LINGUIST List 28.5088

Mon Dec 04 2017

Review: English; Pragmatics; Semantics: Cummins, Griffiths (2016)

Editor for this issue: Clare Harshey <clarelinguistlist.org>


Date: 13-Jul-2017
From: Nicolas Ruytenbeek <nruytenbulb.ac.be>
Subject: An Introduction to English Semantics and Pragmatics
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/28/28-1118.html

AUTHOR: Chris Cummins
AUTHOR: Patrick Griffiths
TITLE: An Introduction to English Semantics and Pragmatics
SERIES TITLE: Edinburgh Textbooks on the English Language
PUBLISHER: Edinburgh University Press
YEAR: 2016

REVIEWER: Nicolas Ruytenbeek, Université Libre de Bruxelles

REVIEWS EDITOR: Helen Aristar-Dry

SUMMARY

In An Introduction to English Semantics and Pragmatics (AIESP), Patrick Griffiths (PG) offers an overview of the major issues in the semantics and pragmatics of the English language. AIESP has the form of a textbook divided into 11 chapters, including exercises at the end of each chapter and suggested answers at the end of the book. This second edition (originally published in 2006) has been revised by Chris Cummins (CC). The book is intended for students in English linguistics and for scholars who are not familiar with these research areas.

Chapter 1, “Studying meaning”, introduces the basic notions in semantics, namely the speaker-addressee relationship, the Gricean picture of communication based on the recognition of a speaker’s intention, the sentence/utterance distinction, the existence of different types of meaning, and deictic expressions. It also outlines issues bearing on the semantics-pragmatics interface, and issues related to the notion of literal meaning and the explicature/implicature distinction.

Chapters 2 to 7 deal with the semantic aspects of meaning.

In Chapter 2, “Sense relations”, PG discusses entailment, synonymy vs. antonymy, hyponymy, complementarity, converseness, and incompatibility relations.

The semantics of English nouns is covered in Chapter 3, where an analysis in terms of properties shared by a prototype is developed; this chapter also includes a discussion of mass vs. count nouns.

In Chapter 4, PG focuses on gradability and ambiguity of adjectival meaning, for which particular features of the context of utterance need to be taken into account.

Chapter 5 is devoted to the role of English verbs in sentence meaning, and to the arguments required by different types of verbs. Verb meaning is related to direct vs. indirect causation, and different ways to classify English verbs are proposed.

Chapter 6, “Tense and aspect”, examines how the English language locates events and the distribution of these events in time.

In Chapter 7, “Modality, scope and quantification”, PG gives an overview of the differences between deontic and epistemic interpretations of modal verbs. This well-developed chapter also comprises a discussion of the semantics of markers of core modality, differences in scope, and an approach to quantifiers in terms of set theory.

Chapters 8 to 11 deal with the pragmatic aspects of meaning.

Chapter 8 frames pragmatics as the use of utterances in context and the possibility for speakers/writers to mean more than what they literally say/write. PG shows how departures from Grice’s (1975) maxims trigger different types of implicatures. The discussion of quantity, manner and relevance implicatures is followed by a three-page introduction to relevance theory, and a section concerning the presuppositions triggered by factive expressions.

Chapter 9 is devoted to figurative language. In this chapter, PG illustrates the contrast between literal and non-literal interpretations, as in irony, metaphor, metonymy, comparison. He shows that the literal/non-literal distinction is not always clear-cut and rightly points out that figurative expressions increase speakers’ communicative power while imposing extra processing effort on interpreters.

Chapter 10, “Utterances in context”, is an introduction to some English linguistic devices used to indicate what the speaker takes to be known or, rather, new information. These include pseudo-clefts, passives, contrastive focus. PG demonstrates that the notion of “question under discussion” is relevant for explaining the use of these devices.

Finally, Chapter 11, “Doing things with words”, addresses the variety of social actions or “speech acts” performed by uttering sentences. Possible indicators of speech act forces are sentence-types, and lexical, syntactic and discursive cues, even though none of them is completely reliable to assign speech act force to a given utterance.

EVALUATION

In AIESP, PG and CC convincingly achieve their objectives. They offer an easy-to-read and wide-ranging overview of the major research topics in English semantics and pragmatics. For instance, their discussions of the major English sentence-types in Chapter 2, of the tense-aspect distinction in Chapter 6, and of the semantics of core modals in Chapter 7 present a lot of information in a very clear and coherent manner.

At the same time, the authors highlight important contemporary issues at the semantics-pragmatics interface, such as the following: the difficulties underlying the identification of the speaker’s intended meaning and the extent to which this meaning matches the meaning actually inferred by the interpreter, the necessity for the researcher to take into account contextual parameters when making generalizations about language use, the probabilistic nature of utterance interpretation, and the distinction between the rational reconstruction of meaning and the psychological mechanisms involved in utterance processing (Chapter 8, p.110; Chapter 11, p.145, see also Chapter 10, pp.138-139). PG and CC also make insightful remarks concerning the adequateness of theories of semantic/pragmatic meaning, suggesting, for example, a minimal semantics for imperatives (Chapter 5, pp.56-57).

AIESP makes a significant and novel contribution to the field for two major reasons. First, the exercises at the end of each chapter and the suggested answers at the end of the book make the book a convenient material for practice sessions and student supervisions. Second, unlike, for instance, Cruse’s (2011) textbook, it contains several chapters devoted to pragmatics, which is more than welcome as there are already many textbooks on the market that are exclusively devoted to semantics.

