LINGUIST List 23.2157

Fri May 04 2012

Review: Philosophy of Language; Semantics: Elbourne (2011)

Editor for this issue: Rajiv Rao <>

Date: 04-May-2012
From: Demet Corcu Gül <>
Subject: Meaning
E-mail this message to a friend

Discuss this message

Announced at

AUTHOR: Paul D. ElbourneTITLE: Meaning: A Slim Guide to SemanticsPUBLISHER: Oxford University Press.YEAR: 2011

Demet Gül, Department of Linguistics, Mersin University, Mersin, Turkey.


'Meaning: A Slim Guide to Semantics', by Paul Elbourne, is an introductory bookfor students of semantics. This book is divided into 9 chapters, which follow aninductive pattern. Elbourne discusses the basic arguments in semantics, from themeaning of words, to meanings of utterances in contexts.

In the preface, Elbourne limits the content of the book to natural languagesemantics. However, he does not limit semantics to semantics in linguistics byalso including psychological and philosophical aspects of semantics in thediscussion. He promises the reader that he will not avoid touching on difficultand/or controversial components of semantics.

In Chapter 1, Elbourne discusses what meaning is, or better put, what meaning isnot. In this chapter, the reader evaluates the dictionary definitions of theword 'chair' in the Collins Pocket Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary.Elbourne shows the reader that it is not possible for a dictionary to cover allof the items in the world to which the word 'chair' may refer. Furthermore, heintroduces the terms 'extension' and 'intension'. The extension of a concept orexpression sign consists of the things to which it applies, in contrast with itsintension, which consists very roughly of the ideas, properties, orcorresponding signs that are implied or suggested by the concept or expressionin question. Elbourne also shows how difficult it was to define the word'knowledge', even for philosophers. Likewise, he shows that metallurgists couldnot agree on the definition of the word 'metal'. Furthermore, he explains theGettier problem, which defines knowledge as 'justified true belief' (Gettier,1963). Elbourne shows what a complicated process it is to define a word byexemplifying Chomsky's (2000) understanding of 'definition'. Chomsky (2000)claims that meanings of words for physical objects are determined by humanintension. For instance, a stick lying on the ground is named as a 'thing' onlyif a human left it there (Chomsky, 2000). At the end of Chapter 1, Elbournestates that the definition of a word and the meaning of it are two distinctterms. After making sure that the reader knows how he defines the term'meaning', Elbourne delves into discussions on the study of meaning insubsequent chapters.

Chapter 2 deals with how the relation between words and the real world istreated by philosophers, linguists and psychologists. Elbourne distinguishesbetween referential and internalist theories of meaning. He presents discussionsfor and against the Referential Theory of meaning (i.e. Platonism) and startsoutlining how the Internalist Theory of meaning approaches problems with theformer. Referential Theory defines meanings of words as things in the world. TheInternalist Theory (also referred to as nominalism), on the other hand, takesmeaning as thoughts, ideas, or concepts in the mind of speakers, which meansthat every human has his/her own language in his/her mind. Elbourne traces theInternalist Theory of meaning back to Aristotle. He introduces Chomsky's (2000)concepts of mental lexicon, language faculty, numerical difference, qualitativedifference, and qualitative identity. To illustrate differences betweenapproaches, he shows how Referential and Internalist Theories of meaningapproach problems like the meaning of 'Santa Claus'. Prototype Theory,categorization criterion, and compositionality are also defined in the chapter.Elbourne closes the chapter by representing the results of test runs by thepsychologists McCloskey & Glucsberg (1978), which support the Internalist Theoryof meaning.

Chapter 3 is a further step in covering the word 'meaning', where semanticproperties of words and the relation between word meanings are defined anddiscussed. In this unit, synonymy, ambiguity, and vagueness are defined,explained, and discussed in terms of Referential and Internalist Theories ofmeaning. Terms like phonological inhibition, semantic priming and repeatingpriming are introduced while Elbourne presents evidence from neuroscientificexperiments (e.g. Pylkkänen and Murphy, 2006; Pylkkänen et al., 2006)questioning how polysemy and homonymy are treated in the brain. The latencyresults achieved at the end of said experiments present physical evidence of thefact that polysemy and homonymy are two distinct operations in the brain.

Chapters 4 and 5 focus on semantic theories of sentence meaning. Chapter 4starts the discussion by compositionally defining semantic meaning. TheInternalist Theory defines the meaning of a sentence as a mental structureformed by the meanings of words in the sentence and their syntactic structure.In other words, the Internalist Theory takes sentences as sets of possibleworlds. The Referential Theory of meaning, on the other hand, sees sentencemeanings as abstract objects which can be used as mathematical models ofinternal mental structure. Elbourne presents the discussion on possible worldsemantics starting from Leibniz (in Kenny, 2006) and Arnauld and Lewis (Mason,1967). Leibniz (in Kenny 2006) offers the term 'possible world' in his work 'TheProblem of Devil', where he claims the world that God created is the best of allpossible worlds. Arnauld (Mason, 1967) also uses the term 'possible worlds' inhis theological and philosophical discussions. Alternatively, Lewis (Mason,1967) claims that all possible worlds exist, nevertheless, the world we live inis called the 'actual world' because we are living in this one, not in another.Lewis (1970), Stalnaker (1970) and Davidson (1967) define 'sentence meaning' astruth conditions which are determined by related possible worlds. Barwise andPerry's (1999) term 'situation' is also introduced as another version of theconcept of possible worlds. Situations are defined as spatiotemporally delimitedparts of the world or sets of possible worlds. Finally, Elbourne explains howLadusaw (1980) uses negative polarity items (NPI) to show that some part of ourbrain uses the possible worlds notion to find meanings of sentences. Elbourneends the chapter with a comment that says that possible world semantics can beused to define sentence meanings, but that there is much further discussion thatshould be considered.

