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Review of  Understanding Semantics, Second Edition

Reviewer: Marisa J. Carpenter
Book Title: Understanding Semantics, Second Edition
Book Author: Sebastian Löbner
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Semantics
Issue Number: 25.446

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This book by Sebastian Löbner is intended for an undergraduate-level introduction to semantics course. It contains 13 chapters, each with exercises and a list of further readings. The introduction suggests a division into two parts: the first, “a step-by-step guide to the main phenomena and notions of semantics, covering levels and dimensions of meaning, ambiguity, meaning and context, logical relations and meaning relations, the basics of noun semantics, verb semantics and sentence semantics,” and the second, “a critical introduction to the basic notions of the three major theoretical approaches to meaning: structuralism, cognitive semantics and formal semantics.” The monograph includes references to many different languages -- though the majority of examples are from English -- and explicitly maintains a mentalist approach throughout. A list of sections that have been added to this edition is provided in the preface.

In Chapter 1 (“Meaning and semantics”), the author seeks to provide a “more precise definition of semantics.” He distinguishes semantics from pragmatics, citing Grice’s theory of ‘Conversational Implicatures,’ Relevance Theory (Sperber and Wilson), and Speech Act Theory (John L. Austin and John K. Searle). The chapter covers three levels of semantic meaning: expression meaning, utterance meaning and communicative meaning. A further important distinction is made between lexical meaning (i.e., learned and stored in the mental lexicon) and compositional meaning (i.e., through the application of general semantic rules). Following a mentalist approach, the author establishes I-language (i.e., the internal language apparatus of individuals) as the essential object of study.

The goal of Chapter 2 (“Dimensions of meaning”) is to provide a more precise description of expression meaning. The first part deals with descriptive meaning and the relationship between meaning, reference and truth, and the second part covers non-descriptive meaning (i.e., social expression and subjective attitudes and evaluations). Meaning is defined as a mental description known as a concept. For example, the meaning of the word ‘dog’ implicates knowledge about the concept (i.e., description) of dogs as linked to a particular pattern of sounds. Although the chapter addresses three dimensions of meaning (i.e., descriptive, social and expressive), the author points out that the book will focus primarily on descriptive meaning.

Chapter 3 (“Ambiguity”) addresses ambiguity at all the levels of meaning presented so far, once again stressing the importance of distinguishing lexical meaning from compositional meaning. As such, it covers ambiguity at the lexical (i.e., word) and compositional (i.e., sentence) levels. The lexeme is taken as the basic unit of analysis, defined by the constitutive properties involved in its interpretation: sound form, spelling, grammatical category, inherent grammatical properties (e.g., gender, aspect, etc.), sets of grammatical forms it may take, and lexical meaning. The notions of polysemy and homonymy (with homography and homophony) are defined and contrasted with reference to German and Japanese. Polysemy is emphasized as an abundant source of ambiguity and is followed by a fundamental discussion on the general vagueness of lexical meaning that allows for flexible adaptation in contexts of utterances (CoUs). The author points out that vagueness need not involve polysemy and highlights cases of meaning shifts that allow different readings without polysemy, such as shifts by metonymy, metaphor and differentiation (three important aspects of contextual ambiguity).

Chapter 4 (“Meaning and context”) comprises three parts: deixis, determination of noun phrases (NPs), and presuppositions. According to the author, these are “three phenomena which are normally not treated together in other textbooks on semantics or pragmatics” but are “more closely connected than is commonly recognized” (p. 62) because they all reside in the interface between expression meaning and utterance meaning and contribute to the indexicality of language. The deixis section covers definiteness, person, gender, number and social meaning in personal, possessive and demonstrative pronouns. Personal pronoun paradigms are compared across multiple languages, revealing three common strategies for using existing pronouns to achieve higher levels of formality. Part 2, ‘Determination,’ covers definiteness (of articles), semantic and pragmatic uniqueness of NPs, quantification and genericity, all of which illustrate the many layers of structure that NPs can have. Definiteness is presented as the central phenomenon of determination. Because definite NPs carry presuppositions, the author transitions into Part 3 by asserting that presuppositions concern indexicality because they impose conditions on the CoU and thus “indicate what kind of context is required for the sentence to make sense” (p. 102).

