LINGUIST List 22.341|
Wed Jan 19 2011
Review: Semantics: Riemer (2010)
Editor for this issue: Monica Macaulay
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1. Sylvia Reed ,
Message 1: Introducing Semantics
From: Sylvia Reed <slreedemail.arizona.edu>
Subject: Introducing Semantics
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AUTHOR: Riemer, Nick
TITLE: Introducing Semantics
SERIES TITLE: Cambridge Introductions to Language and Linguistics
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
Sylvia L. Reed, Department of Linguistics, University of Arizona
''Introducing Semantics'' is a textbook introducing many of the various issues in
the study of meaning in language. The volume is broken down into eleven
chapters, each covering a different area of the discipline.
The volume begins with a ''Note to the reader.'' Riemer states that the book is
meant for anyone for whom linguistic semantics is a new topic. In addition, his
aim with the book is to present a balanced picture of how meaning is studied
across the discipline. To this end he presents important ideas from various
approaches, and indicates both advantages and disadvantages of different
approaches, as well as shows where those approaches may be interrelated.
In Chapter 1, Meaning in the Empirical Study of Language, Riemer introduces some
ground-level concepts in the study of linguistic semantics. After considering
possible definitions for ''semantics,'' he looks at ways of talking about meaning
across languages, including English, Walpiri, French, and Mandarin. A brief
introduction to the ''semiotic triangle'' is also included. Then Riemer goes on to
introduce basic concepts including lexemes, sense/reference/denotation,
compositionality, object language and metalanguage, and levels of meaning
(semantics vs. pragmatics). He then explores possible solutions to the problem
of the circularity inherent in a theory of meaning that relies on definitions in
terms of the thing being defined. These possible solutions include meanings as
denotations, meanings as mental representations, meanings as brain states, and
meanings as usages. He concludes the chapter with a brief section on meaning and
Chapter 2, Meaning and Definition, focuses on definition and the part it plays
in how we understand and describe meaning. Riemer first discusses the
differences between different conceptions of definitions, such as those found in
semantics vs. those found in lexicography. He also introduces the concept of the
mental lexicon. He then goes on to introduce basic units of meaning: words,
morphemes, and also onomatopoeia and idioms. After discussing the effect of
context on meaning and the idea of compositionality, Riemer gets into the meat
of the discussion and looks at different ways to define meanings: real and
nominal definitions, and definition by ostension, context, exemplars, and genus.
He also discusses substitutability as a measure of accuracy for definitions, as
well as problems with definitions and the influence of usage on definitions.
Chapters 3 and 4 focus on the role of context in determining meaning. Chapter 3,
The Scope of Meaning I: External Context, discusses the distinction between
sense and reference (including discussion of Frege 1892), truth values and truth
conditions, deixis, and the addition of encyclopedic knowledge to ''dictionary
knowledge''. Chapter 4, The Scope of Meaning II: Interpersonal Context focuses on
various pragmatic issues, such as speech act theory, implicatures, Gricean
maxims, and the Cooperative Principle. Riemer also discusses Relevance Theory
(after primarily Sperber & Wilson 1995), and then discusses the division (or
lack thereof) between semantics and pragmatics.
Chapter 5, Analysing and Distinguishing Meanings, focuses first on relations
between words (antonymy, meronymy, hyponymy and taxonomy, and synonymy). Riemer
then discusses various approaches to componential semantics. The final section
looks at the issues associated with lexemes which seem to have multiple meanings
(including discussions of polysemy and homonymy).
Chapter 6, Logic as a Representation of Meaning, introduces the idea of formal
representations of meaning, including propositional logic (including logical
operators, conjunction and disjunction, the material conditional, etc.) and
predicate logic (including arguments, universal and existential quantifiers,
predicates, etc.). Riemer then discusses the concept of a model, as well as
extension and intension. Finally, he introduces relations between propositions
such as entailment, presupposition, and contradiction; definite descriptions
(including Russell's theory of descriptions); and meaning postulates. In each
case Riemer introduces the notions and associated terms thoroughly before
discussing key extensions of and possible issues with these formal systems.