Elbourne goes on to present the debate, as he names it, between Referential andInternalist Theories in Chapter 5, on the semantic properties of sentences. Inthis chapter, entailment, presupposition and two types of ambiguity, namelylexical and structural, are explained and analyzed. Ambiguity is analyzed interms of Chomsky's (1976) surface structure and Baker and Shan's (2008) MentalRepresentation Theories. Elbourne explains Chomsky's (1976) explanation ascomplicated in syntax but simple in semantics, whereas he judges Baker andShan's (2008) explanation as simple in syntax but complicated in semantics. Hedoes not pick one theory over the other and, again, leaves the decision to thereader. Elbourne closes the chapter by giving an example of the consequences ofambiguity in a court to show that meaning is not only an abstract discussion,but also a vital part of daily life that can at times even be a matter of deathand life.

Chapter 6 opens with an example given to clarify how compositionality helpslinguists explain the meaning of a sentence. Elbourne shows that the grammaticalstructure of a sentence may be the key to its meaning. He displays howRussellian propositions and possible worlds are used to do so. Russel (1903)defines proposition as a complex consisting of the very objects which are thevalues of words which express propositions. Frege's (1960) functionalapplication, function argument, value, mapping, implementation of functions withrespect to Russellian propositions, and possible world semantics are explainedin the chapter.

In Chapter 7, dealing with meaning and context, Elbourne defines 'context of anutterance' (i.e. the sum of circumstances that bear on reference and truth) and'indexicals' (i.e. contextually- dependent references). He mentions Kaplan's(1989) content and character terms, which directly deal with the referential useof indexicals. He shows that Kaplan's (1989) theory is not capable of explainingvarious uses of indexicals. Further, Elbourne defines 'implicit content' as thecontent derived from the audible words of sentences. He explains Sperber andWilson's (1986) proposal to explain implicit content. Although he states that itis not possible to explain with certainty how we understand the implicit contentof an utterance, he shows how important it is by giving an example from a courtin 1993, where the lack of clarity about the implicit content of the phrase 'usea firearm' could have decreased a thirty year sentence to five years. In thefinal part of the chapter, Elbourne defines Grice's (1975) Cooperative Principleand conversational maxims, concluding that conveyed meaning is effective incommunication through language.

Chapter 8, on meaning and thought, presents a critical analysis of theSapir-Whorf Hypothesis (Pinker, 1994). Elbourne shows in this chapter that astrong Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and a restricted Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis areinvalid, whereas a watered Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis can be supported to someextent. A strong Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis argues that human language imposesconceptual distinctions on our sense data. On the other hand, a restrictedSapir-Whorf Hypothesis imposes conceptual distinctions on relevant sense dataonly in some topics. Finally, a watered Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis claims that theway human beings stereotypically or habitually think about some topics isinfluenced by language.

In the conclusion, Elbourne states that he is in favor of the InternalistTheories of meaning and encourages the reader to read and question othersemantic theories.

Elbourne does not include a references section in his book. Rather, he uses awhole section at the end of the book to detail the sources he used, as well asitems for further reading. He introduces the material that he uses in eachchapter and informs the reader about how to access the referenced studies.


"Semantics: A Slim Guide to Semantics" is the perfect title for the book byElbourne, since it really guides the semanticist during the beginning of his/herstudies. The book is a well-written guide for anyone who wants to get a completepicture of what semantics is about.

Elbourne starts his discussion with the question, "What is meaning?". He doesnot ask it directly nor answer it openly. He tells the reader what it is not andleaves the definition open to debate for the reader. The debate betweenReferential and Internalist Theories of meaning is introduced in the secondchapter. Throughout the chapters, he keeps adding on different levels to thedebate, which makes the reader get engaged in the discussion at differentlevels, and as such, he/she easily gets a full picture of what semantic theoriesare about and why they exist. Overall, Elbourne inspires the reader to thinkabout problems in semantics. Additionally, he shows that semantics is not asubject only for a scientists, but rather a daily matter with consequencesconcerning life and death.

Surprisingly, Elbourne does all of this without boring the reader. The examplesthat he uses are presented such that they are unexpectedly easy to follow. Inaddition, his language is "crystal-clear", as the back cover of the book states.Elbourne succeeds in making the reader laugh out of the blue while reading aboutthe most serious problems in semantics. This not only eases the reading process,but also helps the reader feel safe because he/she can see that the writerempathizes with him/her.

