LINGUIST List 21.3042

Thu Jul 22 2010

Review: Ling. Theories; Semantics: Geeraerts (2009)

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        1.    Clara Molina, Theories of Lexical Semantics

Message 1: Theories of Lexical Semantics
Date: 22-Jul-2010
From: Clara Molina <>
Subject: Theories of Lexical Semantics
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AUTHOR: Geeraerts, Dirk TITLE: Theories of Lexical Semantics PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press YEAR: 2009

Clara Molina, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, Spain


''Theories of Lexical Semantics'' provides a comprehensive yet synoptic overview of research paradigms in lexical semantics. The book fills a crucial gap in the literature on word meaning, a field of increasing theoretical relevance as well as a vantage point from which one can understand modern linguistics as a whole. No full account of trends in lexical semantics has been available for decades, nor does the existing literature provide insights into theoretical and methodological interfaces across traditions. ''Theories of Lexical Semantics'' charts the evolution of the discipline from the mid-nineteenth century to our day, not only offering a chronological account of ideas, landmark publications and dominant figures, but also describing undercurrents that have shaped the field's evolution. It thus stands as a long-awaited must-read in lexicological and semantic theory.

The monograph contains five chapters, each dedicated to a major school of lexical semantic theory, as well as a general reference section (plus an annotated bibliography for each approach), and author and subject indexes. The format is suitable for both extensive reading aimed at the full scope of lexical semantics and for the detailed inspection of individual traditions. In presenting the foundational tenets for each of the approaches, and the entailments of those postulates for the study of word meaning, the books provides linguists of any specialty (semanticists or not) with the background for understanding the lexicon within various schools of thought, and for comparing dominant ideas from one approach to another.


The first chapter (Historical-philological Semantics) provides the reader with perspectives for surveying the birth of linguistics. In the nineteenth century, the study of meaning emerges as a necessity for charting and documenting the systematic correspondences identified within the Indo-European family. Surveying, classifying and interpreting the mechanisms of semantic change based on etymological research inaugurates semantics with a historical, contextual and psychological twist that places meaning at the core of language and frames outstanding lexicographic projects. The theoretical premises would radically change with the advent of structuralism, addressed in chapter two.

The second chapter (Structuralist Semantics) traces developments from the 1930s to the 1960s, when a ''langue'' (rather than ''parole'') oriented approach that prevails in the field moves the focus away from diachrony, and words and meanings fit into abstract, systematic mosaics. With a focus on literalness (rather than figurativeness) and linguistic structure (rather than extra-linguistic or encyclopedic context), structuralist semantics, the dominant approach at the time, gives way to lexical field theory, relational semantics and componential analysis. The mode would remain until late in the century, for generativism proceeds with an atomistic understanding of meaning.

The tension between maximalist and minimalist approaches to meaning frames the third chapter in the book (Generativist Semantics). Katzian semantics brings the lexicon into the formal study of grammar and, in doing so, revolutionizes the discipline. Componential analysis blends with formalist, algorithmic representations of word meaning and with enquiries on the mental reality of semantic analyses, which engenders bitter disputes of far-reaching consequences for lexical semantics. The transformational interpretive orientation that would prevail from the 1970s demotes the study of word meaning and enhances the logical study of sentential, rather than lexical, semantics. However, mentalism also gives rise to a radically different understanding of meaning towards the end of the twentieth century, addressed in chapter five.

The fourth chapter (Neostructuralist Semantics) draws on the subsequent attempts at elaborating decompositional and relational approaches, with an emphasis on formalization on the one hand, and on delimiting the demarcation between word and world knowledge on the other, which creates distances between semantics and pragmatics. The post-generativist continuation of structuralist semantics brings forth various formal, componential theories for the description of lexical meaning, as well as relational models connected to computational approaches (distributional corpus semantics and statistical semantics) of increasing relevance today.

The fifth chapter (Cognitive Semantics) presents developments in semantic theory not yet systematically approached in earlier histories of lexical semantics. Born in the late 1970s as a reaction to a fracture within the generativist paradigm, and to the lack of usage-based pragmatic insights, Cognitive Semantics rediscovers the significance of meaning as the basis of structure, and, according to Geeraerts, currently stands out as the most productive approach in lexical semantic research. In focusing on lived experience, it addresses the epistemological problem of objectivity and aims at integrating contextual, experiential and cross-disciplinary insights into the study of word meaning. Modularity and independence thus give way to a heterogeneous continuum in which traditionally divorced domains meet: semantics and grammar, synchrony and diachrony, linguistic and encyclopedic knowledge.

