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Review of  Semantics

Reviewer: Alexandra Bagasheva
Book Title: Semantics
Book Author: Ronnie Cann Ruth Kempson Eleni Gregoromichelaki
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Semantics
Issue Number: 21.1565

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AUTHORS: Cann, Ronnie; Kempson, Ruth; Gregoromichelaki, Eleni
TITLE: Semantics
SUBTITLE: An Introduction to Meaning in Language
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2009

Alexandra B. Bagasheva, Department of British and American Studies, Sofia
University ''St. Kliment Ohrdiski'', Sofia, Bulgaria


The book ''Semantics: An Introduction to Meaning in Language'' as part of the
series ''Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics'' follows the layout and structure of
a classical textbook. It can be used as a core reading for a fairly advanced
course in Semantics or for individual study. It is aimed at senior graduate
students and postgraduate students of linguistics, cognitive science, semantics,
etc., as well as practicing linguists with or without a solid background in
formal semantics. The book presents the dynamic developments in the formal
paradigm of linguistic research in the past fifty years, as well as innovative
current approaches that irrespective of their formal/functional/cognitive
affiliations contribute to the understanding and adequate description of the
dynamics of meaning creation and interpretation in natural languages. The book
contains a preface, eight chapters, a bibliography and an index. Each chapter is
supplemented with suggestions for further reading, impressive with their
richness in terms of titles and with the specification of details which can be
found in each recommended source. Practical tasks and exercises are interspersed
into the body of the respective chapter, coming just before the summary
reflections or at places where new features of the model or new analytical tools
are introduced. If used as a course book it should be supplemented with
exercises and problem-solving tasks.

The book contains detailed introductions to various logical formalisms as means
for describing meaning in natural languages. Its overall theoretical and
methodological make-up renders it specifically designed for readers with an
interest in formal semantics. Its unique feature is that the introduction to
logic is written by linguists, i.e. by the authors themselves, as they are
convinced that only outsiders to the highly technical field of logic would know
what exactly linguists need to know. The authors formulate ''a model from which
to start to explore a formal account of the basis of meaning for natural
language'' (p. 7). They justify their choice of method of inquiry by stating that
''if we want an explicit characterization of the nature of language…, we cannot
fail to take up the challenge of constructing formal models to reflect the
insights about language that we want to express'' (p. 7).

Each chapter is subdivided into relevant subchapters and subparts of the
subchapters. The first three chapters guide the reader from general
considerations of model building through the principles and fundamentals of
propositional logic and predicate logic, model theoretic semantics and type
logics to re-evaluation of central concerns in linguistic semantics. In the
subsequent five chapters the focus is shifted from the nature of formalism onto
central problems of semantic analysis in natural languages and how these can be
fruitfully treated within the framework of formal semantics supplemented with
innovative, dynamic approaches. These include for chapter four quantification
analyzed through generalized quantifiers; chapter five - context-sensitive
anaphor explicated with the help of Discourse Representation Theory (DRT),
capable of modeling the dynamicity of on-line language processing; chapter six -
time and tense/aspect accounted for with the help of a sorted ontology
recognizing eventualities and their formalization as discourse referents in
discourse representation structures (DRS); chapter seven - an innovative
treatment of ellipsis as a unitary phenomenon, even if occurring over
conversational turns and interlocutors, to be best analyzed with the tools of
dynamic syntax (DS) which provides structural representation of what is needed
from context for interpreting semantic content; and finally for chapter eight,
studying what a word contributes to the compositional interpretation of meaning
by positing words as clusters of context-particular construals. In the coda of
the last chapter the authors conclude that the exceptional dynamicity of natural
languages and the expressly intrinsically underspecified nature of natural
language expressions in terms of denotational content require the joint efforts
of pragmatic, psycholinguistic and cognitive research paradigms, disregarding
contentions between functional and formalist methodologies, for an adequate
description of the on-line, incremental composition of meaning
generation/interpretation in linguistic interaction.


