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LINGUIST List 25.446

Mon Jan 27 2014

Review: Semantics: Löbner (2013)

Editor for this issue: Rajiv Rao <rajivlinguistlist.org>

Date: 15-Dec-2013
From: Marisa Carpenter <mjsmith27wisc.edu>
Subject: Understanding Semantics, Second Edition
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/24/24-2563.html

AUTHOR: Sebastian Löbner
TITLE: Understanding Semantics, Second Edition
SERIES TITLE: Understanding Language
PUBLISHER: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
YEAR: 2013

REVIEWER: Marisa J. Carpenter, University of Wisconsin-Madison


This book by Sebastian Löbner is intended for an undergraduate-level
introduction to semantics course. It contains 13 chapters, each with exercises
and a list of further readings. The introduction suggests a division into two
parts: the first, “a step-by-step guide to the main phenomena and notions of
semantics, covering levels and dimensions of meaning, ambiguity, meaning and
context, logical relations and meaning relations, the basics of noun
semantics, verb semantics and sentence semantics,” and the second, “a critical
introduction to the basic notions of the three major theoretical approaches to
meaning: structuralism, cognitive semantics and formal semantics.” The
monograph includes references to many different languages -- though the
majority of examples are from English -- and explicitly maintains a mentalist
approach throughout. A list of sections that have been added to this edition
is provided in the preface.

In Chapter 1 (“Meaning and semantics”), the author seeks to provide a “more
precise definition of semantics.” He distinguishes semantics from pragmatics,
citing Grice’s theory of ‘Conversational Implicatures,’ Relevance Theory
(Sperber and Wilson), and Speech Act Theory (John L. Austin and John K.
Searle). The chapter covers three levels of semantic meaning: expression
meaning, utterance meaning and communicative meaning. A further important
distinction is made between lexical meaning (i.e., learned and stored in the
mental lexicon) and compositional meaning (i.e., through the application of
general semantic rules). Following a mentalist approach, the author
establishes I-language (i.e., the internal language apparatus of individuals)
as the essential object of study.

The goal of Chapter 2 (“Dimensions of meaning”) is to provide a more precise
description of expression meaning. The first part deals with descriptive
meaning and the relationship between meaning, reference and truth, and the
second part covers non-descriptive meaning (i.e., social expression and
subjective attitudes and evaluations). Meaning is defined as a mental
description known as a concept. For example, the meaning of the word ‘dog’
implicates knowledge about the concept (i.e., description) of dogs as linked
to a particular pattern of sounds. Although the chapter addresses three
dimensions of meaning (i.e., descriptive, social and expressive), the author
points out that the book will focus primarily on descriptive meaning.

Chapter 3 (“Ambiguity”) addresses ambiguity at all the levels of meaning
presented so far, once again stressing the importance of distinguishing
lexical meaning from compositional meaning. As such, it covers ambiguity at
the lexical (i.e., word) and compositional (i.e., sentence) levels. The lexeme
is taken as the basic unit of analysis, defined by the constitutive properties
involved in its interpretation: sound form, spelling, grammatical category,
inherent grammatical properties (e.g., gender, aspect, etc.), sets of
grammatical forms it may take, and lexical meaning. The notions of polysemy
and homonymy (with homography and homophony) are defined and contrasted with
reference to German and Japanese. Polysemy is emphasized as an abundant source
of ambiguity and is followed by a fundamental discussion on the general
vagueness of lexical meaning that allows for flexible adaptation in contexts
of utterances (CoUs). The author points out that vagueness need not involve
polysemy and highlights cases of meaning shifts that allow different readings
without polysemy, such as shifts by metonymy, metaphor and differentiation
(three important aspects of contextual ambiguity).

