Language Evolution: The Windows Approach addresses the question: "How can we unravel the evolution of language, given that there is no direct evidence about it?"
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AUTHOR: Evans, Vyvyan TITLE: How Words Mean SUBTITLE: Lexical Concepts, Cognitive Models, and Meaning Construction PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press YEAR: 2009
Michael Crombach, Nuance Communications Austria
''How Words Mean'' is an ambitious attempt to integrate different cognitive approaches to semantics and grammar under the roof of a ''Theory of Lexical Concepts and Cognitive Models'' (LCCM Theory). Evans intends to demonstrate that meaning is a construct emerging in utterances through situated language use. The book is organized in five parts, each part with a short introduction. The whole book is subdivided into 16 chapters, each again with introduction and summary. This is helpful as it enables the reader to quickly skip through the book and select parts of particular interest. Evans (xii) states that he has four different readers in mind, (a) the general linguist, (b) the (general) cognitive scientist, (c) the cognitive linguist, and finally (d) the ''educated lay reader''. This classification is fitting, although (unavoidably, and perfectly understandably) each of these target groups will tend to skip certain known aspects, while experiencing some of the chapters as challenging, even difficult. But they will be rewarded with interesting and inspiring thoughts in this book. Basically, Evans integrates ideas presented by other researchers such as Lakoff & Johnson (1980, 1999), Langacker (1987), Croft (2002), Goldberg (2006) and others. Evans carefully and diligently presents those theories and integrates them into his personal conclusions, while adding new aspects.
Part I introduces the LCCM Theory and explains cognitive theories of word meaning, while rejecting the standard approaches to semantics, which he labels ''literalism''. Evans follows many others (e.g. Lakoff 1987) in believing that this traditional ''approach to meaning construction suffers from a fatal problem: the principled separation between context-independent (sentence) meaning and context-dependent (speaker) meaning'' (8). A central claim in this section is that ''words do not in fact have meaning'', but that ''meaning results from situated acts of communication'' (84). Evans puts forth his idea that lexical concepts facilitate access to cognitive concepts: ''My claim is that the essential distinction between lexical representation and meaning is that while meaning is a property of the utterance, lexical representations consist of the mental abstractions which we infer must be stored as part of the language user's knowledge of language: symbolic units, together with the range of cognitive models, the semantic potential to which a lexical concept offers access'' (73).
Part II deals with ''lexical representation''. Here Evans presents the dichotomy between ''linguistic system'' and ''conceptual system''. The ''linguistic system'' can be split into ''open'' and ''closed'' class items (as introduced by Talmy 2000). ''Closed'' class items can be described as ''function words'', e.g. English 'a', 'the', etc. ''Open-class lexical concepts afford access to conceptual content'' (106).
Part III is devoted to ''semantic compositionality'', one of the key aspects of cognitive grammars. ''LCCM Theory can then be viewed [...] as complementing the research perspectives provided by [...] constructional accounts of grammatical organization'' but it differs from these approaches ''in that it *is* concerned precisely with the nature of semantic representation and the mechanics of semantic composition'' (239). In LCCM Theory the appropriate lexical concept is selected by constraining factors, given by the context, and once selected it must be matched with the conceptual structure accessed by this lexical concept. On pp. 245-266 Evans lists ten ''Principles of lexical concept integration'', and figure 13.7 on page 267 gives a very helpful overview of this very dense subject matter.
Part IV applies LCCM Theory to ''Figurative Language and Thought''. The two chapters provide an in-depth analysis of two well-known phenomena: metaphor and metonymy, and the linguistic approaches to ''time''. Here Evans argues that metaphor, metonymy, and literal language understanding are continuous. Metaphor and metonymy rise when the primary cognitive models involved fail to analyze an utterance; as a consequence the search domain is enlarged. Evans distinguishes metaphor and metonymy by means of the figurative target (signifié) and figurative vehicle (signifiant). In a case of metonymy the figurative vehicle gives direct access to the lexical concept, while metaphors ''arise due to a divergence between figurative vehicles and targets across two distinct lexical concepts'' (297).
Part V concludes the book and embeds LCCM Theory in the ensemble of other cognitive approaches to language.
The book further contains a glossary of technical terms ''that are either novel to LCCM Theory or which assume a special interpretation'' (343). This is - due to the very dense nature of the book - not only useful, but necessary, as sometimes the reader might have lost track in the jungle of terminology. Evans himself emphasizes this situation within cognitive linguistics (336f).
