LINGUIST List 23.5344

Tue Dec 18 2012

Review: Semantics; Syntax; Cognitive Science; Psycholing: Werning et al. (2012)

Editor for this issue: Monica Macaulay <>

Date: 18-Dec-2012
From: Michael Putnam <>
Subject: The Oxford Handbook of Compositionality
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EDITORS: Markus Werning, Wolfram Hinzen, Edouard MacheryTITLE: The Oxford Handbook of CompositionalityPUBLISHER: Oxford University PressYEAR: 2012

Michael T. Putnam, Penn State University


One of the most contentious topics in modern semantic inquiry -- and one thathas drawn considerable debate -- is the concept of compositionality. In modernlinguistic thought, the notion that the meaning of an expression is generallydetermined by the syntax and meaning of its (sub)components was first proposedby Frege, and, in more recent times, has been extended to studies related towhat constraints are at play between syntactic and semantic systems, theunderlying structure of representational systems and neural architectures.With the recent recommitment to attempt to connect linguistics more directlywith other academic disciplines (e.g. language and mind, philosophy, and areasin cognitive science), this handbook is a much needed and timely addition tothe literature. The scope and content of this handbook extends far beyondsimply being a reference work that will only be consulted and cited as atrusted reference in term papers, dissertations, and journal articles. Rather,the contributions that Werning, Hinzen and Machery have compiled here providea cutting-edge snapshot of our growing knowledge (including some contentiousdebates) of what the scientific community understands regarding the concept ofcompositionality, and exactly in what domains this knowledge is incomplete orin need of reconsideration and revision.


This volume consists of seven parts, with the focus of each subsection beingdedicated to a primary topic pertaining to composition. In Part 1 (“Historyand overview”), the contributions are directed towards a clearer understandingof the history of compositionality in linguistics and philosophy. Theo Janssenstarts the volume with his contribution entitled, “Compositionality: Itshistorical context”. After a detailed rundown of linguists’ and philosophers’thoughts on the notion of compositionality throughout the 19th and 20thcenturies, Janssen arrives at the conclusion that the wide support forcompositionality is not for principled reasons, but for practical reasons.Marcus Kracht’s chapter (“Compositionality in Montague Grammar”) discusses howcompositionality has traditionally been modeled in Montague Grammar. The thirdcontribution in this section written by Zoltán Gendler Szabó (“The case forcompositionality”), adopts a more philosophical point of view, discussing thedifficulty of formulating a concrete definition of compositionality. Inparticular, Szabó raises interesting questions such as the following, “Are weconcerned with ‘meanings’ that are being combined, or is it syntacticconstituents? Are we talking about the meaning that constituents haveindividually, or that they have when taken together?” (p. 2). Szabóinstantiates the hypothesis that once we have fixed the individual meanings ofsyntactic constituents in a given expression, and have fixed a particularsyntactic structure, that no other components exist that will contribute toand determine meaning. The final paper in this section, Thomas EideZimmermann’s “Compositionality problems and how to solve them”, illustratesthe role that compositionality has played as a constraint on semantic analysisin a number of case studies (e.g., quantified NPs in object position andintensional arguments).

The primary concern of Part II (“Compositionality in language”) highlightsareas where philosophers and linguists have traditionally differed infundamental ways in their understanding and application of compositionality.Pauline Jacobson (“Direct compositionality”) advances the argument that themapping between syntactic structure and semantic meaning does not require any‘hidden’ level of structural representation, i.e., Logical Form (LF), and canbe mediated through a more direct mapping between some form of combinatorialsyntactic grammar and a compositional semantics. The contribution by PaulPietroski (“Semantic monadicity with conceptual polyadicity”) focuses on theconnection between thought and linguistic expression. Pietroski discusses thedisconnection between lexical meanings, which are held to be uniformlymonadic, and arguments, which saturate these meanings. According to Pietroski,a simple conjoining operation (rather than a combinatorial operation) isresponsible for maintaining strictly monadic relations. Francis JeffryPelletier (“Holism and compositionality”) and François Recanati(“Compositionality, flexibility, and context dependence”) address potentialcounterarguments against compositionality, when they discuss holism andcontext dependency respectively and how/if a concept of compositionality canexist in relation to these contrasting notions. Dag Westerståhl(“Compositionality in Kaplan style semantics”) addresses how compositionalitycan best be modeled in Kaplan style semantics, a theoretical approach thatallows certain kinds of semantic values to be determined by extra-linguisticcontexts. Introducing graded notions of compositionality (e.g., strictly,contextually, and weakly compositional readings), Westerståhl demonstrates howproblematic phenomena such as indexicals, unarticulated constituents,modulation, and pragmatic intrusion can be modeled to conform to (someversion) of compositionality. Lastly, Sebastian Löbner(“Sub-compositionality”) writes on the issue that some syntactic constructiontypes do not correspond to a single way of combining the semantic typesassigned to their constituents. Löbner sketches out a novel approach to dealwith problems that arise from sub-compositionality, such as the elimination ofa homomorphy of composition operations in the syntactic and semantic domains.