Chapter 4 (“Meaning and context”) comprises three parts: deixis, determination
of noun phrases (NPs), and presuppositions. According to the author, these are
“three phenomena which are normally not treated together in other textbooks on
semantics or pragmatics” but are “more closely connected than is commonly
recognized” (p. 62) because they all reside in the interface between
expression meaning and utterance meaning and contribute to the indexicality of
language. The deixis section covers definiteness, person, gender, number and
social meaning in personal, possessive and demonstrative pronouns. Personal
pronoun paradigms are compared across multiple languages, revealing three
common strategies for using existing pronouns to achieve higher levels of
formality. Part 2, ‘Determination,’ covers definiteness (of articles),
semantic and pragmatic uniqueness of NPs, quantification and genericity, all
of which illustrate the many layers of structure that NPs can have.
Definiteness is presented as the central phenomenon of determination. Because
definite NPs carry presuppositions, the author transitions into Part 3 by
asserting that presuppositions concern indexicality because they impose
conditions on the CoU and thus “indicate what kind of context is required for
the sentence to make sense” (p. 102).

Chapter 5 (“Predication”) looks at how content words (i.e., of the three main
word classes: verbs, nouns, adjectives) and other types combine to create
meaningful sentences and fragments. To convey the idea of predication, or
semantic function, the author provides as an example the following sentence,
containing three referents (i.e., Johnny, money, company):

Johnny sent money to a dubious company.

And he explains “[i]f an expression provides information about a referent, it
is said to make a ‘predication’ or ‘predicate’ about it” (p. 107). He calls
words that contribute to a predication, predicate terms (i.e., verbs, nouns,
adjectives or adverbs), and refers to the meanings of these as concepts (=
predicates) concerning 1+ entities (= arguments). The verbal predicate term,
‘sent,’ for example, has three arguments and the noun, ‘company,’ only one.
The author shows how argument specification differs across the three word
classes and describes the following main aspects of predication: predicate
logic notation (PL), thematic roles (contrasted with verbal arguments) and
linking strategies (i.e., agreement, case, word order), and selection
restrictions (i.e., logical restrictions on arguments).

Chapter 6 (“Verbs”) focuses on how verbs express the “central predication
around which the whole sentence is organized” (p. 134). This chapter deals
mostly with grammatical meaning, focusing on three general issues: diatheses,
aspect and tense. Mood and modality are deemed too complex for the purposes of
this textbook. The discussion on diathesis involves variations in argument
structure, called ‘alterations,’ in passive/antipassive and
causative/anticausative constructions. The author references Levin’s (1993)
classification of English verbs based on patterns of syntactic constructions
and alternations. As it does not relate to temporal structure, the author also
presents the more general situation structure, meant to capture ‘aspectual
class,’ and introduces five classes: accomplishments, processes, simple
changes, achievements, and simple occurrences (each is visually representated
(Figures 6.1-6.5, pp. 142, 145-147). The author then shows how they interact
with four types of verbal aspect: imperfective, perfective, perfect and
prospective (also visually represented [Figures 6.7-6.9, pp. 152, 154, 156]),
followed by a discussion on how these aspectual readings interact with the
three verbal tenses. The chapter concludes with a cross-linguistic comparison
of tense and aspect systems.

Chapter 7 (“Meaning and logic”) covers basic principles of logic and negation
at the sentence level, including contingency and entailment. The author
demonstrates why logical relations are not to be confused with meaning
relations. While logic entails the truth conditions and denotations determined
by meaning, meaning is not fully represented. Words and sentences can be
logically equivalent and still differ in both descriptive and non-descriptive
meaning. The author explains that the logical approach to meaning is useful to
the semanticist because it provides concrete results that confirm close
descriptive relationships between expressions.

Again taking a conceptualist view (meaning = concept), Chapter 8 (“Meaning
relations”) treats the conceptual notions of synonymy, antonymy, heteronymy,
hyponymy, taxonomy, and mereology/meronymy in the analysis of meaning
relations between expressions. The author insists that it is necessary to
distinguish logical from conceptual meaning to fully understand the field of
semantics. Additionally, the chapter covers the notions of opposition and
lexical fields regarding meaning relations. Lexical fields (e.g., terms for
the days of the week) are defined as a group of lexemes of the same word class
whose meanings have something in common, that are interrelated by precisely
definable meaning relations and that form a complete unit in terms of relevant
meaning relations.

