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LINGUIST List 23.5344

Tue Dec 18 2012

Review: Semantics; Syntax; Cognitive Science; Psycholing: Werning et al. (2012)

Editor for this issue: Monica Macaulay <monicalinguistlist.org>

Date: 18-Dec-2012
From: Michael Putnam <syntaxpunkgmail.com>
Subject: The Oxford Handbook of Compositionality
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/23/23-769.html

EDITORS: Markus Werning, Wolfram Hinzen, Edouard Machery
TITLE: The Oxford Handbook of Compositionality
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2012

Michael T. Putnam, Penn State University


One of the most contentious topics in modern semantic inquiry -- and one that
has drawn considerable debate -- is the concept of compositionality. In modern
linguistic thought, the notion that the meaning of an expression is generally
determined by the syntax and meaning of its (sub)components was first proposed
by Frege, and, in more recent times, has been extended to studies related to
what constraints are at play between syntactic and semantic systems, the
underlying structure of representational systems and neural architectures.
With the recent recommitment to attempt to connect linguistics more directly
with other academic disciplines (e.g. language and mind, philosophy, and areas
in cognitive science), this handbook is a much needed and timely addition to
the literature. The scope and content of this handbook extends far beyond
simply being a reference work that will only be consulted and cited as a
trusted reference in term papers, dissertations, and journal articles. Rather,
the contributions that Werning, Hinzen and Machery have compiled here provide
a cutting-edge snapshot of our growing knowledge (including some contentious
debates) of what the scientific community understands regarding the concept of
compositionality, and exactly in what domains this knowledge is incomplete or
in need of reconsideration and revision.


This volume consists of seven parts, with the focus of each subsection being
dedicated to a primary topic pertaining to composition. In Part 1 (“History
and overview”), the contributions are directed towards a clearer understanding
of the history of compositionality in linguistics and philosophy. Theo Janssen
starts the volume with his contribution entitled, “Compositionality: Its
historical context”. After a detailed rundown of linguists’ and philosophers’
thoughts on the notion of compositionality throughout the 19th and 20th
centuries, Janssen arrives at the conclusion that the wide support for
compositionality is not for principled reasons, but for practical reasons.
Marcus Kracht’s chapter (“Compositionality in Montague Grammar”) discusses how
compositionality has traditionally been modeled in Montague Grammar. The third
contribution in this section written by Zoltán Gendler Szabó (“The case for
compositionality”), adopts a more philosophical point of view, discussing the
difficulty of formulating a concrete definition of compositionality. In
particular, Szabó raises interesting questions such as the following, “Are we
concerned with ‘meanings’ that are being combined, or is it syntactic
constituents? Are we talking about the meaning that constituents have
individually, or that they have when taken together?” (p. 2). Szabó
instantiates the hypothesis that once we have fixed the individual meanings of
syntactic constituents in a given expression, and have fixed a particular
syntactic structure, that no other components exist that will contribute to
and determine meaning. The final paper in this section, Thomas Eide
Zimmermann’s “Compositionality problems and how to solve them”, illustrates
the role that compositionality has played as a constraint on semantic analysis
in a number of case studies (e.g., quantified NPs in object position and
intensional arguments).

The primary concern of Part II (“Compositionality in language”) highlights
areas where philosophers and linguists have traditionally differed in
fundamental ways in their understanding and application of compositionality.
Pauline Jacobson (“Direct compositionality”) advances the argument that the
mapping between syntactic structure and semantic meaning does not require any
‘hidden’ level of structural representation, i.e., Logical Form (LF), and can
be mediated through a more direct mapping between some form of combinatorial
syntactic grammar and a compositional semantics. The contribution by Paul
Pietroski (“Semantic monadicity with conceptual polyadicity”) focuses on the
connection between thought and linguistic expression. Pietroski discusses the
disconnection between lexical meanings, which are held to be uniformly
monadic, and arguments, which saturate these meanings. According to Pietroski,
a simple conjoining operation (rather than a combinatorial operation) is
responsible for maintaining strictly monadic relations. Francis Jeffry
Pelletier (“Holism and compositionality”) and François Recanati
(“Compositionality, flexibility, and context dependence”) address potential
counterarguments against compositionality, when they discuss holism and
context dependency respectively and how/if a concept of compositionality can
exist in relation to these contrasting notions. Dag Westerståhl
(“Compositionality in Kaplan style semantics”) addresses how compositionality
can best be modeled in Kaplan style semantics, a theoretical approach that
allows certain kinds of semantic values to be determined by extra-linguistic
contexts. Introducing graded notions of compositionality (e.g., strictly,
contextually, and weakly compositional readings), Westerståhl demonstrates how
problematic phenomena such as indexicals, unarticulated constituents,
modulation, and pragmatic intrusion can be modeled to conform to (some
version) of compositionality. Lastly, Sebastian Löbner
(“Sub-compositionality”) writes on the issue that some syntactic construction
types do not correspond to a single way of combining the semantic types
assigned to their constituents. Löbner sketches out a novel approach to deal
with problems that arise from sub-compositionality, such as the elimination of
a homomorphy of composition operations in the syntactic and semantic domains.