Part III (“Compositionality in formal semantics”) consists of three papers,whose purpose, which in some regards is similar to the discussions and debatesfound in Part I, is to arrive at a working historical and contemporarydefinition of compositionality and how it can and should be best applied informal semantic analyses. Wilfrid Hodges (“Formalizing the relationshipbetween meaning and syntax”) treats both historical and formal aspects ofcompositionality in semantics. From a historical perspective, Hodges tracesthe concept of compositionality back to the Aristotelian theory of meaning andArab philosophers such as Ibn Sina and Al-Farabi. From a formal perspective,Hodges returns to the so-called Extension Problem: Given that one has alreadyassigned meanings to some subset of expressions in a language by some meaningfunction, what are the conditions under which one can extend this originalmeaning function to the rest of the language? Hodges discusses how his (2001)extension theorem addresses these issues. Gabriel Sandu’s contribution,“Compositionality and the Context Principle”, continues Hodges’s discussion ofthe Extension Problem. The prime aim of Sandu’s chapter focuses on therelation between the principle of compositionality and the Principle ofContextuality. This third section closes with Tim Fernando’s paper entitled“Compositionality in discourse from a logical perspective”, where he extendsthe discussion of compositionality to include discourse-level phenomena.Fernando provides an overview of a number of formal semantic theories ofdiscourse, including model-theoretic treatments such as DiscourseRepresentation Theory (DRT; Kamp and Reyle, 1993) and competingproof-theoretic accounts.

The fourth subsection of volume (“Lexical decomposition”) moves toward thequestion of the meaning of lexical constituents themselves. DieterWunderlich’s “Lexical decomposition in grammar” delivers a survey of ideasoriginating in generative semantics and how they have been implemented invarious theoretical approaches, eventually arriving at Lexical DecompositionGrammar (which stands in contrast to the strictly atomist position of Fodor &Lepore 1998, 1999). Similar to Wunderlich, Heidi Harley argues against theatomist position and in favor of some version of lexical decomposition in herchapter, “Lexical decomposition in modern syntactic theory”. Harley approachesthis problem from modern minimalist syntax, and shows clear ways where moderntheory has adopted core conceptual notions found in Generative Semantics, aswell as areas of divergence. Wolfram Hinzen’s piece, “Syntax in the atom”,re-opens the atomist vs. lexical decomposition debate, approaching this debatein similar fashion to Pietroski’s earlier contribution in Part II, from theperspectives of the atomicity of human thought and its relation to lexicaldecomposition. In conclusion, Hinzen accepts that the only logical approach toamend these concerns is through a revision of the architecture of the grammar.James Pustejovsky’s “Co-compositionality in grammar” closes out this sectionon lexical decomposition. Pustejovsky takes a closer look at ‘co-composition’,a term he uses to define the process of how compositional processes determinedby the phrasal structure of an expression are supplemented by additionalinterpretative mechanisms at the interface between the mental lexicon andsyntactic structure.

Part V (“The composition of mind”) shifts the focus of the volume totheoretical challenges involving the principle of compositionality and itsrelation to psychology. In “Emergency!!! -- Challenges to a compositionalunderstanding of noun-noun combinations” Edward Wisniewski and Jing Wu explorehow speakers interpret novel noun-noun compounds (e.g. ‘zebra football’) witha particular focus on speakers of English and Chinese. Wisniewski and Wu showthat speakers attribute ‘emergency properties’ that are not attributed to theindividual members of the compound. James Hampton and Martin Jönsson continuewith this theme in their contribution, “Typicality and compositionality: Thelogic of combining vague concepts”. Hampton and Jönsson introduce and endorsethe prototype theory of concepts and its relation to the principle ofcompositionality. Lila Gleitman, Andrew Connolly, and Sharon Lee Armstrongchallenge the core notions held in prototype theory in their chapter, “Canprototype representations support composition and decomposition?” JessePrinz’s “Regaining composure: a defense of prototype compositionality” alsoenters into this ongoing debate regarding the validity of prototype theory indefense of the psychological research on concept combination. In closing,Edouard Machery and Lisa Lederer present a critical overview of threeinfluential models of concept combination in their chapter, “Simple heuristicsfor concept combination”.