Chapter 5 (“Predication”) looks at how content words (i.e., of the three main word classes: verbs, nouns, adjectives) and other types combine to create meaningful sentences and fragments. To convey the idea of predication, or semantic function, the author provides as an example the following sentence, containing three referents (i.e., Johnny, money, company):

Johnny sent money to a dubious company.

And he explains “[i]f an expression provides information about a referent, it is said to make a ‘predication’ or ‘predicate’ about it” (p. 107). He calls words that contribute to a predication, predicate terms (i.e., verbs, nouns, adjectives or adverbs), and refers to the meanings of these as concepts (= predicates) concerning 1+ entities (= arguments). The verbal predicate term, ‘sent,’ for example, has three arguments and the noun, ‘company,’ only one. The author shows how argument specification differs across the three word classes and describes the following main aspects of predication: predicate logic notation (PL), thematic roles (contrasted with verbal arguments) and linking strategies (i.e., agreement, case, word order), and selection restrictions (i.e., logical restrictions on arguments).

Chapter 6 (“Verbs”) focuses on how verbs express the “central predication around which the whole sentence is organized” (p. 134). This chapter deals mostly with grammatical meaning, focusing on three general issues: diatheses, aspect and tense. Mood and modality are deemed too complex for the purposes of this textbook. The discussion on diathesis involves variations in argument structure, called ‘alterations,’ in passive/antipassive and causative/anticausative constructions. The author references Levin’s (1993) classification of English verbs based on patterns of syntactic constructions and alternations. As it does not relate to temporal structure, the author also presents the more general situation structure, meant to capture ‘aspectual class,’ and introduces five classes: accomplishments, processes, simple changes, achievements, and simple occurrences (each is visually representated (Figures 6.1-6.5, pp. 142, 145-147). The author then shows how they interact with four types of verbal aspect: imperfective, perfective, perfect and prospective (also visually represented [Figures 6.7-6.9, pp. 152, 154, 156]), followed by a discussion on how these aspectual readings interact with the three verbal tenses. The chapter concludes with a cross-linguistic comparison of tense and aspect systems.

Chapter 7 (“Meaning and logic”) covers basic principles of logic and negation at the sentence level, including contingency and entailment. The author demonstrates why logical relations are not to be confused with meaning relations. While logic entails the truth conditions and denotations determined by meaning, meaning is not fully represented. Words and sentences can be logically equivalent and still differ in both descriptive and non-descriptive meaning. The author explains that the logical approach to meaning is useful to the semanticist because it provides concrete results that confirm close descriptive relationships between expressions.

Again taking a conceptualist view (meaning = concept), Chapter 8 (“Meaning relations”) treats the conceptual notions of synonymy, antonymy, heteronymy, hyponymy, taxonomy, and mereology/meronymy in the analysis of meaning relations between expressions. The author insists that it is necessary to distinguish logical from conceptual meaning to fully understand the field of semantics. Additionally, the chapter covers the notions of opposition and lexical fields regarding meaning relations. Lexical fields (e.g., terms for the days of the week) are defined as a group of lexemes of the same word class whose meanings have something in common, that are interrelated by precisely definable meaning relations and that form a complete unit in terms of relevant meaning relations.