In Chapters 7 and 8, Riemer discusses various issues surrounding meaning and
cognition. Chapter 7, Meaning and Cognition I: Categorization and Cognitive
Semantics, looks at issues with and proposed solutions to the problem of
categorization, including classical categories, prototypes, and exemplars. Then
Riemer introduces the principles of cognitive semantics, including
anti-modularity, conceptual structure, idealized cognitive models (Lakoff 1987),
image schemas, and metaphor and metonymy. In Chapter 8, Meaning and Cognition
II: Formalizing and Simulating Conceptual Representations, Riemer introduces
Jackendoff's (1983 and ff.) Conceptual Semantics framework and walks the reader
through several sample analyses, noting several possible problems with the
framework along the way. Then he looks at several major ideas in computational
semantics, using WordNet as an example of a computational implementation. Riemer
also provides a summary of Pustejovsky's (1991 and ff.) ''generative lexicon''
approach, including discussion of qualia structure.
Chapters 9 and 10 cover various issues relating to meaning and morphosyntax.
Chapter 9, Meaning and Morphosyntax I: The Semantics of Grammatical Categories,
looks at the semantics of parts of speech in the first section, and in the
second considers the semantics of tense, aspect, and Aktionsart. Chapter 10,
Meaning and Morphosyntax II: Verb Meaning and Argument Structure, first
considers the semantics of traditional ideas of thematic roles, as well as newer
ideas such as proto-roles (e.g., Dowty 1991). He also considers the idea of
thematic relations within the Conceptual Semantics framework. In the second
section, Riemer discusses verb classes and alternations, and in the third
section, construction grammar's approach to meaning and argument structure.
In Chapter 11, Semantic Variation and Change, Riemer considers various pathways
of semantic change (including specialization, generalization, amelioration
(''ameliorization''), pejoration (''pejorization''), and others, as well as
grammaticalization). In the second section, he considers what corpora studies
can bring to the study of semantic variation. Then he presents a brief
typological look at some common semantic fields (including body parts, colors,
deictic motion, motion verbs, and spatial reference). The chapter ends with a
brief section on language and thought, including discussion of Whorf.
A glossary, a list of references, and thorough index are found at the end of the
This textbook is a very thorough introduction to the study of meaning in
language. As stated by the author, the aim of the book is to present a balanced
picture of the discipline. Riemer is remarkably successful at remaining
theory-neutral throughout the book, and an obvious effort has been made to make
clear the background assumptions of different theories as well as their possible
drawbacks. Riemer also manages to achieve impressive depth as well as breadth, a
difficult feat especially for an introductory book. It is a strength of the book
that the author is not afraid to point out questions we don't yet have the
answer to; however, it takes a particular kind of undergraduate student to be
comfortable with this type of open-endedness -- the thorough nature of this book
is certainly not a weakness, but might prove a challenge for instructors wishing
to use the book for a very introductory course on language. However, the book
would be very well suited for a slightly higher-level course introducing meaning
in language, or an introductory semantics course. I think the book would also be
appropriate preliminary reading for graduate students beginning to study
semantics, either as refresher-reading or as a first introduction to certain
concepts that may not have been covered in their undergraduate education.
The organization of the book is well-thought-out, with tools present throughout
to help the reader better study and understand the material. Each chapter begins
with a brief ''preview'' and ends with a summary (broken down into smaller
summaries of each section). These summaries would be very helpful especially in
the case of a lower-level course, where the breadth of the book might in fact be
intimidating to the reader. There are excellent questions for further thought
scattered throughout each chapter; in addition, each chapter is followed by a
number of exercises. All chapters have Questions for Discussion; some chapters
also have Analytical Questions (when appropriate). The questions are quite
wide-ranging, and most are at a fairly high level. In fact, the book might
benefit from a few more step-by-step type questions, if in fact the book is to
be used for lower-level courses; as it is, though, there are enough questions at
the higher end of ''introductory'' that, for instance, students in an honors
section or the like could be assigned questions of a higher level. There are
also suggestions for further reading at the end of each chapter, especially
useful for higher-level students. The glossary at the end of the book is quite
thorough and, I think, would be quite useful to anyone using this book, as it is
sometimes rather difficult to find accurate, glossary-type definitions of basic
terms. Having the glossary (as the author notes) also means that a course
following the book (or anyone using it) need not read the chapters in the order
they are presented; rather, if one comes across an unfamiliar semantic term one
can simply look it up in the glossary. That said, the glossary is mostly limited
to key semantic terms; those just starting their study of linguistics by
studying linguistic meaning may be stymied a bit by linguistic terms like 'noun
phrase' that remain undefined, either in the text or in the glossary. The book
would also benefit from a list of abbreviations used in glosses. Though most are
explained in the text, it would be helpful to have them all in one place.
