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AUTHOR: Riemer, Nick TITLE: Introducing Semantics SERIES TITLE: Cambridge Introductions to Language and Linguistics PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press YEAR: 2010
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 explanation.
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 book.
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 better.
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: 547-619.
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 Publishing.
Pustejovsky, James. 1991. The generative lexicon. Computational Linguistics 17: 409-441.
Sperber, Dan & Wilson, Deirdre. 1995. Relevance. Communication and cognition (2nd edition). Oxford: Blackwell.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
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.