Chapter 1: Preliminaries for model building
After demonstrating the vastness of meaning in language and illustrating the
unsuitability of an inductive approach to the nature of meaning in language, the
authors define the requirements that should be met by a theory of semantics
which has to provide an explication of interpretation for natural language
expressions. The theory should in their view be able to account for the general
phenomenon of ''context-dependence, which is in part conventionalized within a
language'' (p. 2). The authors provide ample linguistic examples to illustrate
context sensitivity in various areas of language and focus the reader's
attention on the nature of compositionality which is complicated by mode of
combination, variability in word meaning, immediate context, etc. Their
contention is that an explicit characterization of the nature of language is
best accomplished by the construction of a model which will provide a formal
account of the basis of meaning for natural language. In order to explain its
workings we need to account for entailment relations among expressions, which
guarantees inferential reasoning. In view of language being just one possible
input system, the authors posit as a desideratum for such a model the
consideration of ''how good an interface it allows with general cognitive
processing'' (p. 11). The model should also be equipped with appropriate tools to
explicate the ''language-world relation as part of the grammar of natural
languages'' (p. 11). Thus they subtly introduce the contention between
representationalist and denotationalist accounts of natural language content.
Then they establish the relation between truth-conditionality and inference in
utterance exchanges in language. In looking for a way of correlating ''the syntax
of expressions with their interpretation in a principled and formal way'' (p.
18), the authors resort to the postulates of the post-Gricean theory of
Relevance. The authors acknowledge the universal applicability of the cognitive
principle of relevance which underlies inferential communicative behaviour of
humans. An adequate model of natural language semantics in their view should
incorporate all these complex features without abandoning its formal nature
which warrants the model's satisfactory level of explicitness and scientific rigor.

Chapter 2: The syntax of logical inference
The chapter introduces the reader to the principles of propositional and
predicate logic as the rules for inference at the level of sentences in the case
of the former and at a level below the sentence in the case of the latter. Human
beings are defined as ''inference engines'' (p. 27). Natural deduction is
presented as the proof system that ''is closest to on-line human reasoning'' (p.
27). A formal model of patterns of inference is introduced, defining the
connectives and quantifiers necessary for the construction of proofs. Unlike
other languages, natural human language displays high ''sensitivity to the
process by which information unfolds'' (p. 33) which should be adequately
reflected in the model of analysis. This requirement on the model leads to the
conclusion that ''natural-deduction proof systems, being explicitly defined to
bring out the fine structure of how some valid inference is step-wise defined,
give us the closest congener to the use of natural languages for human
reasoning'' (p. 33). The ultimate utility of formal semantic models the authors
see in their ability to express all major semantic relations in proof-theoretic,
syntactic terms. Illustrating this, the authors define entailment as ''a relation
between assumptions in a proof, and the conclusion deducible from that set'' (p.
62) and synonymy as proof-theoretic equivalence, the ''strict syntactic analogue
of two formulae having identical truth conditions'' (p. 62). By defining these
two important semantic relations in fully representationalist terms, i.e. system
internally, the authors conclude that such a powerful formal pattern for
scientific modeling can identify what ''we should take inference to be grounded
in'' (p. 66).

Siding with Fodor, they contend that ''syntax is what is in the head, semantics
is the relation between what's in the head and the world around that is outside
it'' (p. 28). In view of the fact that they have already provided a syntactic
account of valid inference, the three scholars go on to evaluate the hypothesis
of the possibility of ''a proof-theoretic characterization of inference defined
over those formulae to determine the necessary entailment relations displayed in
natural language'' (p. 66).

To pursue their goal they turn in the next chapter to the study of the semantics
of the formal system, which implies a movement towards a denotational account of
the mapping from strings defined by the language onto an interpretation.

Chapter 3: The semantics of logical inference: models and semantic types
In this chapter the authors introduce the basic concepts of model-theoretic
semantics. They present model theories for both propositional and predicate
logic, and redefine inferential relations in semantic terms. They proceed with a
critical evaluation of syntactic and semantic characterizations of inference.
After establishing the definitional co-extensiveness of structural and
denotational characterizations of inference in classical logics, the three
semanticians address a central and controversial question of the nature
characterizing inferential relations in natural language. The dilemma
encompasses a denotational possibility where inference in natural language is
accounted for on the basis of the denotational content of entailing and entailed
sentences (a semantic approach) and a representationalist possibility in terms
of ''the manipulation of cognitive representations mind-internally' (p. 84) (an
essentially syntactic account). The authors identify two fundamental questions
which further complicate the characterization of inference in natural languages:
a) the need to account for context sensitivity and the issue of how this could
be formally modeled and b) the ''lack of any notion of concept in formal-language
semantics with which to get any handle on what the intrinsic content of a word
might be'' (p. 84). In order to address these questions the scholars try to
establish mechanisms for improving the match between predicate-logic types and
natural-language categories. To this end they utilize the lambda operator to
make compatible the syntax of functional application with that of predicate
logic. The application of Lambda Conversion yields a fully compositional account
of the semantic representations of phrases and sentences. The authors introduce
the Curry-Howard isomorphism as the underlying principle of typing
natural-language expressions. With this correspondence recognized as a core
property of the syntax-semantics interface, Cann, Kempson and Gregoromichelaki
offer means for the manipulation of typed expressions in order to derive
representations of the semantic content of natural-language expressions in a
compositional manner. Despite this obvious success of their enterprise at the
end of the chapter the authors recognize yet another caveat - the logical type
to be assigned to quantifying expressions in natural language, as they recognize
a major structural difference between quantification in predicate logic where
quantifiers are propositional operators binding open propositional formulae and
that in natural-language expressions which are subparts of noun phrase
expression. This becomes the focus of their next chapter.