Chapter 9 (“Meaning components”) begins the section of the book that
introduces the three major theoretical approaches to meaning: structuralism,
cognitive semantics and formal semantics. The structuralist approach is
presented here in detail and not restricted to the field of semantics. The
discussion focuses on the analysis of meaning by decomposition and begins with
the original Saussurean notion of signs (i.e., words) differentiated by
contrastive properties, which became the Binary Feature Approach (BFA). The
author presents “severe” limitations of the BFA but also attributes great
value to structuralism for its emphasis on linguistic data and systematic
relations within language systems, which have helped to develop the
theoretical methods of today. He then explores three alternative approaches to
decomposition: Dowty’s Decompositional Semantics (1979), Jackendoff’s
Conceptual Semantics (2011), and Semantic Primes (cf. Wierzbicka 1996).

Chapter 10 (“Meaning and language comparison”) transitions from structural to
cognitive and formal approaches by exploring the structural assumption that
language systems are separate, unrelated systems, and poses the following
questions: How great are the differences between languages?; Are semantic
systems arbitrary or constrained by universal principles? To answer these, the
author looks at cross-linguistic problems of translation due to conceptual and
social differences and concludes that languages vary considerably. He then
takes up the relativism versus universalism debate with reference to Berlin
and Kay’s (1969) color terms study, concluding that although such studies show
that the arbitrariness assumed in structuralism can be constrained (i.e., by
cultural tendencies), differences among languages are the rule rather than the
exception, and, therefore, “a relativist attitude is absolutely necessary for
all who seriously try to understand other languages” (p. 263). He goes on to
say that once we are aware of the differences, we may then attempt to
determine underlying commonalities that make languages comparable.

Chapter 11 (“Meaning and cognition”) introduces the cognitive approach to
semantics. The author states that whereas structuralism focuses on describing
meaning relations, cognitive approaches focus on meanings themselves. He
presents the fundamental cognitive idea of meaning categorization,
concentrating on Prototype Theory (PT). He describes PT as an improvement over
the traditional view of ‘necessary and sufficient conditions’ for defining
categories because it allows for membership of varying degrees, and then
presents serious problems of the theory for semantic analysis. According to
the author, the most problematic issue is that the central idea of graded
category membership is in conflict with the fundamental semantic phenomenon of
polarization (i.e., yes-no membership). He suggests revising it so that
categories are not analyzed as having fuzzy boundaries, but rather boundaries
that can be reset in any given context in a flexible way.

Chapter 12 (“Frames”) introduces Frame Theory (Barsalou 1992) as a cognitive
theory with the potential to overcome some of the previously mentioned
problems with other approaches. The author deems it superior to the binary
feature approach for allowing non-binary features (e.g., attributes), and to
prototype semantics for providing an explicit, concrete internal structure for
conceptual analysis that is applicable to all parts of speech. Represented by
matrices and graphs of nodes and arrows, frames depict chunks of knowledge and
signal relationships between concepts involved. With these, we can account for
regular meaning shifts and compounds as referential node shifts. For example,
by metonymy, reference to ‘university’ may shift to one of its corresponding
attributes: campus, administration, etc.

The final chapter (“Formal semantics”) addresses the third and final major
approach to semantics, which the author highlights as the most fully developed
and most technical and difficult, as well as the one that has been used most
often thus far in sentence semantics. Here, meaning is treated as a matter of
reference and truth conditions, with a focus on composition rather than
decomposition. The author begins by illustrating the idea of compositional
meaning using the Chinese numeral system. Then, taking an English fragment, he
demonstrates how formal semantic analysis works: by translation into formal
language (i.e., the predicate logic language [PL-E] introduced in Chapter 5)
and interpretation by logical formulae (introduced in Chapter 7), in addition
to some further steps (i.e., fixing models for the PL-E and introducing
general interpretation rules). He attests that deriving truth conditions from
the formal apparatus settles important semantic questions at the sentence
level but cautions that it does not account for actual meanings of natural
language expressions. Therefore, he introduces Possible-World Semantics (PWS)
as a way to generate a complete account of the input-output characteristics of
the language system. However, because PWS accounts only indirectly for
descriptive meaning and not at all for non-descriptive meaning, the author
concludes that the mentalist approach, advocated throughout the book, is
superior because it describes the language system itself (i.e., its structure
and operation).

