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AUTHOR: M. Lynne Murphy TITLE: Lexical Meaning PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press YEAR: 2010
Cornelia Tschichold, Department of English Language and Literature, Swansea University, UK
Lynn Murphy’s textbook gives the linguistics student an introduction to lexical semantics and the major theories relevant to this area. Her stated aim in writing this textbook is ''to present problems of word meaning in all their messy glory'' (p. xiii). In the preface, the author suggests that the book is targeted at readers who have had an introduction to linguistics, but have not studied semantics in any depth.
The first chapter covers some preliminaries on the definition of the lexicon, the delimitation of the lexicon against grammar and what methods we have to investigate lexical semantics, despite the difficulties of knowing precisely what ''meaning'' is, or what exactly the entries in our mental lexicon look like. The reader is invited to test and compare the four methods presented (comparing entries in dictionaries, corpus research, using intuition, and experimentation) right from the start, via exercises for which answers are given at the end of the chapter.
Chapter 2 investigates denotative meaning and how we can distinguish semantic from pragmatic and other types of knowledge that speakers have about a word. Referential theory and image theory are described and some familiar counterexamples given.
Chapters 3 and 4 present the main theories of semantics. First, the classical componential theory that relies on semantic features (or primes) is introduced, including its more modern version, by Katz and Fodor. This is then contrasted with prototype theory and the main challenges that prototype theory mounted against earlier theories. In chapter 4, the reader is given an overview of more recent componential approaches. Jackendoff's Conceptual Semantics is introduced here in a lucid way, despite the brevity necessary in the context of a textbook. This and the following theories are evaluated through each theory's use of semantic primitives, through the way phrasal meaning is conceived to be built up from individual words and the way prototype effects are explained. The presentation of the various theories concludes with some of the main criticisms that have been raised against each one. Pustejovsky's Generative Lexicon is the second of the modern componential approaches described in this chapter. Wierzbicka's theory of Natural Semantic Metalanguage explicitly tries to avoid the kind of terminology used in Conceptual Semantics and the Generative Lexicon, but it shares with the other two approaches the attempt to break all lexical meaning down into a relatively small number of primitives. This approach can lead to interesting discussions about cultural differences evident in languages thanks to a much greater focus on cross-linguistic aspects than the other two theories. Where appropriate, Murphy points out parallels between theories. Somewhat shorter presentations of two non-componential approaches conclude this section: Fodor's Meaning Atomism, and Meaning as Image Schemas.
The next section looks at meaning variation and how the various theories have dealt with this. Chapter 5 starts by distinguishing vagueness from the two types of ambiguity, i.e. homonymy and polysemy, and presents linguistic tests that can be used to decide which category a word falls into. A short excursion into historical linguistics and word formation allows the author to give reasons for meaning variation as found in any language, before laying out the positions the main theories have on polysemy. Again the focus here is on making clear each theory's general approach to meaning variation and what kind of consequences this has.
In chapter 6 we return to the relatively well-known territory of lexical relations. Synonymy, antonymy and hyponymy are described in more detail than would be common in an introduction to linguistics.
The third section of the book gives a different perspective on lexical semantics again, looking at individual word classes and the kinds of issues that are particularly relevant in that context. Chapter 7 deals with the link between the major grammatical word classes and the typical semantic descriptions non-linguists would have for them. Ontological categories and prototypes for word classes are explored here.
Nouns are the subject of chapter 8, with a focus on countability in nouns and the resulting polysemy. Drawing on tools provided by the theories introduced earlier in the book, such as the feature of boundedness, the familiar count noun/mass noun distinction is broken down into smaller groups. Another tool from Conceptual Semantics, the ''Universal Packager'' operator offers an elegant solution to the well-known variation between 'tea' and 'a tea'. Wierzbicka's theory is presented as a possible explanation for cross-linguistic variations in countability that otherwise seem quite arbitrary.
Chapters 9 and 10 deal with two semantic issues particularly relevant for verbs. After explaining the differences in terminology between syntax and semantics in relation to the predicate, the meaning element of verbs is divided into different types of situations, i.e. states and events, including motion. The role of arguments is described using examples that help to make clear the distinction between arguments that need to be expressed, and incorporated arguments. A description of states and events then leads into the discussion of motion verbs. These have been the focus of much research recently, including research into cross-linguistic differences between motion verbs. Various meaning elements, such as path, manner, or cause, can be conflated in a motion verb, and this is well illustrated with examples from English. Polysemy then makes another appearance in the form of motion verbs that can have both causative and non-causative meanings. A short look at non-verbal predicates concludes the discussion of predication, argument structure and conflation of arguments. The second chapter on verb meanings deals with time elements, including Aktionsart. As before, the differences between a syntactic view and a semantic view are dealt with before embarking on the details of lexical aspect. The dimension of Aktionsarten discussed include static vs. dynamic, punctual vs. durative, telic vs. atelic, and inchoative. Vendler classes are presented as one classification that uses these dimensions for various situation types. One section discusses the similarities between boundedness and telicity, another looks at the parallels between hyponymy and troponymy, and other semantic relations that can be found among verbs.
