LINGUIST List 22.341

Wed Jan 19 2011

Review: Semantics: Riemer (2010)

Editor for this issue: Monica Macaulay <>

        1.     Sylvia Reed , Introducing Semantics

Message 1: Introducing Semantics
Date: 19-Jan-2011
From: Sylvia Reed <>
Subject: Introducing Semantics
E-mail this message to a friend

Discuss this message

Announced at
AUTHOR: Riemer, NickTITLE: Introducing SemanticsSERIES TITLE: Cambridge Introductions to Language and LinguisticsPUBLISHER: Cambridge University PressYEAR: 2010

Sylvia L. Reed, Department of Linguistics, University of Arizona


''Introducing Semantics'' is a textbook introducing many of the various issues inthe study of meaning in language. The volume is broken down into elevenchapters, each covering a different area of the discipline.

The volume begins with a ''Note to the reader.'' Riemer states that the book ismeant for anyone for whom linguistic semantics is a new topic. In addition, hisaim with the book is to present a balanced picture of how meaning is studiedacross the discipline. To this end he presents important ideas from variousapproaches, and indicates both advantages and disadvantages of differentapproaches, as well as shows where those approaches may be interrelated.

In Chapter 1, Meaning in the Empirical Study of Language, Riemer introduces someground-level concepts in the study of linguistic semantics. After consideringpossible definitions for ''semantics,'' he looks at ways of talking about meaningacross languages, including English, Walpiri, French, and Mandarin. A briefintroduction to the ''semiotic triangle'' is also included. Then Riemer goes on tointroduce basic concepts including lexemes, sense/reference/denotation,compositionality, object language and metalanguage, and levels of meaning(semantics vs. pragmatics). He then explores possible solutions to the problemof the circularity inherent in a theory of meaning that relies on definitions interms of the thing being defined. These possible solutions include meanings asdenotations, meanings as mental representations, meanings as brain states, andmeanings as usages. He concludes the chapter with a brief section on meaning andexplanation.

Chapter 2, Meaning and Definition, focuses on definition and the part it playsin how we understand and describe meaning. Riemer first discusses thedifferences between different conceptions of definitions, such as those found insemantics vs. those found in lexicography. He also introduces the concept of themental lexicon. He then goes on to introduce basic units of meaning: words,morphemes, and also onomatopoeia and idioms. After discussing the effect ofcontext on meaning and the idea of compositionality, Riemer gets into the meatof the discussion and looks at different ways to define meanings: real andnominal definitions, and definition by ostension, context, exemplars, and genus.He also discusses substitutability as a measure of accuracy for definitions, aswell as problems with definitions and the influence of usage on definitions.

Chapters 3 and 4 focus on the role of context in determining meaning. Chapter 3,The Scope of Meaning I: External Context, discusses the distinction betweensense and reference (including discussion of Frege 1892), truth values and truthconditions, deixis, and the addition of encyclopedic knowledge to ''dictionaryknowledge''. Chapter 4, The Scope of Meaning II: Interpersonal Context focuses onvarious pragmatic issues, such as speech act theory, implicatures, Griceanmaxims, and the Cooperative Principle. Riemer also discusses Relevance Theory(after primarily Sperber & Wilson 1995), and then discusses the division (orlack thereof) between semantics and pragmatics.

Chapter 5, Analysing and Distinguishing Meanings, focuses first on relationsbetween words (antonymy, meronymy, hyponymy and taxonomy, and synonymy). Riemerthen discusses various approaches to componential semantics. The final sectionlooks at the issues associated with lexemes which seem to have multiple meanings(including discussions of polysemy and homonymy).

Chapter 6, Logic as a Representation of Meaning, introduces the idea of formalrepresentations of meaning, including propositional logic (including logicaloperators, conjunction and disjunction, the material conditional, etc.) andpredicate logic (including arguments, universal and existential quantifiers,predicates, etc.). Riemer then discusses the concept of a model, as well asextension and intension. Finally, he introduces relations between propositionssuch as entailment, presupposition, and contradiction; definite descriptions(including Russell's theory of descriptions); and meaning postulates. In eachcase Riemer introduces the notions and associated terms thoroughly beforediscussing key extensions of and possible issues with these formal systems.