Finally, the book includes an online component (URL: http://www.routledge.com/
cw/loebner-9781444122435/) that provides checklists of “key notions” by
chapter and a dictionary of technical terms with brief definitions of around
300 terms. It also has downloadable pdf versions of figures and tables for use
in teaching, presentations, term papers, etc., glossing conventions
“follow[ing] the Leibzig Glossing Rules,”
(http://www.routledge.com/cw/loebner-9781444122435/s1/glossing/) and links to
external websites, such as Ethnologue, The World Color Survey, FrameNet, etc.
Additionally, instructors can download answers to the chapter exercises.


Although the two parts of the textbook suggested in the introduction are not
clearly separated, it does, indeed, cover both things promised: “a
step-by-step guide to the main phenomena and notions of semantics” (Chapters
1-8) and “a critical introduction to the basic notions of the three major
theoretical approaches to meaning: structuralism, cognitive semantics and
formal semantics” (Chapters 9-13). Similarly, although the organization of
topics is not necessarily apparent based on the chapter titles, it is clear
that the organization is very well thought out. Concepts are introduced in
such a way that each new one constructively builds on previously covered
concepts. For example, in Chapter 5, on predication, the author attempts to
build on the readers’ understanding of the complex notion of predicate terms
by relating them to metonymical shifts presented in Chapter 3 and then employs
the same strategy to illustrate how Frame Theory works. Additionally, the
chapter exercises provide opportunities for students to apply concepts in
hands-on ways that both help solidify concepts and introduce students to some
possible research methods.

There is no set model for how the author presents concepts; rather, with much
thought and planning, he tailors each chapter according to what he deems most
productive. For example, with simpler concepts (e.g., verbal tense),
definitions are provided first, followed by further explanation, examples,
etc. And with more complex concepts (e.g., verbal aspect and metonymy),
definitions are given only after first building up to them with illustration
by examples. The use of examples is also productive in a similar way. Rather
than providing new examples for each concept introduced, the author
strategically recycles examples to allow readers to access specific knowledge
previously attained in the textbook. The use of linguistic terminology in the
textbook is well thought out as well, and impeccably consistent. The author
conscientiously and explicitly either selects a term that exists in the
literature or provides a new or modified one, clearly defending each choice.
And in the common event that multiple terms for particular concepts can be
found, they are provided (usually in a footnote) to help prevent any possible
confusion. However, one potential shortcoming is the way the mentalist
approach is spread throughout without a clear recap to help students
understand where, exactly, it fits in among the main approaches described. It
would be appropriate to include this at the end of Chapter 13.

Although the book is intended for an undergraduate-level introduction to
semantics, it is rather advanced and could also serve well at the graduate
level. For undergraduates especially, prior linguistic knowledge, specifically
in syntax, and perhaps experience in some other fields would be advisable in
order to prepare students for many aspects of the book. For example, Chapter 7
would require at least some training in fields that apply the concept of logic
in order for students to make much sense of the content. It would also be
advisable to prepare students ahead of time and explain the key purposes of
applying logic (among other complex notions) to semantic studies.


Barsalou, Lawrence W. 1992. Frames, concepts, and conceptual fields. In
Lehrer, Adrienne and Eva Feder Kittay (eds), Frames, Fields, and Contrasts:
New Essays in Semantic and Lexical Organization. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum
Associates.. 21-74.

Berlin, Brent & Paul Kay. 1969. Basic Color Terms. Their Universality and
Evolution. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of Los Angeles Press.

Dowty, David R. 1979. Word Meaning and Montague Grammar. Dordrecht: Reidel.

Jackendoff, Ray. 2011. Conceptual semantics. In Maienborn, von Heusinger and
Portner (eds), Semantics: An International Handbook of Natural Language
Meaning, Part 1. Berlin/Boston: Walter de Gruyter. 688-709.

Levin, Beth. 1993. English Verb Classes and Alternations. A Preliminary
Investigation. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Wierzbicka, Anna. 1996. Semantics: Primes and Universals. Oxford/New York:
Oxford University Press.


Marisa Carpenter is a PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in
the Department of Spanish and Portuguese. She is currently writing her
dissertation on universals of semantic change from a cognitive perspective,
with a particular focus on the Spanish language. Her research interests
include semantics, cognitive linguistics, and diachronic variation and change.
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