LINGUIST List 14.1484

Thu May 22 2003

Review: Semantics: Loebner (2002)

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  1. Prisca Augustyn, Understanding Semantics

Message 1: Understanding Semantics

Date: Thu, 22 May 2003 09:30:51 +0000
From: Prisca Augustyn <>
Subject: Understanding Semantics

Loebner, Sebastian (2002) Understanding Semantics. Arnold and Oxford
University Press, paperback ISBN 0-340-73198-2, xii+260pp,
Understanding Language Series.

Announced at

Prisca Augustyn, Florida Atlantic University

Loebner's objective is to introduce the uninitiated student of
linguistics not only ''to the major fields in the discipline, but also
the dominant approaches that shape semantics in its current state of
the art'' (xi). His ideal reader, he concludes in his preface, ''will
read the book carefully and completely [and] will acquire the
background for going deeper into the matter by reading more advanced
semantic literature'' (xii).

The somewhat unconventional organization of his textbook presents
''basic concepts and central phenomena investigated in semantics'' (1)
in part one (chapters one through six); and ''the essentials of the
three major theoretical approaches: structuralist semantics, cognitive
semantics, and logical (formal) semantics'' (1) in part two (chapters
seven through ten) of the book. While Loebner detaches basic concepts
from their theoretical origin in part one, his characterization of
theoretical approaches in part two is neither a chronological
presentation, nor does it include authentic theoretical material such
as classic examples.

Loebner pursues a neutral presentation of semantic concepts and
theoretical constructs, placing much emphasis on terminology and
proper definitions, which is underscored by terminology 'checklists'
at the end of each chapter throughout the book. The checklists are
followed by sparse suggestions for 'further reading' which rarely
include original texts. Beginning in chapter two, Loebner adds
exercises. Each chapter has endnotes.

His exercises, unlike his style of presentation, reveal whom Loebner
may have seen as his intended readership. The promise he makes in his
preface that ''[you] need not know much about linguistics in order to
understand this introduction'' (xii) corresponds more to the nature of
the exercises and limited suggestions for further reading than to the
style and diction in which he presents the material.

In part one, Loebner introduces different levels of meaning in the
first chapter, discussing notions such as reference, truth, and
context of utterance. In chapter two, devoted to the distinctions
between descriptive, social, and expressive meaning, he introduces his
own semiotic triangle under the subheading ''Denotations and truth
conditions'' (25) without reference to the former proponents of this
prominent heuristic or its original structure and terminology.

As he continues to discuss other notions and theoretical approaches,
he modifies his own semiotic triangle throughout the chapters, leaving
the uninitiated reader with no other possible conclusion than that the
semiotic triangle is the author's own illustrative device. His main
objective is not to provide a textbook that is at the same time a
comprehensive resource for the budding semanticist, but rather an
introduction to the procedures and technicalities of semantic
analysis. Loebner provides the tools without mentioning who invented
them, when, and why.

Loebner guides the reader through what often seem rather lengthy, but
nonetheless effective discussions of examples, for instance, the use
of the German forms of address or the honorific code in Japanese in
order to extrapolate the distinction between social and descriptive
meaning. Summary tables at the end of such discussions match examples
with the appropriate technical term, once again attesting to his
emphasis on terminology.

In chapter three, entitled ''Meanings and readings'', he discusses the
lexicon, introducing the notions of the lexeme, homonyny, polysemy,
and synonymy. A discussion of metonymy and metaphor is followed by one
of his terminology-example-tables, in which he uses Lakoff's
definition of metaphor, again without reference to Lakoff. While this
may be a legitimateway to introduce students to a definition of
metaphor, it is this reviewer's opinion that even an introductory
textbook owes the student at least the most rudimentary information
about the origin of a particular definition.

Loebner introduces the principles of meaning and logic in chapter
four. He begins his discussion of the principles of formal logic with
the example 'Donald Duck is a duck'. With this example, he is
preparing the reader for the importance of categorization he discusses
later in the chapter, under the subheading ''Logical relations between
words'', by comparing the denotation of the superordinate term 'bird'
to that of the term 'duck'. The informed reader may suspect that he
chose this example to prepare the reader for the prototype approach,
although Loebner makes no overt reference.

