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Review of  Lexical Meaning

Reviewer: Cornelia I. Tschichold
Book Title: Lexical Meaning
Book Author: M. Lynne Murphy
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Semantics
Issue Number: 22.3570

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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.

Kearns, Kate, 2011. Semantics. (Second edition). Palgrave Macmillan.

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.

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