Chapter 9 (“Meaning components”) begins the section of the book that introduces the three major theoretical approaches to meaning: structuralism, cognitive semantics and formal semantics. The structuralist approach is presented here in detail and not restricted to the field of semantics. The discussion focuses on the analysis of meaning by decomposition and begins with the original Saussurean notion of signs (i.e., words) differentiated by contrastive properties, which became the Binary Feature Approach (BFA). The author presents “severe” limitations of the BFA but also attributes great value to structuralism for its emphasis on linguistic data and systematic relations within language systems, which have helped to develop the theoretical methods of today. He then explores three alternative approaches to decomposition: Dowty’s Decompositional Semantics (1979), Jackendoff’s Conceptual Semantics (2011), and Semantic Primes (cf. Wierzbicka 1996).

Chapter 10 (“Meaning and language comparison”) transitions from structural to cognitive and formal approaches by exploring the structural assumption that language systems are separate, unrelated systems, and poses the following questions: How great are the differences between languages?; Are semantic systems arbitrary or constrained by universal principles? To answer these, the author looks at cross-linguistic problems of translation due to conceptual and social differences and concludes that languages vary considerably. He then takes up the relativism versus universalism debate with reference to Berlin and Kay’s (1969) color terms study, concluding that although such studies show that the arbitrariness assumed in structuralism can be constrained (i.e., by cultural tendencies), differences among languages are the rule rather than the exception, and, therefore, “a relativist attitude is absolutely necessary for all who seriously try to understand other languages” (p. 263). He goes on to say that once we are aware of the differences, we may then attempt to determine underlying commonalities that make languages comparable.

Chapter 11 (“Meaning and cognition”) introduces the cognitive approach to semantics. The author states that whereas structuralism focuses on describing meaning relations, cognitive approaches focus on meanings themselves. He presents the fundamental cognitive idea of meaning categorization, concentrating on Prototype Theory (PT). He describes PT as an improvement over the traditional view of ‘necessary and sufficient conditions’ for defining categories because it allows for membership of varying degrees, and then presents serious problems of the theory for semantic analysis. According to the author, the most problematic issue is that the central idea of graded category membership is in conflict with the fundamental semantic phenomenon of polarization (i.e., yes-no membership). He suggests revising it so that categories are not analyzed as having fuzzy boundaries, but rather boundaries that can be reset in any given context in a flexible way.

Chapter 12 (“Frames”) introduces Frame Theory (Barsalou 1992) as a cognitive theory with the potential to overcome some of the previously mentioned problems with other approaches. The author deems it superior to the binary feature approach for allowing non-binary features (e.g., attributes), and to prototype semantics for providing an explicit, concrete internal structure for conceptual analysis that is applicable to all parts of speech. Represented by matrices and graphs of nodes and arrows, frames depict chunks of knowledge and signal relationships between concepts involved. With these, we can account for regular meaning shifts and compounds as referential node shifts. For example, by metonymy, reference to ‘university’ may shift to one of its corresponding attributes: campus, administration, etc.

The final chapter (“Formal semantics”) addresses the third and final major approach to semantics, which the author highlights as the most fully developed and most technical and difficult, as well as the one that has been used most often thus far in sentence semantics. Here, meaning is treated as a matter of reference and truth conditions, with a focus on composition rather than decomposition. The author begins by illustrating the idea of compositional meaning using the Chinese numeral system. Then, taking an English fragment, he demonstrates how formal semantic analysis works: by translation into formal language (i.e., the predicate logic language [PL-E] introduced in Chapter 5) and interpretation by logical formulae (introduced in Chapter 7), in addition to some further steps (i.e., fixing models for the PL-E and introducing general interpretation rules). He attests that deriving truth conditions from the formal apparatus settles important semantic questions at the sentence level but cautions that it does not account for actual meanings of natural language expressions. Therefore, he introduces Possible-World Semantics (PWS) as a way to generate a complete account of the input-output characteristics of the language system. However, because PWS accounts only indirectly for descriptive meaning and not at all for non-descriptive meaning, the author concludes that the mentalist approach, advocated throughout the book, is superior because it describes the language system itself (i.e., its structure and operation).

