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Review of  Semantics

Reviewer: Carrie A. Ankerstein
Book Title: Semantics
Book Author: John Ibrahim Saeed
Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell
Linguistic Field(s): Semantics
Subject Language(s): English
Language Family(ies): New English
Issue Number: 14.2138

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Date: Mon, 11 Aug 2003 16:33:21 +0100
From: C A Ankerstein
Subject: 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 chapter.

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 account.

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 roles.

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 discussed.

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

ABOUT THE REVIEWER 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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