In chapter five, ''Meaning relations'', Loebner begins with the
relation of hyponymy, in particular as it pertains to compound
nouns. Under the subheading ''Oppositions'' he introduces the notions
of antonym, directional opposites, complementaries, heteronyms and
converses, followed by a terminology-example-table. The chapter ends
with a discussion of what he calls ''Lexical fields'', which turns out
to be about taxonomies and meronymies.

Chapter six is entitled ''Predications'' and provides the reader with
the basics of predicate logic. Here he sets the ground for his
extensive presentation of formal semantics at the end of part two of
the book. The chapter closes with a presentation of semantic
roles. ''This concludes the first part of the book, in which central
semantic phenomena and concepts were introduced and interconnected''
(120) Loebner says at the end of the chapter. While he may have
successfully introduced central semantic phenomena and concepts, the
interconnectedness of these notions may not be as apparent in a
presentation that seems to give everything equal importance.

Part two of the book begins with Loebner's chapter seven, ''Meaning
components'', in which he presents four approaches to meaning which
are anchored in the notion of decomposition. First, he discusses
structuralist semantics, thankfully invoking Saussure, as an approach
that is ''radically relational'' (128); second, he introduces feature
semantics mostly with his own examples; third, he gives a description
of semantic formulae including a very detailed discussion of Dowty's
decompositional semantics, which he then compares to Jackendoff's
cognitive approach; and fourth, he adds a presentation of
''Wierzbicka's Natural Semantic Metalanguage.''

In chapter eight, Loebner presents approaches based on language
comparison; he discusses translation problems and methods of
contrastive analysis, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and Berlin and Kay's
investigation on color terms.

Again, Loebner chooses an unconventional way of presenting different
approaches: rather than separating structural, cognitive, and formal
semantics, he presents approaches based on the notion of decomposition
in chapter seven, and approaches based on comparison in chapter eight.

In chapter nine, ''Meaning and Cognition'', Loebner concentrates on
cognitive semantics, declaring at the outset that ''[the] chapter will
take a rather critical turn, investigating the assumptions of
prototype theory'' (172); in particular, Loebner challenges the notion
of fuzzy category boundaries. After an in-depth presentation of the
main components and assumptions of Rosch's Prototype Theory, Loebner
also offers a detailed critique with rather compelling examples. He
concludes that ''[there] may be categories for which membership is a
matter of matching with the prototype (in certain, relevant
aspects). For other categories, the NSC [necessary and sufficient
conditions] model may be more adequate. Yet other models may be
necessary for further types of categories'' (199).

As one of the rare incidents of reference to an original text, Loebner
begins the final section in chapter nine, entitled ''Semantic
knowledge'', with a quote from Sapir's 'Language'. This underscores
his view that the distinction between 'semantic knowledge' and 'world
knowledge' is ''necessary, important, and feasible'' (201). In his
chapter summary, Loebner concludes that ''[cognitive semantics] is
still far from a fully-fledged semantic theory [since] [central]
fields of semantics have never been elaborated within the cognitive
framework'' (207).

In his final chapter, Loebner discusses formal semantics, which he
sees as ''the most technical and difficult form of semantics, very
mathematical, but [...] the main framework in which sentence semantics
has been developed'' (211). He begins with an elaborate analysis of
Japanese numerals; then he introduces connectives with different sets
of examples. His discussion of ''Model-theoretic semantics'' is
equally as detailed as the following presentation of ''Possible-world
semantics'' in which he enters into a fairly complex presentation of
the intensional vs. extensional distinction.

Even though Loebner points out the limits of formal semantics, he
presents this approach as ''a firmly established discipline with a lot
of work going on in various languages -- within different frameworks
that keep being elaborated and refined in order to capture more and
more semantic phenomena'' (247).

Even though Loebner presents semantic concepts and approaches
neutrally, pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of different
theoretical currents, he seems most comfortable with formal
semantics. Loebner definitely has his own distinctive style as far as
the structure of the book is concerned as well as his manner of
presentation, which is at times fairly demanding for an introductory
text. While his examples are effective, he rarely uses classic
examples associated with a given theory. The more traditionally
oriented instructor may wish to supplement this impressive text with
original materials and classic examples, in order to provide students
with the necessary information s/he needs ''for going deeper into the
matter by reading more advanced semantic literature'' (xii).


Prisca Augustyn is Assistant Professor of Linguistics and German at
Florida Atlantic University. She received her Ph.D in Germanic
Linguistics from the University of California, Berkeley. She teaches
undergraduate and graduate courses in Linguistics.
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