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Review of Semantics: an Introduction to Non-Lexical Aspects of Meaning
Date: Wed, 7 Dec 2005 14:07:49 -0000 From: Verginica Mititelu Subject: Semantics: An Introduction to Non-lexical Aspects of Meaning
AUTHOR: Bennett, Paul TITLE: Semantics SUBTITLE: An Introduction to Non-lexical Aspects of Meaning SERIES: LINCOM Coursebooks in Linguistics 12 PUBLISHER: Lincom GmbH YEAR: 2002
Verginica Barbu Mititelu, School of Humanities, Languages and Social Sciences, University of Wolverhampton, and Romanian Academy Research Institute for Artificial Intelligence.
DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK'S PURPOSE AND CONTENT
Semantics is generally defined as the linguistic subfield that studies the meaning of linguistic expressions, be they words, phrases, sentences, and texts (see Chierchia and McConnell-Ginet 1990). There are more areas of study in semantics: the relations between different linguistic expressions (synonymy, antonymy, hyponymy, meronymy, etc.), thematic roles, argument structure (thus having connections with syntax), the area of studying the sense and reference, the truth conditions, and the formalization of meaning.
Paul Bennett's ''Semantics'' is an intermediate-level textbook on semantics. As the subtitle indicates, the book covers topics related to non-lexical aspects of meaning, thus one cannot expect to find here discussions related to lexico-semantic relations and not even to formalization of the meaning of linguistic expressions (although this is also not specifically lexical in nature).
Besides delimiting the area of interest, the introductory chapter provides explanations for the grammaticalization phenomenon, the distinctions polysemy-monosemy, semantics-pragmatics, and for prototypes. These notions prove useful in the other chapters, where the author focuses on specific topics.
Chapter 2 deals with syntactic and semantic categories. The main questions receiving an answer here are the following: can one predict the syntactic category and behaviour of a word by only considering its meaning? do syntactic characteristics of words follow directly from their meaning? Both questions receive a partially affirmative answer. The prototype theory is helpful here to distinguish between words that are prototypical representatives of a syntactic category and those that are marginal within the syntactic category they belong to (see the case of words derived from members of other category and retaining the semantics of their source category).
Chapter 3 presents the proposition types, with special focus on Vendler classes (states, activities, achievements, accomplishments): their characteristics, some problems related to this classification, alternative approaches (Steedman1977, Chafe 1970), the distinction between grammatical relations and argument structure, two notions that are useful in some classifications of propositions.
Chapter 4 deals with deixis in its four forms: person, social, special and temporal.
The semantics of the three tenses (past, present, future) makes the topic of the fifth chapter. The notion of time is also necessary to describe the tense system. Reichenbach's system is presented altogether with alternative analyses (Klein's, Bull's). The future tense stands alone among the English tenses due to its modal-like status (that is why this is also discussed in chapter 7 where modality is in focus).
A discussion of the semantics of tense must also consider aspect. Chapter 6 presents the characteristics of the perfective and imperfective (habitual and progressive) aspects, their more or less controversial status, and some aspect frameworks.
The semantics of verbs and of proposition also cannot ignore modality, which makes the topic of the seventh chapter. There are different ways of expressing modality, but special emphasis here is on the grammaticalized forms of expressing it: auxiliaries. The distinction between deontic and epistemic modality (and other types with a controversial or at least not widely recognized status) is exemplified and discussed drawing the reader's attention on the degrees of modality. Auxiliaries are polysemantic: they are used to express various modal meanings. Different approaches to this problem are critically presented.
Chapter 8 deals with negation: its types (sentential versus constituent negation), its scope and focus (here metalinguistic negation and negative raising are presented), polarity, its interaction with modality, the semantics of negative sentences, the pragmatic aspects involved in the use of negation. However, when discussing the semantics of negation, we think that it is worth mentioning expletive negation (a formally negative sentence with a positive meaning) (for a detailed classification of negation using various criteria and with examples from Romanian see Barbu Mititelu and Maftei Ciolaneanu 2004).
The last chapter focuses on the semantics of determination: its types, and its lexical ways of expression.
Each chapter is followed by some notes and suggestions for further reading on the topics dealt with in the respective chapter. The book also contains a short glossary of the key terms used, a bibliography and an index.
Whenever an approach is presented, it is critically evaluated by the author: its advantages and disadvantages, its coverage of the phenomenon, its applicability are discussed. Any shortcoming of an approach is exploited to justify alternative approaches existent in the literature dealing with the respective phenomenon. For instance, the fact that in Reichenbach's tense system there is no definition for the notion of reference time was objected to by W. Klein, who proposed another tense system. In cases when more than one approach to a phenomenon is presented, the correspondences between them are emphasized.
In chapter 3, we think that an enlarged discussion about the inventory of semantic roles would have been appropriate. The author's reasons for avoiding that are stated on page 54: ''defining semantic roles is extremely difficult'', ''they are no longer central objects of linguistic investigations'', ''their usefulness is very limited''. We agree with that position only partially. The FrameNet project (http://framenet.icsi.berkeley.edu/index.php?option=com_frontpage&Itemid=1), the attempts to build such a resource for other languages than English, and the utility of such a resource (http://framenet.icsi.berkeley.edu/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=84&Itemid=62) is proof that it is worth studying semantic roles and creating databases with such roles for predicates. They are useful for further applications in Natural Language Processing (http://framenet.icsi.berkeley.edu/index.php?option=content&task=view&id=39&Itemid=42).
Terminology may vary from one school to another and sometimes from one linguist to another. The author mentions them and also provides reasons for the terminology he adopts (see for instance page 140 for the discussion of the terms ''mood'' and ''modality'').
Each topic discussed is presented from both a monolingual and a cross-lingual perspective. Languages vary in the way semantic classes are realized syntactically, in the fact that translationally equivalent propositions may display different grammatical structures, in the means used to express the meanings associated with tense, aspect and modality, in the types of negation they display, etc.
Phenomena in linguistics are not isolated from each other. And neither are they presented in isolation in this textbook. References from one chapter to another, that is from the presentation of one linguistic phenomenon to another, and presentations of the way phenomena interact are quite frequent throughout the book.
Examples are illustrative for the purpose they are given. However, there are situations when the reader would better understand some explanations had the author exemplified the facts presented. For instance, on page 4, grammaticalization is defined, after Hopper and Traugott (1993), as ''the process whereby lexical items and constructions come in certain contexts to serve grammatical functions, and, once grammaticalized, continue to develop new grammatical functions'' but no example in the history of any natural language is provided for the reader, to ease understanding.
The quality of this textbook is sustained by the clarity with which topics are introduced, by the fact that they are presented in the way they interact in language. However, some exercises at the end of each chapter would have helped students understand through practicing.
Barbu Mititelu, V. and R. Maftei Cilaneanu (2004) The Main Aspects of the Grammar of Negation in Romanian, in E. Ionescu (Ed.) Understanding Romanian Negation: Syntactic and Semantic Approaches in a Declarative Perspective, Bucharest: University of Bucharest Publishing House, pp.32-67.
Chafe, W. (1970) Meaning and the Structure of Language, University of Chicago Press.
Cheirchia, G. and S. McConnell-Ginet (1990) Meaning and Grammar, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Hopper, P. and. E. Traugott (1993) Grammaticalization, CUP.
Steedman, M (1977) Verbs, time and modality, Cognitive Science 1, 216-234.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Verginica Barbu Mititelu is a PhD student in linguistics and her thesis theme subscribes to the area of lexical semantics. Her main scientific interests are corpus linguistics, lexical semantics, anaphora resolution, and machine translation.