The structure of AIESP is appropriate to its goal. It introduces semantics before pragmatics, while gradually allocating space for the pragmatic components of meaning in the first chapters, the final four chapters focusing on pragmatics. The transitions between the chapters are well-thought-out, as in the case of the discussion of scalar implicatures following a chapter section on quantifiers and scalar terms.

Another strength of AIESP is that it is entirely in line with the times. First, several recent references have been added to the original edition by CC, in particular in Chapters 4 and 9 concerning adjectival meaning and metaphorical meaning. Second, it is not only based on classic theories such as speech act theory, but it also introduces more recent approaches such as Sperber & Wilson’s (1995) relevance theory. However, unlike for the theoretical aspects, the two authors, PG and CC, do not do justice to empirical and experimental findings. For instance, Gibbs & Colston (2012) provide an excellent up-to-date overview of experimental work devoted to figurative language (Chapter 9), but this book is not mentioned in the references for further reading; in Chapter 11 (p.149), it would have been relevant to discuss Clark’s (1979) experiments concerning the role of different sources of information on the interpretation of indirect speech acts, but such pioneering approaches (as well as more recent studies) are missing in this revised version of AIESP.

AIESP provides many interesting discussions of linguistic phenomena at the interface between semantics and pragmatics. That being said, several remarks concerning the methodology are in order, in particular if the book is to be used for teaching.

First, PG and CC illustrate their discussions with examples, which come early (as from Chapter 1). But all these are fabricated examples and, in this respect, AIESP is not different from previous textbooks. This is unfortunate because semanticists and pragmaticians often face the criticism that they should take into account real, attested data from spoken and written corpora. This issue is not too worrisome, however, insofar as the book also contains more natural and realistic examples in the exercise sections of each chapter.

Second, and this sort of criticism applies to most textbooks, the content of AIESP has to be complemented and, in some cases, slightly revised by the teacher. That is, several important topics and notions are not discussed, such as the differences between addressees, hearers, over-hearers, and interpreters (Chapter 2), proper nouns (Chapter 3), multidimensional adjectives (see, e.g., Sassoon 2013), polarity and markedness (Chapter 4). In addition, sometimes the choice of a term, i.e., “complementary”, is not always justified: in this case “contradictory” is more commonly used than “complementary” (for an exhaustive discussion of these notions, see Horn 1989). Other examples of inaccuracies consist in anachronisms: in Chapter 1, exercise 3 mentions “propositions” but this notion is introduced in Chapter 2; in Chapter 5, pp.50-51 it would have been easier for the reader if ergativity and accusativity were introduced before the illustrations of unergative and unaccusative English verbs; in Chapter 10, p.135, an example of a request is “Could you email her now boss?” but indirect requests are discussed not before Chapter 11.

Furthermore, I have a few concerns with how the authors position themselves with respect to the theoretical approaches they address. To be more precise, their theoretical commitments are not always obvious. While they use the notion of a “speech act” as a common thread in the chapters about pragmatics, they make explicit that they do not endorse a literalist view of utterance meaning. By contrast, they seem to assume the relevance theoretic distinction between explicatures and implicatures, but it is unclear whether this distinction is compatible with the insights retained from speech act theory, as in Chapter 9 (pp.119-122). Another shortcoming has to do with the allusion to relevance theoretic works on modals and the absence of references to Kratzer’s (1977, 1991) work in Chapter 7. Concerning relevance theory, I was surprised to see that nothing was said in Chapter 8 about optimal relevance and speakers’ preferences and abilities. Finally, the authors’ treatment of the differences between Grice’s “relevance” and the relevance theoretic notion could have been more convincing.

Summing up, AIESP is a highly valuable book for anyone interested in the study of English semantics and pragmatics. As a thought-provoking textbook, it will be particularly useful to graduate students working on these topics.

REFERENCES

Brown, Penelope & Stephen Levinson. 1987. Politeness: Some universals in language usage. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Clark, Herbert H. 1979. Responding to indirect speech acts. Cognitive Psychology 11: 430-477.

Cruse, Alan. 2011. Meaning in language: An introduction to semantics and pragmatics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gibbs, Raymond W. & Herbert Colston. 2012. Interpreting figurative language. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Grice, Henry P. 1975. Logic and Conversation. In Syntax and Semantics, Vol. 3, Speech Acts, edited by Peter Cole and Jerry L. Morgan, 41-58. New York: Academic Press.

Horn, Laurence R. 1989. A Natural History of Negation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kratzer, Angelika. 1977. “What ‘must’ and ‘can’ must and can mean.” Linguistics and Philosophy 1 (3): 337-355.

Kratzer, Angelika. 1991. “Modality.” In Semantics: An international handbook of contemporary research, edited by Arnim von Stechow and Dieter Wunderlich, 639-650. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

Sassoon, Galit W. 2013. A typology of multidimensional adjectives. Journal of Semantics 30 (3). 335-380.

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


ABOUT THE REVIEWER

Nicolas Ruytenbeek recently completed a PhD in Linguistics at the Université libre de Bruxelles (2017). In his dissertation, he investigates the mechanics of indirect directive speech acts, both from a theoretical and experimental perspective. His main research interests are linguistic approaches to politeness, speech act comprehension and production and, more generally, issues bearing on the semantics/pragmatics interface. He is currently preparing a post-doctoral project devoted to the processing of im/polite utterances.

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