The flexibility and polysemy of meaning and the regularity of semantic processes are the focus of what the author describes as a contemporary ''return to hermeneutics.'' This reveals a cyclic process of rediscoveries within the history of lexical semantics in which two trends emerge. On the one hand, a minimalist view that argues for a distinction between usage and structure, pragmatics and semantics, context and system, flexibility and permanence, cognition and meaning. On the other hand, a maximalist view aims at integrating the dichotomies. The same ideological assumptions come up at different stages and, on every occasion, methodological advances unknown to previous traditions (or non-salient within them) find room and shape a field that ''Theories of Lexical Semantics'' portrays with precision.


In the conclusion, Geeraerts recapitulates, indeed reconstructs, the motivating forces and methodological perspectives that have shaped the development of linguistic lexical semantics. The chapter covers an evolution to which each of the major traditions has made its own substantial contribution. A diachronic focus on the semasiology of individual words grounds the foundations of the discipline in the nineteenth century, followed by decades of synchronic stress on autonomous structures. Over the course of the twentieth century, the Saussurean chessboard inspires diverse understandings of semantic structure, each linked to distinct methodological approaches: the analysis of semantic fields leading to componential analysis, the painstaking formalization of structure, the decomposition of patterns leading to computational and corpus linguistics. Towards the end of the century, actual language use comes back into the picture by means of integrating (with qualitative and, increasingly, quantitative approaches) meaning and cognition on the one hand, and semantics and pragmatics on the other. The unwieldy nature of the lexicon thus inspires a long history of mutual influences and reactions in which ideology blends with methodology.

As Geeraerts points out, the overall history of lexical semantics depicts a cyclic theoretical movement of ''decontextualization and recontextualization'', as well as a linear movement of ''descriptive expansion.'' For the first, a marked tendency towards recontextualization stands out as a pattern not alien to the history of modern linguistic thought at large. For the steady expansion of the domain of application of word meaning research, a historical progression from qualitative semasiology to qualitative semasiology ends up leading to an interest in quantitative phenomena, both on the semasiological (meaning) and on the onomasiological (naming) level.

By focusing on different domains of activity, the different traditions successively elaborate the discipline: Historical-philological Semantics, in dealing with word senses and the semantic ties among those senses, provides a qualitative treatment of semasiology. Cognitive Semantics contributes a quantitative insight into semasiology by focusing on prototype effects and on differences of salience and structural weight within an item or a meaning. In turn, Structuralist and Neostructuralist Semantics qualitatively address the onomasiological sphere by focusing on taxonomical hierarchies and on the semantic relations among lexical items. Finally, Cognitive Semantics opens the door to a quantitative twist to onomasiological work in focusing on entrenchment and on the differences in cognitive salience between categories.

The decision to frame the dominant domains of activity of each tradition against the setting of semasiological/onomasiological work allows an insight into paradigmatic relations, which, as Geeraerts points out (282), is not surprising, but not often observed. ''The conceptual relations that are usually studied in semasiology, i.e. in the semantic structure of a single expression, are fundamentally of the same kind as those studied onomasiologically between different expressions ... so we find a basic similarity between the conceptual relations within words and those between words.''

The parallels between semasiology and onomasiology also allow us to relate the main traditions on the basis of four basic conceptual relations, i.e., inclusion within taxonomical categorizations, literal and figurative similarity, and contiguity. Historical-philological work on specialization and generalization addresses the semasiological level, while structuralist work on taxonomies addresses the onomasiological one. Cognitivist insights into family resemblances address literal similarity at the semasiological level, while structuralist work on lexical fields does so at the onomasiological one. Figurative similarity (even if figurativeness admittedly still lacks an adequate, operational definition, cf. p. 283) is also addressed by the parallelism between semasiology and onomasiology. The cognitivist study of conceptual metaphor covers the onomasiological level, and completes the traditional semasiological work on lexical metaphor. Finally, the historical-philological work on metonymy addresses contiguity at the semasiological level: cognitive frames do so at the onomasiological one.