In Chapters 7 and 8, Riemer discusses various issues surrounding meaning andcognition. Chapter 7, Meaning and Cognition I: Categorization and CognitiveSemantics, looks at issues with and proposed solutions to the problem ofcategorization, including classical categories, prototypes, and exemplars. ThenRiemer introduces the principles of cognitive semantics, includinganti-modularity, conceptual structure, idealized cognitive models (Lakoff 1987),image schemas, and metaphor and metonymy. In Chapter 8, Meaning and CognitionII: Formalizing and Simulating Conceptual Representations, Riemer introducesJackendoff's (1983 and ff.) Conceptual Semantics framework and walks the readerthrough several sample analyses, noting several possible problems with theframework along the way. Then he looks at several major ideas in computationalsemantics, using WordNet as an example of a computational implementation. Riemeralso provides a summary of Pustejovsky's (1991 and ff.) ''generative lexicon''approach, including discussion of qualia structure.

Chapters 9 and 10 cover various issues relating to meaning and morphosyntax.Chapter 9, Meaning and Morphosyntax I: The Semantics of Grammatical Categories,looks at the semantics of parts of speech in the first section, and in thesecond considers the semantics of tense, aspect, and Aktionsart. Chapter 10,Meaning and Morphosyntax II: Verb Meaning and Argument Structure, firstconsiders the semantics of traditional ideas of thematic roles, as well as newerideas such as proto-roles (e.g., Dowty 1991). He also considers the idea ofthematic relations within the Conceptual Semantics framework. In the secondsection, Riemer discusses verb classes and alternations, and in the thirdsection, construction grammar's approach to meaning and argument structure.

In Chapter 11, Semantic Variation and Change, Riemer considers various pathwaysof semantic change (including specialization, generalization, amelioration(''ameliorization''), pejoration (''pejorization''), and others, as well asgrammaticalization). In the second section, he considers what corpora studiescan bring to the study of semantic variation. Then he presents a brieftypological look at some common semantic fields (including body parts, colors,deictic motion, motion verbs, and spatial reference). The chapter ends with abrief section on language and thought, including discussion of Whorf.

A glossary, a list of references, and thorough index are found at the end of thebook.


This textbook is a very thorough introduction to the study of meaning inlanguage. As stated by the author, the aim of the book is to present a balancedpicture of the discipline. Riemer is remarkably successful at remainingtheory-neutral throughout the book, and an obvious effort has been made to makeclear the background assumptions of different theories as well as their possibledrawbacks. Riemer also manages to achieve impressive depth as well as breadth, adifficult feat especially for an introductory book. It is a strength of the bookthat the author is not afraid to point out questions we don't yet have theanswer to; however, it takes a particular kind of undergraduate student to becomfortable with this type of open-endedness -- the thorough nature of this bookis certainly not a weakness, but might prove a challenge for instructors wishingto use the book for a very introductory course on language. However, the bookwould be very well suited for a slightly higher-level course introducing meaningin language, or an introductory semantics course. I think the book would also beappropriate preliminary reading for graduate students beginning to studysemantics, either as refresher-reading or as a first introduction to certainconcepts that may not have been covered in their undergraduate education.

The organization of the book is well-thought-out, with tools present throughoutto help the reader better study and understand the material. Each chapter beginswith a brief ''preview'' and ends with a summary (broken down into smallersummaries of each section). These summaries would be very helpful especially inthe case of a lower-level course, where the breadth of the book might in fact beintimidating to the reader. There are excellent questions for further thoughtscattered throughout each chapter; in addition, each chapter is followed by anumber of exercises. All chapters have Questions for Discussion; some chaptersalso have Analytical Questions (when appropriate). The questions are quitewide-ranging, and most are at a fairly high level. In fact, the book mightbenefit from a few more step-by-step type questions, if in fact the book is tobe used for lower-level courses; as it is, though, there are enough questions atthe higher end of ''introductory'' that, for instance, students in an honorssection or the like could be assigned questions of a higher level. There arealso suggestions for further reading at the end of each chapter, especiallyuseful for higher-level students. The glossary at the end of the book is quitethorough and, I think, would be quite useful to anyone using this book, as it issometimes rather difficult to find accurate, glossary-type definitions of basicterms. Having the glossary (as the author notes) also means that a coursefollowing the book (or anyone using it) need not read the chapters in the orderthey are presented; rather, if one comes across an unfamiliar semantic term onecan simply look it up in the glossary. That said, the glossary is mostly limitedto key semantic terms; those just starting their study of linguistics bystudying linguistic meaning may be stymied a bit by linguistic terms like 'nounphrase' that remain undefined, either in the text or in the glossary. The bookwould also benefit from a list of abbreviations used in glosses. Though most areexplained in the text, it would be helpful to have them all in one place.