Chapter 4: Quantification and plurality
In this chapter the reader is presented with a brief introduction to Montague's
account of quantification and generalized-quantifier theory. After a critical
evaluation of the proposed analyses, the authors face the serious problems that
plurality poses to formal semantic theorizing. In discussing the treatment of
'many' as underspecified the authors contend that ''pragmatic choices must be
allowed to precede semantic interpretation'' (p.114). They recognize
context-dependence as intrinsic to the content of natural-language utterances.
They acknowledge that ''we need to allow semantics and pragmatics to interconnect
much more thoroughly than is typically assumed in formal theories of semantics''
(p. 114). The next step for them is to seek an answer to the question of how the
''feeding relation between contextual parameters and denotational content'' should
be defined. After introducing merological structures in the ontology of the
model in order to provide a unified account for cardinal quantifiers, plurals
and mass terms without increasing the complexity of semantic types, the authors
conclude that besides context sensitivity, the changing human point of view,
i.e. changes in the conceptualization of the things denoted should figure
prominently in accounts of the semantics of natural languages. Before addressing
the latter issue, in the subsequent two chapters, the authors try to propose a
systemic explanation of highly context-dependent language expressions and phenomena.

Chapter 5: Anaphor, discourse and context
The first such problematic phenomenon identified and discussed in detail in the
fifth chapter is anaphora. First problems in the analysis of pronouns of all
types (E-type pronouns, indexical uses of pronouns, donkey pronouns, etc.) are
discussed. Then a solution is proposed for a possible unified treatment of
different types of anaphor. The solution is Discourse Representation Theory
which in addition to truth-conditional content, takes into account ''the impact
of the context in which processing of discourse occurs'' (p. 147).
Inter-sentential anaphora is identified as a crucial testing area for the
adequacy of accounts of meaning in natural language. Its adequate explication
can only be achieved by an account which distinguishes ''the contribution of
distinct ways of presentation'' (p. 149). Central in this chapter is the
recognition of the legitimacy of the way humans process language and how this
affects the interpretations as an object of enquiry for natural-language
semantics. The research programme equipped with tools necessary to incorporate
''changes in the information states of the interpreters'' (p. 167) in the
scholars' view is Dynamic Semantics. Thus they are able to provide means for
analyzing semantic representations independent of their model-theoretic
interpretation. Discourse Representation Structures are recognized as an
analytical tool suitable for capturing dynamic change intrinsic in the
composition of the grammatical categories of tense and aspect which become the
focus of discussion in the next chapter.

Chapter 6: Time, tense and events
In this chapter the purely extensional semantic systems offered up to this
moment are augmented with a tensed logic which is systematically proven
inadequate and insufficient to account for the representation of the intricacies
and fine degree of granularity with which natural language interpretation has to
be characterized. The authors present a simple tensed logic operating with an
interpretation of tense in terms of logical operators over formulae, where the
existential quantification over times is achieved at the level of the
metalanguage. Parametrising each-truth-conditional definition to a particular
time however falls short of providing an adequate formal semantics tool for the
treatment of temporal reference in natural language. To provide a better
analysis, after introducing a new sorted ontology in the model to accommodate
events, the authors present a classification of types of eventualities which are
conceptualized in terms of part-whole relations. They emphasize that eventuality
distinctions can only be determined by taking into account the particular
linguistic and non-linguistic context of predicates. The scholars adopt
Reichenbach's interpretation of tenses in terms of three reference times and
suggest that temporal intervals be treated as discourse referents within the
framework of Discourse Representation Theory where sortal construals of
eventualities are directly represented in discourse representation structures.
The analysis gets further complicated with the necessity to incorporate accounts
of aspectual considerations. This posits further a necessity to account for
inferences over the unexpressed semantic properties of the individual words in
an utterance and possible different modes of construal. The authors conclude the
chapter with the claim that Discourse Representation Theory with its
representationalist flavor might provide a suitable analytical tool encompassing
semantic explication and the characterization of content and context simultaneously.

