumscribed subfield of semantics in general and takes such questions as its guide.
Philosophical semantics studies the following basic problems: (a) whether and how meaning is at all possible, and (b) the kinds of meanings that are in principle possible. The first problem concerns the logical underpinnings of linguistic meaning, that is, can we determine meaning at all and how? The second problem concerns what we should find, assuming that we have judged the pursuit in the first problem possible. These questions are clearly ontological, in the philosophical sense, in that they concern what must be the case. Philosophical semantics is primarily a deductive enterprise, devoted to an examination of what ought to be and from which the actual facts, what is, happily fall out. Linguistic semantics is primarily an empirical discipline, inductive, data-driven, and therefore involved first with what actually exists, not what in principle must be. This is not to say that the two are incompatible (or even that everyone would agree with this characterization) because in theory, what we actually run into in our investigations is a natural subset of what we must encounter. It turns out, however, that “in principle findings” frequently miss the mark when the “in practice necessities” of linguistic meaning arise. Often philosophical semantics has difficulty getting on to the actual meanings that languages produce. As we proceed, the pitfalls as well as the benefits of the deductive approach become apparent.
1.31. Question 1: How Is Meaning Possible?
To say that something has meaning is to say that it is a sign, a composite unit consisting of a relation between an overt signal, called the signifier, and the information that this overt signal evokes, called the signified. The signifier, signified, and their relation make up the sign. Here we have the basic semiotic definition of meaning (see Barthes 1967; Saussure 1959), semiotics being the discipline that studies all meaningful signal exchange, from culture as rules for acceptable behavior to literature and art as conventionalized aesthetic meaning.
The semiotic characterization of meaning has always dominated philosophical semantics, as Katz (1986: 159–60) nicely articulates:
We have had one attempt after another to treat meaning as something else. There have been attempts to reduce it to behavior-controlling stimuli, to images, methods of verification, stereotypes, truth conditions, extensions in possible worlds, use, illocutionary act potential, perlocutionary act potential of various sorts, and even physical inscriptions. Indeed, the history of philosophical semantics in this century might well be written as a succession of metaphysically inspired attempts to eliminate the ordinary notion of meaning or sense.
Katz’s point, in semiotic terms, is that the history of philosophical semantics is largely a series of proposals to reduce meaning to an investigation of what the signifier (the overt mark) evokes: behavior, mental images, truth, and so forth. In philosophical semantics, meaning is possible because there is a relation between a signifier and the signified. The rest of the history of semantics is a series of attempts to delineate types of signifieds. But how do these things bear on grammatical meaning? How does this relational view of meaning in general shed light on meaning conveyed by the structure of language? What can we expect of particular languages?
If we look at the history of the study of the relation between signifier and signified, we find that philosophical semantics offers basically programmatic answers to questions about grammatical meaning. Approaches to meaning via the signifier/signified relation divide rather neatly into two camps: One sees a direct relation between linguistic signifiers and signifieds and...


  1. Cover
  2. Title page
  3. Copyright page
  4. Contents
  9. 4 EVENTS
  11. 6 SPACE
  12. 7 ASPECT
  16. 10.1 Introduction
Estilos de citas para Linguistic Semantics

APA 6 Citation

Frawley, W. (2013). Linguistic Semantics (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2013)

Chicago Citation

Frawley, William. (2013) 2013. Linguistic Semantics. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.

Harvard Citation

Frawley, W. (2013) Linguistic Semantics. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Frawley, William. Linguistic Semantics. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2013. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.