Finally, the book includes an online component (URL: cw/loebner-9781444122435/) that provides checklists of “key notions” by chapter and a dictionary of technical terms with brief definitions of around 300 terms. It also has downloadable pdf versions of figures and tables for use in teaching, presentations, term papers, etc., glossing conventions “follow[ing] the Leibzig Glossing Rules,” ( and links to external websites, such as Ethnologue, The World Color Survey, FrameNet, etc. Additionally, instructors can download answers to the chapter exercises.


Although the two parts of the textbook suggested in the introduction are not clearly separated, it does, indeed, cover both things promised: “a step-by-step guide to the main phenomena and notions of semantics” (Chapters 1-8) and “a critical introduction to the basic notions of the three major theoretical approaches to meaning: structuralism, cognitive semantics and formal semantics” (Chapters 9-13). Similarly, although the organization of topics is not necessarily apparent based on the chapter titles, it is clear that the organization is very well thought out. Concepts are introduced in such a way that each new one constructively builds on previously covered concepts. For example, in Chapter 5, on predication, the author attempts to build on the readers’ understanding of the complex notion of predicate terms by relating them to metonymical shifts presented in Chapter 3 and then employs the same strategy to illustrate how Frame Theory works. Additionally, the chapter exercises provide opportunities for students to apply concepts in hands-on ways that both help solidify concepts and introduce students to some possible research methods.

There is no set model for how the author presents concepts; rather, with much thought and planning, he tailors each chapter according to what he deems most productive. For example, with simpler concepts (e.g., verbal tense), definitions are provided first, followed by further explanation, examples, etc. And with more complex concepts (e.g., verbal aspect and metonymy), definitions are given only after first building up to them with illustration by examples. The use of examples is also productive in a similar way. Rather than providing new examples for each concept introduced, the author strategically recycles examples to allow readers to access specific knowledge previously attained in the textbook. The use of linguistic terminology in the textbook is well thought out as well, and impeccably consistent. The author conscientiously and explicitly either selects a term that exists in the literature or provides a new or modified one, clearly defending each choice. And in the common event that multiple terms for particular concepts can be found, they are provided (usually in a footnote) to help prevent any possible confusion. However, one potential shortcoming is the way the mentalist approach is spread throughout without a clear recap to help students understand where, exactly, it fits in among the main approaches described. It would be appropriate to include this at the end of Chapter 13.

Although the book is intended for an undergraduate-level introduction to semantics, it is rather advanced and could also serve well at the graduate level. For undergraduates especially, prior linguistic knowledge, specifically in syntax, and perhaps experience in some other fields would be advisable in order to prepare students for many aspects of the book. For example, Chapter 7 would require at least some training in fields that apply the concept of logic in order for students to make much sense of the content. It would also be advisable to prepare students ahead of time and explain the key purposes of applying logic (among other complex notions) to semantic studies.


Barsalou, Lawrence W. 1992. Frames, concepts, and conceptual fields. In Lehrer, Adrienne and Eva Feder Kittay (eds), Frames, Fields, and Contrasts: New Essays in Semantic and Lexical Organization. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.. 21-74.

Berlin, Brent & Paul Kay. 1969. Basic Color Terms. Their Universality and Evolution. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of Los Angeles Press.

Dowty, David R. 1979. Word Meaning and Montague Grammar. Dordrecht: Reidel.

Jackendoff, Ray. 2011. Conceptual semantics. In Maienborn, von Heusinger and Portner (eds), Semantics: An International Handbook of Natural Language Meaning, Part 1. Berlin/Boston: Walter de Gruyter. 688-709.

Levin, Beth. 1993. English Verb Classes and Alternations. A Preliminary Investigation. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Wierzbicka, Anna. 1996. Semantics: Primes and Universals. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press.
Marisa Carpenter is a PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese. She is currently writing her dissertation on universals of semantic change from a cognitive perspective, with a particular focus on the Spanish language. Her research interests include semantics, cognitive linguistics, and diachronic variation and change.

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