Data from other languages are used appropriately and organized well throughoutthe book. As far as I could tell there were very few typos in the data; in themany Ancient Greek examples I found only one example with a small mistake in it(p. 137 'omoios' should really be 'homoios'). There is a good deal of informalrelation of the material to other subfields of linguistics, especially useful inan introductory book for possibly sparking the interest of students new to thediscipline. Instructors of American English speakers may want to draw explicitattention to the pronunciations of English words in the book, since theirrepresentations in the International Phonetic Alphabet will likely be differentfor their students. (There are also a few terms or references which may at firstbe lost on American-English-speaking students, but this merely presents a goodopportunity for discussion of dialectal differences.)

In any such book, much must be left out; however, students who intend tocontinue in the study of semantics would, I think, benefit from more explicitmention and explanation (however brief) of event semantics and semantic types.The idea of possible worlds is mentioned in several places, but again, anexplicit note about their nature as a way to go about the study of meaning mightbe useful. Finally, I must mention that in the interest of thoroughness it wouldbe beneficial to at least mention the idea of the perfect as an aspect-likedistinction, perhaps with a few references to those who have proposed such aview (e.g. Pancheva & von Stechow 2004). Although the Perfect in English hastense uses and the perfect in general is somewhat tense-like, the EnglishPerfect does co-occur with tense markings, like grammatical aspect and unliketense; a characterization of it as simply a ''Perfect tense'' is somewhat misleading.

There are just a few small points of organization that might be improved infuture editions. One thing that is a bit confusing in the layout of the book isthat both set-off quotations and data or information that would in some books bepresented in tables are both presented in blue type; it is not always apparentat first whether the reader is about to read a quotation or a bit of data. Inaddition, parts of the text are occasionally set off in blue boxes; the reasonfor this is not terribly clear. An explicit explanation of this convention atthe beginning of the book might help the reader understand the author's motivesbetter.

The book in general is an excellent introductory textbook for the instruction ofmeaning in language, presenting complex concepts in a clear but detailedfashion. It remains remarkably neutral without sacrificing rigor, and will be anextremely useful teaching tool given the correct setting.


Dowty, David. 1991. Thematic proto-roles and argument selection. Language 67:547-619.

Frege, Gottlob. 1966 [1892]. On sense and reference. In Translations from thePhilosophical writings of Gottlob Frege, ed. by Peter Geach & Max Black, 56-78.Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Jackendoff, Ray. 1983. Semantics and cognition. Cambridge, MA: MIT.

Lakoff, George. 1987. Women, fire and dangerous things: what categories revealabout the mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Pancheva, Roumyana & Arnim von Stechow. 2004. On the present perfect puzzle. InProceedings of NELS 34, ed. by Keir Moulton & Matthew Wolf, 469-485. BookSurgePublishing.

Pustejovsky, James. 1991. The generative lexicon. Computational Linguistics 17:409-441.

Sperber, Dan & Wilson, Deirdre. 1995. Relevance. Communication and cognition(2nd edition). Oxford: Blackwell.


Sylvia Reed is a PhD candidate at the University of Arizona. Her dissertation focuses on the semantics of grammatical aspect, especially in Scottish Gaelic. Her main research interests lie in the semantics and morphosyntax of aspect, tense, mood, and modality; Scottish Gaelic; language description and documentation; and Ancient Greek.

Page Updated: 19-Jan-2011