“Evolutionary and communicative success” is the central focus of thecontributions found in Part VI. Michael Arbib (“Compositionality and beyond:Embodied meaning in language and protolanguage”) argues that natural languageshave compositionality but that they need not intrinsically be compositional bydefault in their design. Arbib compares and contrasts ‘the compositional view’with ‘the holophrastic view’ in describing the ontology of the protolanguageof homo sapiens, with the former championing the position that protolanguageconsisted of “words, but not syntax” and the latter where protolanguageconsisted of communicative acts that could not be further decomposed intosmaller meaningful units. In this chapter, Arbib supports ‘the holophrasticview’, which plays an important role in Kenny Smith and Simon Kirby’scontribution, “Compositionality and linguistic evolution”. Smith and Kirbytake issue with Pinker and Bloom’s (1990) approach to biological evolutionand, in contrast, hypothesize that compositionality is a socially learnedbehavior. Peter Pagin’s “Communication and the complexity of semantics”challenges the traditional idea that compositionality is required for agrammar to be learnable. Pagin postulates that compositionality ensures thatcomplex expressions can be learned and processed in a quick and efficientmanner, and, as a result, compositionality reduces computational complexity.This discussion of evolution and communication success closes with GerhardSchurz’s chapter, “Prototypes and their composition from an evolutionary pointof view”, where he presents his case for why prototypes are an efficient wayof representing natural classes of objects and concepts.

The final section of this volume, Part VII (“Neural models of compositionalrepresentation”), is dedicated to cutting-edge research involving neuralnetworking and its relation to theories of compositionality. Terry Horgan’sprogrammatic article, “Connectionism, dynamical cognition, and non-classicalcompositional representation”, develops a dynamical-cognition framework toaccount for a non-traditional notion of compositionality. Horgan suggests thathis framework might provide a foundation for cognitive science. Martina Penke(“The dual-mechanism debate”) takes on the task of addressing the controversybetween classicism and connectionism in psycholinguistic modeling ofmorphological inflections. Terrence Stewart and Chris Eliasmith(“Compositionality and biologically plausible models”) compare recentproposals for the implementation of compositionality in local and distributedconnectionist models. Alexander Maye and Andreas Engel (“Neural assemblymodels of compositionality”) present empirical evidence in favor ofobject-related neural synchrony in the cortex, as well as topologicallystructured cortical feature maps. The idea of developing a neuro-emulativesemantic system is taken up in Markus Werning’s contribution, “Non-symboliccompositional representation and its neuronal foundation: toward an emulativesemantics”. Although structurally similar to model-theoretic approaches tosemantics (e.g. Discourse Representation Theory (DRT)), Werning employs thenotion of set-theoretic constructions of neural emulations (but not of theirdenotations). The section and volume as a whole concludes with Giosuè Baggio,Michiel van Lambalgen, and Peter Hagoort’s chapter entitled “The processingconsequences of compositionality”. In this chapter they speculate as towhether or not the notion of compositionality can be reduced to a testableprinciple from a processing perspective. Although they uphold compositionalityin most cases, they point out that an account of processing from acompositional standpoint faces significant challenges when it must account forinteractions between sentences and discourse context, perceptual cues andstored knowledge.


Reviewing a handbook represents a serious challenge, because in most cases, ahandbook contains discussions and treatments of long-held axioms andconventions that are generally agreed upon as being more or less “canonical”in a given field of academic study. Although this handbook definitely exhibitsthese qualities to some extent -- especially in the first half of the volume-- the editors should be commended for also having the vision to create aforward-looking volume that highlights both current debates in the field aswell as speculative theoretical questions that will likely shape and directfuture research endeavors in the years to come. The editors did an excellentjob of bringing together academics with various, diverse specializations (e.g.philosophy, linguistics, and cognitive science) to contribute to a volume withsuch a broad scope of coverage. As is the case with most of these handbooks,the price of these volumes, especially those which are not published in apaperback edition as well as a hardback, is far too pricey for the averageconsumer to buy. Aside from the unfortunate high price for this referencework, this volume and its contents will undoubtedly have a high impact invarious fields of language science for years to come.


Fodor, J. & E. Lepore. 1998. The emptiness of the lexicon: Reflections onJames Pustejovsky’s ‘The Generative Lexicon’. Linguistic Inquiry 29: 269-88.

Fodor, J. & E. Lepore. 1999. Impossible words? Linguistic Inquiry 30: 445-53.

Hodges, W. 2001. Formal features of compositionality. Journal of Logic,Language and Information 10: 7-28.

Kamp, H. & U. Reyle. 1993. From discourse to logic: Introduction tomodel-theoretic semantics of natural language, formal logic and discourserepresentation theory. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Pinker, S. & P. Bloom. 1990. Natural language and natural selection.Behavioral and Brain Sciences 13.4: 707-84.


Michael T. Putnam is an Assistant Professor of German & Linguistics at PennState University. His primary research interests lie in the fields oftheoretical syntax, lexical semantics, contact linguistics, and bilingualism.

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