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Review of  How Words Mean

Reviewer: Michael Crombach
Book Title: How Words Mean
Book Author: Vyvyan Evans
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Issue Number: 21.2636

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AUTHOR: Evans, Vyvyan
TITLE: How Words Mean
SUBTITLE: Lexical Concepts, Cognitive Models, and Meaning Construction
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2009

Michael Crombach, Nuance Communications Austria


''How Words Mean'' is an ambitious attempt to integrate different cognitive
approaches to semantics and grammar under the roof of a ''Theory of Lexical
Concepts and Cognitive Models'' (LCCM Theory). Evans intends to demonstrate that
meaning is a construct emerging in utterances through situated language use. The
book is organized in five parts, each part with a short introduction. The whole
book is subdivided into 16 chapters, each again with introduction and summary.
This is helpful as it enables the reader to quickly skip through the book and
select parts of particular interest. Evans (xii) states that he has four
different readers in mind, (a) the general linguist, (b) the (general) cognitive
scientist, (c) the cognitive linguist, and finally (d) the ''educated lay
reader''. This classification is fitting, although (unavoidably, and perfectly
understandably) each of these target groups will tend to skip certain known
aspects, while experiencing some of the chapters as challenging, even difficult.
But they will be rewarded with interesting and inspiring thoughts in this book.
Basically, Evans integrates ideas presented by other researchers such as Lakoff
& Johnson (1980, 1999), Langacker (1987), Croft (2002), Goldberg (2006) and
others. Evans carefully and diligently presents those theories and integrates
them into his personal conclusions, while adding new aspects.

Part I introduces the LCCM Theory and explains cognitive theories of word
meaning, while rejecting the standard approaches to semantics, which he labels
''literalism''. Evans follows many others (e.g. Lakoff 1987) in believing that
this traditional ''approach to meaning construction suffers from a fatal problem:
the principled separation between context-independent (sentence) meaning and
context-dependent (speaker) meaning'' (8). A central claim in this section is
that ''words do not in fact have meaning'', but that ''meaning results from
situated acts of communication'' (84). Evans puts forth his idea that lexical
concepts facilitate access to cognitive concepts: ''My claim is that the
essential distinction between lexical representation and meaning is that while
meaning is a property of the utterance, lexical representations consist of the
mental abstractions which we infer must be stored as part of the language user's
knowledge of language: symbolic units, together with the range of cognitive
models, the semantic potential to which a lexical concept offers access'' (73).

Part II deals with ''lexical representation''. Here Evans presents the dichotomy
between ''linguistic system'' and ''conceptual system''. The ''linguistic system'' can
be split into ''open'' and ''closed'' class items (as introduced by Talmy 2000).
''Closed'' class items can be described as ''function words'', e.g. English 'a',
'the', etc. ''Open-class lexical concepts afford access to conceptual content'' (106).

Part III is devoted to ''semantic compositionality'', one of the key aspects of
cognitive grammars. ''LCCM Theory can then be viewed [...] as complementing the
research perspectives provided by [...] constructional accounts of grammatical
organization'' but it differs from these approaches ''in that it *is* concerned
precisely with the nature of semantic representation and the mechanics of
semantic composition'' (239). In LCCM Theory the appropriate lexical concept is
selected by constraining factors, given by the context, and once selected it
must be matched with the conceptual structure accessed by this lexical concept.
On pp. 245-266 Evans lists ten ''Principles of lexical concept integration'', and
figure 13.7 on page 267 gives a very helpful overview of this very dense subject

Part IV applies LCCM Theory to ''Figurative Language and Thought''. The two
chapters provide an in-depth analysis of two well-known phenomena: metaphor and
metonymy, and the linguistic approaches to ''time''. Here Evans argues that
metaphor, metonymy, and literal language understanding are continuous. Metaphor
and metonymy rise when the primary cognitive models involved fail to analyze an
utterance; as a consequence the search domain is enlarged. Evans distinguishes
metaphor and metonymy by means of the figurative target (signifié) and
figurative vehicle (signifiant). In a case of metonymy the figurative vehicle
gives direct access to the lexical concept, while metaphors ''arise due to a
divergence between figurative vehicles and targets across two distinct lexical
concepts'' (297).

Part V concludes the book and embeds LCCM Theory in the ensemble of other
cognitive approaches to language.

The book further contains a glossary of technical terms ''that are either novel
to LCCM Theory or which assume a special interpretation'' (343). This is - due to
the very dense nature of the book - not only useful, but necessary, as sometimes
the reader might have lost track in the jungle of terminology. Evans himself
emphasizes this situation within cognitive linguistics (336f).