The final chapter deals with the semantic properties of adjectives. One characteristic of adjectives is the fact that their meaning seems considerably less stable than that of nouns, but we still tend to think of that meaning as a single concept (as opposed to some dictionaries, which would tend to split meanings up into separate subentries for spatial and temporal dimensions, for example. The bulk of the chapter discusses gradability, however, rather than the elasticity of the core meaning of many adjectives. We learn about scalar and non-scalar absolute adjectives and totality modifiers, about gradable adjectives and the forms they can take, and about various types of scales, where adjectives can be positioned on these and how these differences manifest themselves in the words we can combine with specific adjectives.
On the whole, it can be said that the author's aim of showing us the ''problems of word meaning in all their messy glory '' has been achieved. A second-year student would find the first chapters relatively easy as these go over material that can be expected to be at least vaguely familiar to them before launching into new territory in the form of semantic theories and some of the more complex semantic issues. The fact that all chapters have two types of exercises, with and without answers in the book, further underlines the book's suitability for students, whether they want to read it on their own or work through it as part of a taught course on lexical semantics.
The chapter texts are interspersed with so-called puzzles; the answers or a discussion of possible answers then follows at the end of each chapter. Some thought has obviously gone into both the questions and the answers; they are well worth reading and some should prove to be particularly interesting for speakers of other language varieties and for learners of English. The end-of-chapter exercises include an ingenious ''Adopt-a-word'' series, for which a number of words are suggested, along with instruction on how to choose other good words. The tasks in this series could easily be adapted for a group work situation, but are just as suitable for self-study. Generally the exercises are well-constructed and include up-to-date examples that should keep students' interest. The exercises tend to become more challenging as the book progresses and are likely to provide ample material for in-class discussion.
Another staple at the end of each chapter is a (usually short) list of further reading suggestions. These follow a clear learning curve, going from references for basic terminology, grammars of English, morphology, and lexicography in chapter 1 to sources on the theories discussed in chapters 4 and 5 (with comments on the relative difficulty of the texts) and scholarly publications towards the end of the book.
Murphy's textbook is appealing for several reasons. It combines good coverage of the basics and introductions to the major theories with somewhat more in-depth discussions of issues such as countability or regular polysemy. Another positive aspect is the fact that the book does not try to gloss over the tricky aspects of semantics. The basic problem of finding or defining the dividing line between semantic meaning and concepts is well described and accessibly presented. Polysemy also features quite prominently throughout the book, an aspect some other textbooks say rather little about. It therefore gives the student of linguistics more to chew on than e.g. Cowie (2009), but is much more accessible than e.g. Kearns (2011).
While the general balance of topics works well for this kind of book, at times I would have liked to see a slightly fuller introduction to Conceptual Semantics in particular, a description that would make it easier to go back and re-read that section before tackling some of the exercises. My wish list for the second edition would also include the addition of more links to topics outside semantics proper. At several occasions Murphy helpfully points out the differing use of terminology between syntax and semantics, an aspect of the book which is clearly worthwhile given the intended audience. Links to other areas within linguistics are more sparse, but First and Second Language Acquisition or Computational Linguistics would surely be interesting areas to explore in this context, even if only in the exercises. A short concluding chapter could point the reader towards some unsolved questions in semantics as we encounter them in common Language Technology applications, for example.
To conclude, Murphy's new book will surely become a favourite among textbooks on semantics, thanks to the good balance and accessibility of topics provided, its well-constructed exercises, and the clear focus on the intended readership.
Cowie, A.P., 2009. Semantics. Oxford Introductions to Language Study. Oxford University Press.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Cornelia Tschichold is a lecturer in Applied Linguistics at Swansea
University. She has taught introductions to linguistics and various other
courses on linguistic topics there and in Switzerland. Her research focus
is on Intelligent Computer-Assisted Language Learning, and vocabulary
acquisition, which has led her -- reluctantly -- to take an interest in
polysemy, especially crosslinguistically divergent polysemy.