Data from other languages are used appropriately and organized well throughout
the book. As far as I could tell there were very few typos in the data; in the
many Ancient Greek examples I found only one example with a small mistake in it
(p. 137 'omoios' should really be 'homoios'). There is a good deal of informal
relation of the material to other subfields of linguistics, especially useful in
an introductory book for possibly sparking the interest of students new to the
discipline. Instructors of American English speakers may want to draw explicit
attention to the pronunciations of English words in the book, since their
representations in the International Phonetic Alphabet will likely be different
for their students. (There are also a few terms or references which may at first
be lost on American-English-speaking students, but this merely presents a good
opportunity for discussion of dialectal differences.)
In any such book, much must be left out; however, students who intend to
continue in the study of semantics would, I think, benefit from more explicit
mention and explanation (however brief) of event semantics and semantic types.
The idea of possible worlds is mentioned in several places, but again, an
explicit note about their nature as a way to go about the study of meaning might
be useful. Finally, I must mention that in the interest of thoroughness it would
be beneficial to at least mention the idea of the perfect as an aspect-like
distinction, perhaps with a few references to those who have proposed such a
view (e.g. Pancheva & von Stechow 2004). Although the Perfect in English has
tense uses and the perfect in general is somewhat tense-like, the English
Perfect does co-occur with tense markings, like grammatical aspect and unlike
tense; a characterization of it as simply a ''Perfect tense'' is somewhat misleading.
There are just a few small points of organization that might be improved in
future editions. One thing that is a bit confusing in the layout of the book is
that both set-off quotations and data or information that would in some books be
presented in tables are both presented in blue type; it is not always apparent
at first whether the reader is about to read a quotation or a bit of data. In
addition, parts of the text are occasionally set off in blue boxes; the reason
for this is not terribly clear. An explicit explanation of this convention at
the beginning of the book might help the reader understand the author's motives
The book in general is an excellent introductory textbook for the instruction of
meaning in language, presenting complex concepts in a clear but detailed
fashion. It remains remarkably neutral without sacrificing rigor, and will be an
extremely useful teaching tool given the correct setting.
Dowty, David. 1991. Thematic proto-roles and argument selection. Language 67:
Frege, Gottlob. 1966 . On sense and reference. In Translations from the
Philosophical writings of Gottlob Frege, ed. by Peter Geach & Max Black, 56-78.
Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Jackendoff, Ray. 1983. Semantics and cognition. Cambridge, MA: MIT.
Lakoff, George. 1987. Women, fire and dangerous things: what categories reveal
about the mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Pancheva, Roumyana & Arnim von Stechow. 2004. On the present perfect puzzle. In
Proceedings of NELS 34, ed. by Keir Moulton & Matthew Wolf, 469-485. BookSurge
Pustejovsky, James. 1991. The generative lexicon. Computational Linguistics 17:
Sperber, Dan & Wilson, Deirdre. 1995. Relevance. Communication and cognition
(2nd edition). Oxford: Blackwell.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Sylvia Reed is a PhD candidate at the University of Arizona. Her dissertation focuses on the semantics of grammatical aspect, especially in Scottish Gaelic. Her main research interests lie in the semantics and morphosyntax of aspect, tense, mood, and modality; Scottish Gaelic; language description and documentation; and Ancient Greek.
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