LINGUIST List 14.2138

Tue Aug 12 2003

Review: Semantics: Saeed (2003)

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  1. C A Ankerstein, Saeed (2003), Semantics

Message 1: Saeed (2003), Semantics

Date: Mon, 11 Aug 2003 16:33:21 +0100
From: C A Ankerstein <>
Subject: Saeed (2003), Semantics


Saeed, J.I. (2003). Semantics. 2nd Ed. Blackwell, paperback
 ISBN: 0-631-22693-1, 413pp.

Carrie Ankerstein, Department of Human Communication Sciences,
University of Sheffield, England.

John I. Saeed's Semantics (now in its second edition) is an
introductory text book. It is a general and broad introduction to some
of the central ideas of semantics and also some of the most important
semanticists. It assumes no knowledge of semantics, but a general idea
of linguistics and its subdisciplines, e.g. syntax, morphology,
phonology, etc. is helpful.

The eleven chapters are organized into three sections: Preliminaries
(chapters 1-2), Semantic Description (chapters 3-8) and Theoretical
Approaches (chapters 9-11). New concepts are often illustrated with
English and foreign language examples and new terms are always printed
in bold in the first mention and fully described. Though unfortunately
there is no glossary of terms, there is an index in which terminology
can be looked up. At the end of each chapter there is a set of
exercises in which the reader can explore the questions raised in the
preceding chapter. There are no answer keys, but this shouldn't pose
too much of a problem. Also concluding each chapter is a list of
further reading for more information about the topics covered in that

Part I: Preliminaries 
Chapter 1: Semantics in Linguistics introduces the broad area of
semantics. As a subdiscipline of linguistics, semantics is described
as the study of the meanings of words and sentences. Several key
concepts are introduced including de Saussure's differentiation of the
signifier and the signified, which reflects the relationship between
the sign and what the sign represents. Saeed also discusses some
common problems to semantic theory, how semantics fits into a modal of
grammar or language, the difference between semantics and pragmatics
and the issues of productivity and compositionality which are
prevalent in linguistic theory.

Chapter 2: Meaning, Thought and Reality explores how we used language
to convey information about the world. Key issues here are reference,
denotation and extension. There is also a brief introduction to a
theory of concepts, or word meaning. The language of thought or
''mentalese'' is also discussed.

Part II: Semantic Description

Chapter 3: Word Meaning is an introduction to lexical semantics, the
meaning of words. Concepts such as lexeme and lemma are discussed as
is context effects such as vagueness and ambiguity. Word relations
like hyponymy, synonymy and meronymy are also covered. These are all
discussed as central issues that a theory of semantics must take into

Chapter 4: Sentence Relations and Truth discusses the meaning of
sentences and introduces the concepts of synonymy, entailment,
contradiction, presupposition and tautology. The chapter then moves on
to describe the meaning of sentences in terms of logic. The chapter
ends with some problems for a purely semantic approach and there is a
short discussion of the pragmatic approach to presupposition, which
describes presupposition in terms of what the speaker thinks his/her
audience knows.

Chapter 5: Sentence Semantics 1: Situations focuses again on words in
sentences, but more specifically the marking of time in sentences, or
tense, which is generally encoded in the verb phrase. Concepts
revolving around the marking of time include not only tense, but
aspect, mood and evidentiality. Different types of verbs are also
discussed, e.g. stative and dynamic verbs.

Chapter 6: Sentence Semantics: Participants examines the notion of
thematic roles, i.e. the entities that act or are acted upon, etc. The
grammatical concept voice is introduced as an indicator of thematic

Chapter 7: Context and Inference discusses the importance of context
in constructing and interpreting a speaker's utterance is
discussed. Part of context is general background knowledge about the
world. Background knowledge and context aid in interpreting context
specific utterances, especially those with deictic terms, which
require a reference point for interpretation, e.g. ''there''. In this
chapter, Grice's maxims and conversational implicature are also

Chapter 8: Functions of Language: Speech as Action presents the very
influential and once popular theory of speech as action or Austin &
Searle's ''speech act theory''. The theory is presented fully and
clearly, though none of its weaknesses are pointed out, e.g. that it
is often difficult to categorize utterances into ''actions''.

Part III: Theoretical Approaches.

Chapter 9: Meaning Components returns to the problem of word meaning
discussed earlier. Some theories of word meaning state that meaning is
represented by features, e.g. for bachelor: male, unmarried, where
''male'' and ''unmarried'' are features that make up the meaning of
''bachelor''. Chapter 9 discusses the idea of semantic components or
primitives and this kind of analysis, componential analysis not only
for nouns, but also for some syntactic constructs, e.g. causative and
motion verbs. Theories such as Jackendoff's Conceptual Structure and
Pustejovsky's Generative Lexicon are presented. Problems with these
types of analyses are also discussed.

Chapter 10: Formal Semantics. The label ''formal semantics, '' as
Saeed points out, may also be called: truth-conditional semantics,
model-theoretic semantics, Montague Grammar and possible logical
semantics. These approaches are based on predicate logic
translations. In addition to an introduction to predicate logic,
various applications are also discussed, e.g. modality, tense and
aspect and anaphora.

Chapter 11: Cognitive Semantics. The final chapter introduces the
approach known as cognitive semantics. One defining characteristic of
this approach is to form an experientialist basis for meaning,
i.e. that the human experience of existing in a society creates the
basic conceptual structures which make meaning in language
possible. Key topics here are metaphor, viewpoint, profiling, scanning
and mental models.

In general, Semantics is a fantastic introductory or reference book
for students new to the area. It covers a range of topics that are
central to semantics, which should be found on most university
syllabi. The various theories, concepts and issues are clearly and
fully presented in an objective fashion, though generally no critical
evaluation of these theories, etc. is made.


Carrie Ankerstein is a PhD student in the department of Human
Communication Sciences at the University of Sheffield, England. She
has a Masters in Applied Linguistics from the University of Cambridge,
England and a Bachelor's degree in German Linguistics from the
University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA / University of Freiburg,
Germany. Her research interests include the organization and
representation of concepts in semantic memory. She is currently a
teaching assistant for Linguistics in the Departments of Human
Communication Sciences and English Language and Linguistics for
undergraduate and postgraduate students.
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