Chapter 7: Ellipses as a window on context
In this chapter Cann, Kempson and Gregoromichelaki recapitulate the enrichment
of the flexibility of the formal-semantic methodologies presented so far and
postulate the need of at least two levels of representation: a) of structures in
syntax and b) of structure in semantics, ''reflecting structural aspects of
assigned content'' (p. 209). After presenting current debates on different types
of ellipsis, the authors contend that ''the most promising way to get an
appropriately integrated account of ellipsis is to give a procedural slant to
the concept of context'' (p. 213). For this they turn to Dynamic Syntax as a
model of natural language content which postulates ''a level of representation
that reflects what is needed for semantic interpretation'' (p. 225). In this
model context is construed as encompassing a complex of content, structure and
the actions used to build up interpretation. Within the model, structures are
built up in a strictly incremental way and the syntax of the grammar is this
same process of building up the structures. Thus the articulation of the
natural-language syntax is the articulation of constraints on growth of
interpretation. The overall conclusion is that interpretations for
natural-language expressions need to be in terms of the construction of
representations rather than in terms of the content assigned relative to context.

Chapter 8: What a word can mean
No matter how far one extends the concept of context-sensitivity and procedural
dependences, applying the principle of compositionality only as a guiding
principle, the meaning of a sentence, in the view of the authors is ''a
(monotonic) function of the meanings of all the words it contains together with
the constructions used to put the words in order'' (p. 250). This in turn implies
that ''lexical meaning must be seen as forming the basis for all (linguistic)
meaning'' (p. 250). After reviewing semantic minimalism and the generative
lexicon paradigms in accounting for lexical meaning, the three semanticians
guide the reader towards new avenues of research in word meaning taking into
account context variability. They define context as ''the cognitive context
relative to which content decisions are progressively made'' (p. 259). Then the
authors suggest a formalism introduced by Larsson interpreting word meaning as
concept-clusters as a viable tool. Seeking to come to grips with the variability
of word meaning and grammar, while preserving amenability to formalization, the
scholars promote Cooper's Type Theory with Records as a means to capture the
dynamics of constructing information types for analyzing word meaning
extensibility. The authors go so far as to challenge the teleology of the
concept of sentence meaning in determining the systematic compositionality of
content as expressed in natural language. Taking into account formal theoretic,
pragmatic and syntactic considerations, the three scholars reformulate the
research agenda for formal semantics in terms of providing the tools to analyze
human language adequately not as corresponding to any formal system of logic,
but as ''an intrinsically dynamical system, a system whose parts are available
for use in ways that allow open-ended but not unlimited modes of construal'' (p.
272). To pursue this agenda successfully, Cann, Kempson and Gregoromichelaki
invite scholars of all persuasions from the whole spectrum of inquiry into
language (pragmatics, cognitive science, psychology, etc.) to join forces in
meeting the challenge of unraveling the mystery of meaning in human language.


''…a philosophically interesting story may be told about the relationship between
meaning, truth, and the use of language. An important research programme within
linguistics and philosophy of language, sometimes called 'natural language
semantics' or 'formal semantics', is grounded on a particular notion of how such
a story, or at least an important portion of it, is supposed to go'' (Predelli
2005: 1) The story offered in the book reviewed here in addition to the features
described provides a unified perspective and an overall dynamic model able to
satisfy the requirements to incorporate formal accounts of context-sensitivity
and item-concept meaning contributions to compositionality, while at the same
time keeping track of the relevance theoretic assumption that ''the cognitive
system…is constrained to maximize relevance by engaging in minimum cognitive
effort for adequate inferential effects'' (p. 47)

Despite its claimed introductory nature, the book is far from a ''baptismal''
textbook in Cruse's terms (Cruse 2000: x). The book presents a step-by-step
approach, leading towards the construction of a system for a formally explicit
but cognitively informed description of the nature of meaning in natural
language in on-line communication. It is cogently and clearly written with
precise cross-referencing and a useful index. Problems are picked up at relevant
places and discussed anew in view of the currently elaborated argument.