A fascinating aspect Evans does not pursue in depth, is the idea that language evolved (in an evolutionary sense) as an ''index function'' to conceptual knowledge (43, 106, 188). This is a view that certainly is worth pursuing. If language makes access to ''encyclopedic knowledge'' easier, opening new ways to retrieve this information internally and externally, then this is a very good argument for what the evolutionary ''advantage'' of language might have been. An important aspect missing in Evans' approach: the emotional component of language. Evans touches on emotions by mentioning Damasio 1994 (177f), but emotions are still underrepresented in semantic theories. In my view, meaning is something that BECOMES. It is not out there in the world, it is not learned. Meaning matures in a speaker's biography; meaning is experienced. Words can be emotionally loaded for one person, while being meaningless to others: the ''Rosebud'' effect. If we assume that language is organized in a ''small world''-manner, so that it only takes very few steps to have a bridge between words (Ferrer i Cancho & Sole 2001), and that there are not only sledges, that are affectively experienced, but also friends and lovers, foes and fears, then the whole lexicon becomes a remarkable reflection of the emotional development of a speaker. In this respect there is certainly further research possible that can add to LCCM Theory, especially as this aspect strengthens Evans' view that ''meaning is not a property of words [...,] meaning arises as a function of the way in which words (and language) are deployed by language users in socioculturally, temporally, and physically contextualized communicative events'' (22), which is essentially the idea of Wittgenstein 2006/1952 (262).
Another aspect of meaning construction not handled extensively enough in this book is frequency. Evans (95) touches on frequency as a ''decision and word selection'' mechanism (following Langacker 1987), but frequency is a complicated issue. Not only because frequency is heavily dependent on what is counted, how it is counted and why it is counted, but also because frequency is something that wears off. Frequency makes the ''small words'' ''meaningless''; e.g. prepositions (analyzed in very great detail by Evans 153ff) are articulated and understood differently depending on their relevance. Imagine a child looking for her Barbie: when the doll is lying *under* the table instead of the more expectable (and frequent) *on* the table, the prosody of the answer to the question: *Where’s my Barbie?* will be completely different. While the stress in the standard answer will be on the noun *table* it will be on the preposition *under* in the more unusual reply. Only in such very special situations do these ''small words'' have more than a purely functional dimension. Evans touches on ''manner of utterance'' (16), but then does not pursue this aspect any further. Prepositions and other function words (as opposed to ''names'', e.g. 'snake', 'bite' and ''indices'', e.g. 'this', 'there') are very important for the grammatical correctness of sentences, but often irrelevant in the meaning or understanding of utterances. Another dimension of frequency is that each speaker has her personal ''favorites''. Some words are used more frequently by one user than by other users, giving language a personal flavor, sometimes providing even the basis for a spitting image of a person (think of *fascinating* uttered by Spock in the TV series Star Trek). These aspects of frequency (which should not be confused with Quantitative Linguistics) also have to be taken into account, to improve the collection of ''theoretical constructs'' (xi), that make up LCCM Theory.
Finally, a general observation: There seems to be an ''Uncertainty Principle'' in linguistics. When approaching language from the semantic side, like Evans does with this book, the structural aspects of language seem to blur; while a formal (syntactic) approach to very similar questions (e.g. Boeckx 2010) brings about uncertainty on the semantic side. Somehow it seems impossible to handle structure and content at the same time with the same precision. This could be a challenge to overcome in the next steps of a linguistic theory.
In sum, ''How Words Mean'' is an inspiring contemporary account of semantic and cognitive issues that is worth reading.
Boeckx, Cedric. 2010. Language in Cognition. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell. Croft, William. 2002. Radical Construction Grammar: Syntactic Theory in Typological Perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Damasio, Antonio. 1994. Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain. London: Vintage. Ferrer i Cancho, Ramon & Sole, Richard V. 2001. The Small World of Human Language. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 268, 2261-2265. Goldberg, Adele. 2006. Constructions at Work: The Nature of Generalization in Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Lakoff, George. 1987. Women, Fire and Dangerous Things. Chicago: Chicago University Press. Lakoff, George & Johnson, Mark. 1980. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: Chicago University Press. Lakoff, George & Johnson, Mark. 1999. Philosophy in the Flesh. The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books. Langacker, Roland W. 1987. Foundations of Cognitive Grammar: Volume I. Theoretical Prerequisites. Stanford: Stanford University Press. Talmy, Leonard. 2000. Toward a Cognitive Semantics. Cambridge. MIT Press. Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 2006/1952. Philosophische Untersuchungen. In: Werkausgabe Band 1. Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Michael Crombach is research & development engineer at Nuance
Communications Austria, working on statistical language models and phonetic
transcriptions for speech recognition systems. He has a background in
historical linguistics (Ph.D.) and biology. His main interests are biology
and evolution of language, statistics and language, theory and history of