LINGUIST List 16.3540|
Tue Dec 13 2005
Review: Semantics/Textbooks: Bennett (2002)
Editor for this issue: Lindsay Butler
What follows is a review or discussion note contributed to our Book Discussion Forum. We expect discussions to be informal and interactive; and the author of the book discussed is cordially invited to join in. If you are interested in leading a book discussion, look for books announced on LINGUIST as "available for review." Then contact Sheila Dooley at dooleylinguistlist.org.
Semantics: an Introduction to Non-Lexical Aspects of Meaning
Message 1: Semantics: an Introduction to Non-Lexical Aspects of Meaning
From: Verginica Mititelu <vergiracai.ro>
Subject: Semantics: an Introduction to Non-Lexical Aspects of Meaning
AUTHOR: Bennett, Paul
SUBTITLE: An Introduction to Non-lexical Aspects of Meaning
SERIES: LINCOM Coursebooks in Linguistics 12
PUBLISHER: Lincom GmbH
Announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/13/13-1156.html
Verginica Barbu Mititelu, School of Humanities, Languages and Social
Sciences, University of Wolverhampton, and Romanian Academy
Research Institute for Artificial Intelligence.
DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK'S PURPOSE AND CONTENT
Semantics is generally defined as the linguistic subfield that studies
the meaning of linguistic expressions, be they words, phrases,
sentences, and texts (see Chierchia and McConnell-Ginet 1990).
There are more areas of study in semantics: the relations between
different linguistic expressions (synonymy, antonymy, hyponymy,
meronymy, etc.), thematic roles, argument structure (thus having
connections with syntax), the area of studying the sense and
reference, the truth conditions, and the formalization of meaning.
Paul Bennett's ''Semantics'' is an intermediate-level textbook on
semantics. As the subtitle indicates, the book covers topics related to
non-lexical aspects of meaning, thus one cannot expect to find here
discussions related to lexico-semantic relations and not even to
formalization of the meaning of linguistic expressions (although this is
also not specifically lexical in nature).
Besides delimiting the area of interest, the introductory chapter
provides explanations for the grammaticalization phenomenon, the
distinctions polysemy-monosemy, semantics-pragmatics, and for
prototypes. These notions prove useful in the other chapters, where
the author focuses on specific topics.
Chapter 2 deals with syntactic and semantic categories. The main
questions receiving an answer here are the following: can one predict
the syntactic category and behaviour of a word by only considering its
meaning? do syntactic characteristics of words follow directly from
their meaning? Both questions receive a partially affirmative answer.
The prototype theory is helpful here to distinguish between words that
are prototypical representatives of a syntactic category and those that
are marginal within the syntactic category they belong to (see the
case of words derived from members of other category and retaining
the semantics of their source category).
Chapter 3 presents the proposition types, with special focus on
Vendler classes (states, activities, achievements, accomplishments):
their characteristics, some problems related to this classification,
alternative approaches (Steedman1977, Chafe 1970), the distinction
between grammatical relations and argument structure, two notions
that are useful in some classifications of propositions.
Chapter 4 deals with deixis in its four forms: person, social, special
The semantics of the three tenses (past, present, future) makes the
topic of the fifth chapter. The notion of time is also necessary to
describe the tense system. Reichenbach's system is presented
altogether with alternative analyses (Klein's, Bull's). The future tense
stands alone among the English tenses due to its modal-like status
(that is why this is also discussed in chapter 7 where modality is in
A discussion of the semantics of tense must also consider aspect.
Chapter 6 presents the characteristics of the perfective and
imperfective (habitual and progressive) aspects, their more or less
controversial status, and some aspect frameworks.