Part III (“Compositionality in formal semantics”) consists of three papers,
whose purpose, which in some regards is similar to the discussions and debates
found in Part I, is to arrive at a working historical and contemporary
definition of compositionality and how it can and should be best applied in
formal semantic analyses. Wilfrid Hodges (“Formalizing the relationship
between meaning and syntax”) treats both historical and formal aspects of
compositionality in semantics. From a historical perspective, Hodges traces
the concept of compositionality back to the Aristotelian theory of meaning and
Arab philosophers such as Ibn Sina and Al-Farabi. From a formal perspective,
Hodges returns to the so-called Extension Problem: Given that one has already
assigned meanings to some subset of expressions in a language by some meaning
function, what are the conditions under which one can extend this original
meaning function to the rest of the language? Hodges discusses how his (2001)
extension theorem addresses these issues. Gabriel Sandu’s contribution,
“Compositionality and the Context Principle”, continues Hodges’s discussion of
the Extension Problem. The prime aim of Sandu’s chapter focuses on the
relation between the principle of compositionality and the Principle of
Contextuality. This third section closes with Tim Fernando’s paper entitled
“Compositionality in discourse from a logical perspective”, where he extends
the discussion of compositionality to include discourse-level phenomena.
Fernando provides an overview of a number of formal semantic theories of
discourse, including model-theoretic treatments such as Discourse
Representation Theory (DRT; Kamp and Reyle, 1993) and competing
proof-theoretic accounts.

The fourth subsection of volume (“Lexical decomposition”) moves toward the
question of the meaning of lexical constituents themselves. Dieter
Wunderlich’s “Lexical decomposition in grammar” delivers a survey of ideas
originating in generative semantics and how they have been implemented in
various theoretical approaches, eventually arriving at Lexical Decomposition
Grammar (which stands in contrast to the strictly atomist position of Fodor &
Lepore 1998, 1999). Similar to Wunderlich, Heidi Harley argues against the
atomist position and in favor of some version of lexical decomposition in her
chapter, “Lexical decomposition in modern syntactic theory”. Harley approaches
this problem from modern minimalist syntax, and shows clear ways where modern
theory has adopted core conceptual notions found in Generative Semantics, as
well as areas of divergence. Wolfram Hinzen’s piece, “Syntax in the atom”,
re-opens the atomist vs. lexical decomposition debate, approaching this debate
in similar fashion to Pietroski’s earlier contribution in Part II, from the
perspectives of the atomicity of human thought and its relation to lexical
decomposition. In conclusion, Hinzen accepts that the only logical approach to
amend these concerns is through a revision of the architecture of the grammar.
James Pustejovsky’s “Co-compositionality in grammar” closes out this section
on lexical decomposition. Pustejovsky takes a closer look at ‘co-composition’,
a term he uses to define the process of how compositional processes determined
by the phrasal structure of an expression are supplemented by additional
interpretative mechanisms at the interface between the mental lexicon and
syntactic structure.

Part V (“The composition of mind”) shifts the focus of the volume to
theoretical challenges involving the principle of compositionality and its
relation to psychology. In “Emergency!!! -- Challenges to a compositional
understanding of noun-noun combinations” Edward Wisniewski and Jing Wu explore
how speakers interpret novel noun-noun compounds (e.g. ‘zebra football’) with
a particular focus on speakers of English and Chinese. Wisniewski and Wu show
that speakers attribute ‘emergency properties’ that are not attributed to the
individual members of the compound. James Hampton and Martin Jönsson continue
with this theme in their contribution, “Typicality and compositionality: The
logic of combining vague concepts”. Hampton and Jönsson introduce and endorse
the prototype theory of concepts and its relation to the principle of
compositionality. Lila Gleitman, Andrew Connolly, and Sharon Lee Armstrong
challenge the core notions held in prototype theory in their chapter, “Can
prototype representations support composition and decomposition?” Jesse
Prinz’s “Regaining composure: a defense of prototype compositionality” also
enters into this ongoing debate regarding the validity of prototype theory in
defense of the psychological research on concept combination. In closing,
Edouard Machery and Lisa Lederer present a critical overview of three
influential models of concept combination in their chapter, “Simple heuristics
for concept combination”.