The uniqueness of the perspective taken in the book is the attempt to adapt and
evolve formal tools/methodologies so that they can capture new insights stemming
from different modes of studying meaning in natural languages. One significant
feature of the book is the smooth, natural reconciliation of denotationalist and
representationalist stances in semantics. They have put into practice
Pietroski's recommendation that ''one shouldn't try to define the scope of
semantic theorizing in advance of investigation... One cannot determine a priori
which facts a semantic theory should explain. In any domain, what a theory
SHOULD explain depends on what gets discovered'' (Pietroski 2005: 26-27).

The presentation of the dynamic developments in the formal semantic paradigm is
neither panoramic, nor exhaustive. It is extremely valuable as it is tailored so
as to make prominent the unique perspective from which the authors discuss hotly
debated issues in semantics, offering a unified formal but dynamic approach.
Most valuable is the recognition of the context sensitivity of language and the
conception of language as a formal abstraction on the world, as underspecified
prompts for interpretation construction as central research issues in a workable
agenda for formal semantics.

On the cover of the book one reads that the exposition assumes only a basic
knowledge of concepts in semantics and pragmatics but at many places where
caveats are offered only to be discarded later, analyses are presented, and the
discussion presupposes profound knowledge of syntax and syntactic terminology.
The elaboration of the argument also presupposes familiarity with disputes over
the syntax-semantic bootstrapping debates in linguistics and fine-grained
knowledge of the properties of the syntax and/or semantics of formal systems, as
well as the nature of intricate correspondences between an object language and a
metalanguage. The argumentation presupposes solid knowledge of natural language
syntax - various theory-specific terms are freely used without being defined.
For the full appreciation of the textbook prior knowledge of basic logic is
necessary. For people of non-formalist persuasion the book is a demanding but
stimulating read. For people coming from different linguistic backgrounds, the
book lacks sufficient contextualization of the place of formal theorising in
contemporary debates in semantics - the cognitive paradigm, structural
semantics, etc.

The textbook might have benefited from a glossary section at the end clarifying
the most focal terms.

''Formal semantics is based on an even more disastrous equivocation of form and
notation, as well as on a complete misunderstanding of the relationship between
form and meaning. It takes meanings and 'formalizes' them, i.e. expresses them
in a notation. In doing so it is aware that form and meaning are inextricably
linked, but it believes that by expressing meanings in a notation it has
captured those meanings formally and thus explained them scientifically. It is,
of course, sheer folly. Notations are not forms, they are mere notations; and
the relationship between form and meaning in natural language is that form
creates meaning - natural language is itself a formalization of the universe.
The meanings we perceive are determined by the forms through which we see them.
And by scrutinising those forms carefully and scientifically we can gain greater
insight into the meanings which they create/express. But to translate meanings
into a notation is a trivial and senseless activity.'' (Beedham 2005: 93) What
''Semantics: An Introduction to Meaning in Language'' achieves is a powerful and
convincing refutation of Beedham's views, revitalizing formal semantics with a
new challenging agenda for research. The authors offer a solid formalist account
of how and what natural language as a formalization of the universe offers to
reasoning agents in their interactive composition and interpretation of meaning
with a full consideration of the cognitively relevant contributions of both
content and context irrespective of their nature (visual, linguistic, etc.).
Reading this book is a profitable intellectual investment.


Beedham, Christopher (2005) Language and Meaning: The Structural Creation of
Reality, John Benjamins Publishing Company, Amsterdam/Philadelphia.
Cruse, Alan (2000) Meaning in Language: An Introduction to Semantics and
Pragmatics, Oxford University Press.
Pietroski, P. (2005) Events and semantic architecture, Oxford University Press.
Predelli, Stefano (2005) Contexts: Meaning, Truth and the Use of Language,
Oxford University Press.

Alexandra Bagasheva teaches General Linguistics and English Syntax at the Department of British and American Studies at Sofia University, Bulgaria. Her main interests broadly lie in the areas of cognitive and functional linguistics, typology, linguistic anthropology, the semantics of compounds as the result of a complex double blending process, and the semantics-cognition-pragmatics interface.

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