The semantics of verbs and of proposition also cannot ignore
modality, which makes the topic of the seventh chapter. There are
different ways of expressing modality, but special emphasis here is on
the grammaticalized forms of expressing it: auxiliaries. The distinction
between deontic and epistemic modality (and other types with a
controversial or at least not widely recognized status) is exemplified
and discussed drawing the reader's attention on the degrees of
modality. Auxiliaries are polysemantic: they are used to express
various modal meanings. Different approaches to this problem are
Chapter 8 deals with negation: its types (sentential versus constituent
negation), its scope and focus (here metalinguistic negation and
negative raising are presented), polarity, its interaction with modality,
the semantics of negative sentences, the pragmatic aspects involved
in the use of negation. However, when discussing the semantics of
negation, we think that it is worth mentioning expletive negation (a
formally negative sentence with a positive meaning) (for a detailed
classification of negation using various criteria and with examples from
Romanian see Barbu Mititelu and Maftei Ciolaneanu 2004).
The last chapter focuses on the semantics of determination: its types,
and its lexical ways of expression.
Each chapter is followed by some notes and suggestions for further
reading on the topics dealt with in the respective chapter. The book
also contains a short glossary of the key terms used, a bibliography
and an index.
Whenever an approach is presented, it is critically evaluated by the
author: its advantages and disadvantages, its coverage of the
phenomenon, its applicability are discussed. Any shortcoming of an
approach is exploited to justify alternative approaches existent in the
literature dealing with the respective phenomenon. For instance, the
fact that in Reichenbach's tense system there is no definition for the
notion of reference time was objected to by W. Klein, who proposed
another tense system. In cases when more than one approach to a
phenomenon is presented, the correspondences between them are
In chapter 3, we think that an enlarged discussion about the inventory
of semantic roles would have been appropriate. The author's reasons
for avoiding that are stated on page 54: ''defining semantic roles is
extremely difficult'', ''they are no longer central objects of linguistic
investigations'', ''their usefulness is very limited''. We agree with that
position only partially. The FrameNet project
(http://framenet.icsi.berkeley.edu/), the attempts to build such a
resource for other languages than English, and the utility of such a
resource is proof that it is worth studying semantic roles and creating
databases with such roles for predicates. They are useful for further
applications in Natural Language Processing.
Terminology may vary from one school to another and sometimes from
one linguist to another. The author mentions them and also provides
reasons for the terminology he adopts (see for instance page 140 for
the discussion of the terms ''mood'' and ''modality'').
Each topic discussed is presented from both a monolingual and a
cross-lingual perspective. Languages vary in the way semantic
classes are realized syntactically, in the fact that translationally
equivalent propositions may display different grammatical structures,
in the means used to express the meanings associated with tense,
aspect and modality, in the types of negation they display, etc.
Phenomena in linguistics are not isolated from each other. And neither
are they presented in isolation in this textbook. References from one
chapter to another, that is from the presentation of one linguistic
phenomenon to another, and presentations of the way phenomena
interact are quite frequent throughout the book.
Examples are illustrative for the purpose they are given. However,
there are situations when the reader would better understand some
explanations had the author exemplified the facts presented. For
instance, on page 4, grammaticalization is defined, after Hopper and
Traugott (1993), as ''the process whereby lexical items and
constructions come in certain contexts to serve grammatical functions,
and, once grammaticalized, continue to develop new grammatical
functions'' but no example in the history of any natural language is
provided for the reader, to ease understanding.
The quality of this textbook is sustained by the clarity with which topics
are introduced, by the fact that they are presented in the way they
interact in language. However, some exercises at the end of each
chapter would have helped students understand through practicing.
Barbu Mititelu, V. and R. Maftei Cilaneanu (2004) The Main Aspects
of the Grammar of Negation in Romanian, in E. Ionescu (Ed.)
Understanding Romanian Negation: Syntactic and Semantic
Approaches in a Declarative Perspective, Bucharest: University of
Bucharest Publishing House, pp.32-67.
Chafe, W. (1970) Meaning and the Structure of Language, University
of Chicago Press.
Cheirchia, G. and S. McConnell-Ginet (1990) Meaning and Grammar,
Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Hopper, P. and. E. Traugott (1993) Grammaticalization, CUP.
Steedman, M (1977) Verbs, time and modality, Cognitive Science 1,
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Verginica Barbu Mititelu is a PhD student in linguistics and her thesis
theme subscribes to the area of lexical semantics. Her main scientific
interests are corpus linguistics, lexical semantics, anaphora resolution,
and machine translation.
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