One of the distinguishing facts about the book is that it covers semantics inphilosophy, linguistics, and psychology, which gives the reader the ability toevaluate any piece of information from various perspectives.

All of the terms and concepts in the book are defined from scratch forbeginners. At times, when the reader has a question like "What is X in the firstplace?", he/she comes across a clear and simple definition of whatever that Xis. Even the term 'set' is defined before discussing what Set Theory is about,which is not a common format. Elbourne makes it impossible for the reader not tounderstand what he describes. He makes sure that the reader knows what he istalking about by repeating (sometimes paraphrasing or updating, if necessary)the definitions of terms. One further note is that Elbourne succeeds inexplaining the most complex terms and concepts in a simple manner. For instance,the way he exemplifies the concept of 'possible worlds' through a TV series inChapter 7 (pp. 120-121) is extremely clever.

However, one does not find subtitles, or highlighted definitions in the book.This is not a book to be used to find a list of terms in semantics and/or theirdefinitions. Rather, it is a book which clearly and simply shows the reader whatterms are about and how previous studies approach said terms or concepts. Thereader enjoys coming across definitions as he/she sifts through the book frombeginning to end. He/she questions what basic semantic terms and theories are,which problems each theory solves and which problems each causes, and/or whatkinds of discussions are caused by these terms. By the end of the book, thereader finds him/herself at a point where he/she is encouraged to do research onthe two main semantic theories covered in order to find out which one he/shefavors.

Although the book includes beginning level discussions on semantics, it may wellbe used in graduate courses. Namely, this is because Elbourne raises studyquestions about semantics and does not answer the questions that he raises.Instead he guides the reader to some possible answers, so that reader isencouraged to research the subject in order to find answers to questions.Instructors may use any chapter of the book as an introduction on how to makestudents ask questions about the subject, followed by an assignment requiringdetailed research on the terms, concepts and/or theories in question. The bookwill make a perfect introduction to semantics if used in this way.

Finally, including a sources and further reading section to an introduction bookis beneficial for learners. Readers are encouraged to further research what theyhave read. Nevertheless, the readers could really use a references section atthe end. I hope Elbourne considers including a references section in upcomingeditions.


Barwise, J. and Perry, J. (1999). Situations and Attitudes (2nd Edition). CSLIPublications.

Baker and Shan, C. (2008). Donkey anaphora is in-scope binding. Semantics andPragmatics 1(1), 1-46

Chomsky, N. (1976). Conditions on rules of grammar. Linguistic Analysis 2, 303-51.

Chomsky, N. (2000). Language and Mind. CUP

Davidson, D. (1967). Truth and meaning, Synthese 17, 304-23.

Frege, G. (1960). Function and concept. In M. Black and P. Geach (eds.)Translations from the Philosophical Writings of Gottlob Frege, 21-41. Blackwell.

Gettier, E. (1963). Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?. Analysis 23, 121-123.

Grice, H. P. (1975). Logic and Conversation. In P. Cole and J. Morgan, Syntaxand Semantics 3: Speech Acts, 41-58. Blackwell Academic Press.

Kaplan, D. (1989). Demonstratives. In J. Almong and J. Perry and H. Wettstein(eds) Themes from Kaplan, 481-63. Blackwell.

Kenny, A. (2006). The Rise of Modern Philosophy. OUP.

Ladusaw, W. (1980). On the Notion of "Affective" in the Analysis of NegativePolarity Items. Journal of Linguistic Research 1, 1-16.

Lewis, D. (1970). General Semantics. Synthese 22, 18-67.

Mason, H. T. (1967). The Leibniz-Arnauld Correspondence. Manchester UniversityPress.

McCloskey, S. and Glucsberg, M. (1978). Natural Categories: Well defined orfuzzy sets?. Memory and Cognition 6, 467-72.

Pinker, S. (1994). The Language Instinct: How Mind Creates Language. WilliamMorrow and Company.

Pylkkänen, L. and Murphy, G. (2006). The representation of polysemy: MEGevidence. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 18, 1-13.

Pylkkänen, L. and Stringfellow, A. and Marantz, A. (2002). Neuromagneticevidence for the timing of lexical activation: An MEG component sensitivephonotactic probability but not to neighborhood density, Brain and Language 81,666-78.

Russel, B. (1903). The Principles of Mathematics. COUP

Sperber, D. and Wilson, D. (1986). Relevance: Communication and Cognition.Blackwell.

Stalnaker, R. C. (1970). Pragmatics. Synthese 22, 272-89.


Demet Gül completed her PhD in linguistics in Ankara University's Facultyof Letters in 2010. Her main research interests lie in the semantics andmorphosyntax of modality, especially modality in Turkish. Her M.A.dissertation focuses on grammatical and lexical expressions of modalnecessity in Turkish. For her PhD project, she analyzed native speakerjudgments to reach a semantic description of evidentiality in Turkish. Sheis currently teaching in the Linguistics Department at Mersin University,Mersin, Turkey.

Page Updated: 04-May-2012