With all cells in the grid thus addressed, we have come full circle. ''Theories of Lexical Semantics'' goes well beyond the description of individual paradigms: it brings out the intricate ties between traditions, demonstrates empirical progress in the development of the discipline, and expands the explanatory scope to help the reader understand the evolution of linguistic thought. What is next on the lexical semantics agenda? Geeraerts completes the overview with likely next steps for the future. After addressing the likelihood of convergence and divergence between the main strands of contemporary research on word meaning, the book concludes with a challenging invitation to interdisciplinary interaction that, in transcending the limits of individual traditions, fills gaps and opens new horizons: theoretical, descriptive and methodological. At the same time, in raising awareness about traditions often unknown today, or simply rejected on ideological grounds, it provides valuable general insights.


It takes considerable expertise to take readers on a journey through theories of lexical semantics that ends up grasping the evolution of linguistics throughout. Geeraerts meets the challenge. As the author of ''The Structure of Lexical Variation'' (1994), ''Diachronic Prototype Semantics'' (1997) and ''Words and Other Wonders'' (2006), he has made substantial contributions to lexicological research. As the founder of the journal ''Cognitive Linguistics'' and co-editor of ''The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics'' (2007), he has followed recent developments in theoretical linguistics from close-up. In addition, he has hands-on experience with lexicography, the practical counterpart of theoretical lexicology. (See

It is no surprise, then, that ''Theories of Lexical Semantics'' should be background knowledge for anyone seriously committed to lexical work. There has been no overview in English exclusively devoted to word meaning research since Cruse's 1986 ''Lexical Semantics'' (avowedly descriptive rather than theoretical in orientation), and no comprehensive account of research paradigms in lexical semantics since Ullmann's 1963 ''The Principles of Semantics''. The work under review, a state-of-the-art overview awaited for decades, provides an indispensable reference in semantic theory. It offers a well-planned, clearly written text well suited for specialized courses in lexical semantics. Arguably, the book might have been more effective if written in textbook-style rather than monograph-style, for the density is sometimes great. However, its orderly arrangement makes the book a valuable and accessible resource not only for lexical semanticists, but also for students of literature, psychology, anthropology, philosophy and cognitive science.

The latter will certainly welcome a text that gives Cognitive Semantics its rightful place. Geeraerts, a pioneer in prototype-theoretical studies of the lexicon in synchrony and in diachrony, comes across at times as leaning heavily towards cognitivism, but then again, Cognitive Semantics is certainly the most dynamic and productive current framework for lexical semantics. In this book, Geeraerts acknowledges the centrality of this new approach for understanding the lexicon, and is the first to provide an adequate treatment of the paradigm.

''Theories of Lexical Semantics'' lives up to classical standards of scholarship by being both comprehensive (two centuries of research on word meaning are covered) and richly documented (including over 800 items). It contains nuanced, well-argued evaluations on many approaches to word meaning with the same critical stance, which makes for an unbiased reference work. By bringing together the various approaches in a perceptive architecture of affinities and dissimilarities, the monograph reveals the underlying lines of development in what otherwise might seem a chaotic and unstructured field. Geeraerts presents not only encyclopedic information on lexical semantics, in nature and quantity, but also an insight into word meaning that matches the explanatory force required of scientific research. In sum, ''Theories of Lexical Semantics'' is a book that the community of lexical researchers has long been waiting for -- but the wait was definitely worth the while.


Cruse, David Alan (1986) Lexical Semantics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Geeraerts, Dirk (1994) The Structure of Lexical Variation. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Geeraerts, Dirk (1997) Diachronic Prototype Semantics. Oxford: Clarendon.

Geeraerts, Dirk (2006) Words and Other Wonders. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Geeraerts, Dirk and Hubert Cuyckens (eds.) (2007) The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ullmann, Stephen (1963) The Principles of Semantics, 2nd edition. Oxford: Blackwell.


Clara Molina is a lecturer in English language and linguistics at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (Spain). Her research interests are in the realm of language-culture-cognition and her work includes topics in lexical semantics, language variation and change, and multilingualism. She is particularly interested in the interface of semasiology and onomasiology and the grammar/semantics continuum.

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