“Evolutionary and communicative success” is the central focus of the
contributions found in Part VI. Michael Arbib (“Compositionality and beyond:
Embodied meaning in language and protolanguage”) argues that natural languages
have compositionality but that they need not intrinsically be compositional by
default in their design. Arbib compares and contrasts ‘the compositional view’
with ‘the holophrastic view’ in describing the ontology of the protolanguage
of homo sapiens, with the former championing the position that protolanguage
consisted of “words, but not syntax” and the latter where protolanguage
consisted of communicative acts that could not be further decomposed into
smaller meaningful units. In this chapter, Arbib supports ‘the holophrastic
view’, which plays an important role in Kenny Smith and Simon Kirby’s
contribution, “Compositionality and linguistic evolution”. Smith and Kirby
take issue with Pinker and Bloom’s (1990) approach to biological evolution
and, in contrast, hypothesize that compositionality is a socially learned
behavior. Peter Pagin’s “Communication and the complexity of semantics”
challenges the traditional idea that compositionality is required for a
grammar to be learnable. Pagin postulates that compositionality ensures that
complex expressions can be learned and processed in a quick and efficient
manner, and, as a result, compositionality reduces computational complexity.
This discussion of evolution and communication success closes with Gerhard
Schurz’s chapter, “Prototypes and their composition from an evolutionary point
of view”, where he presents his case for why prototypes are an efficient way
of representing natural classes of objects and concepts.

The final section of this volume, Part VII (“Neural models of compositional
representation”), is dedicated to cutting-edge research involving neural
networking and its relation to theories of compositionality. Terry Horgan’s
programmatic article, “Connectionism, dynamical cognition, and non-classical
compositional representation”, develops a dynamical-cognition framework to
account for a non-traditional notion of compositionality. Horgan suggests that
his framework might provide a foundation for cognitive science. Martina Penke
(“The dual-mechanism debate”) takes on the task of addressing the controversy
between classicism and connectionism in psycholinguistic modeling of
morphological inflections. Terrence Stewart and Chris Eliasmith
(“Compositionality and biologically plausible models”) compare recent
proposals for the implementation of compositionality in local and distributed
connectionist models. Alexander Maye and Andreas Engel (“Neural assembly
models of compositionality”) present empirical evidence in favor of
object-related neural synchrony in the cortex, as well as topologically
structured cortical feature maps. The idea of developing a neuro-emulative
semantic system is taken up in Markus Werning’s contribution, “Non-symbolic
compositional representation and its neuronal foundation: toward an emulative
semantics”. Although structurally similar to model-theoretic approaches to
semantics (e.g. Discourse Representation Theory (DRT)), Werning employs the
notion of set-theoretic constructions of neural emulations (but not of their
denotations). The section and volume as a whole concludes with Giosuè Baggio,
Michiel van Lambalgen, and Peter Hagoort’s chapter entitled “The processing
consequences of compositionality”. In this chapter they speculate as to
whether or not the notion of compositionality can be reduced to a testable
principle from a processing perspective. Although they uphold compositionality
in most cases, they point out that an account of processing from a
compositional standpoint faces significant challenges when it must account for
interactions between sentences and discourse context, perceptual cues and
stored knowledge.


Reviewing a handbook represents a serious challenge, because in most cases, a
handbook contains discussions and treatments of long-held axioms and
conventions that are generally agreed upon as being more or less “canonical”
in a given field of academic study. Although this handbook definitely exhibits
these qualities to some extent -- especially in the first half of the volume
-- the editors should be commended for also having the vision to create a
forward-looking volume that highlights both current debates in the field as
well as speculative theoretical questions that will likely shape and direct
future research endeavors in the years to come. The editors did an excellent
job of bringing together academics with various, diverse specializations (e.g.
philosophy, linguistics, and cognitive science) to contribute to a volume with
such a broad scope of coverage. As is the case with most of these handbooks,
the price of these volumes, especially those which are not published in a
paperback edition as well as a hardback, is far too pricey for the average
consumer to buy. Aside from the unfortunate high price for this reference
work, this volume and its contents will undoubtedly have a high impact in
various fields of language science for years to come.


Fodor, J. & E. Lepore. 1998. The emptiness of the lexicon: Reflections on
James Pustejovsky’s ‘The Generative Lexicon’. Linguistic Inquiry 29: 269-88.

Fodor, J. & E. Lepore. 1999. Impossible words? Linguistic Inquiry 30: 445-53.

Hodges, W. 2001. Formal features of compositionality. Journal of Logic,
Language and Information 10: 7-28.

Kamp, H. & U. Reyle. 1993. From discourse to logic: Introduction to
model-theoretic semantics of natural language, formal logic and discourse
representation theory. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Pinker, S. & P. Bloom. 1990. Natural language and natural selection.
Behavioral and Brain Sciences 13.4: 707-84.


Michael T. Putnam is an Assistant Professor of German & Linguistics at Penn
State University. His primary research interests lie in the fields of
theoretical syntax, lexical semantics, contact linguistics, and bilingualism.
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