A fascinating aspect Evans does not pursue in depth, is the idea that language
evolved (in an evolutionary sense) as an ''index function'' to conceptual
knowledge (43, 106, 188). This is a view that certainly is worth pursuing. If
language makes access to ''encyclopedic knowledge'' easier, opening new ways to
retrieve this information internally and externally, then this is a very good
argument for what the evolutionary ''advantage'' of language might have been.
An important aspect missing in Evans' approach: the emotional component of
language. Evans touches on emotions by mentioning Damasio 1994 (177f), but
emotions are still underrepresented in semantic theories. In my view, meaning is
something that BECOMES. It is not out there in the world, it is not learned.
Meaning matures in a speaker's biography; meaning is experienced. Words can be
emotionally loaded for one person, while being meaningless to others: the
''Rosebud'' effect. If we assume that language is organized in a ''small
world''-manner, so that it only takes very few steps to have a bridge between
words (Ferrer i Cancho & Sole 2001), and that there are not only sledges, that
are affectively experienced, but also friends and lovers, foes and fears, then
the whole lexicon becomes a remarkable reflection of the emotional development
of a speaker. In this respect there is certainly further research possible that
can add to LCCM Theory, especially as this aspect strengthens Evans' view that
''meaning is not a property of words [...,] meaning arises as a function of the
way in which words (and language) are deployed by language users in
socioculturally, temporally, and physically contextualized communicative events''
(22), which is essentially the idea of Wittgenstein 2006/1952 (262).

Another aspect of meaning construction not handled extensively enough in this
book is frequency. Evans (95) touches on frequency as a ''decision and word
selection'' mechanism (following Langacker 1987), but frequency is a complicated
issue. Not only because frequency is heavily dependent on what is counted, how
it is counted and why it is counted, but also because frequency is something
that wears off. Frequency makes the ''small words'' ''meaningless''; e.g.
prepositions (analyzed in very great detail by Evans 153ff) are articulated and
understood differently depending on their relevance. Imagine a child looking for
her Barbie: when the doll is lying *under* the table instead of the more
expectable (and frequent) *on* the table, the prosody of the answer to the
question: *Where’s my Barbie?* will be completely different. While the stress in
the standard answer will be on the noun *table* it will be on the preposition
*under* in the more unusual reply. Only in such very special situations do these
''small words'' have more than a purely functional dimension. Evans touches on
''manner of utterance'' (16), but then does not pursue this aspect any further.
Prepositions and other function words (as opposed to ''names'', e.g. 'snake',
'bite' and ''indices'', e.g. 'this', 'there') are very important for the
grammatical correctness of sentences, but often irrelevant in the meaning or
understanding of utterances. Another dimension of frequency is that each speaker
has her personal ''favorites''. Some words are used more frequently by one user
than by other users, giving language a personal flavor, sometimes providing even
the basis for a spitting image of a person (think of *fascinating* uttered by
Spock in the TV series Star Trek). These aspects of frequency (which should not
be confused with Quantitative Linguistics) also have to be taken into account,
to improve the collection of ''theoretical constructs'' (xi), that make up LCCM

Finally, a general observation: There seems to be an ''Uncertainty Principle'' in
linguistics. When approaching language from the semantic side, like Evans does
with this book, the structural aspects of language seem to blur; while a formal
(syntactic) approach to very similar questions (e.g. Boeckx 2010) brings about
uncertainty on the semantic side. Somehow it seems impossible to handle
structure and content at the same time with the same precision. This could be a
challenge to overcome in the next steps of a linguistic theory.

In sum, ''How Words Mean'' is an inspiring contemporary account of semantic and
cognitive issues that is worth reading.


Boeckx, Cedric. 2010. Language in Cognition. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.
Croft, William. 2002. Radical Construction Grammar: Syntactic Theory in
Typological Perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Damasio, Antonio. 1994. Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain.
London: Vintage.
Ferrer i Cancho, Ramon & Sole, Richard V. 2001. The Small World of Human
Language. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 268, 2261-2265.
Goldberg, Adele. 2006. Constructions at Work: The Nature of Generalization in
Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lakoff, George. 1987. Women, Fire and Dangerous Things. Chicago: Chicago
University Press.
Lakoff, George & Johnson, Mark. 1980. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: Chicago
University Press.
Lakoff, George & Johnson, Mark. 1999. Philosophy in the Flesh. The Embodied Mind
and its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books.
Langacker, Roland W. 1987. Foundations of Cognitive Grammar: Volume I.
Theoretical Prerequisites. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Talmy, Leonard. 2000. Toward a Cognitive Semantics. Cambridge. MIT Press.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 2006/1952. Philosophische Untersuchungen. In: Werkausgabe
Band 1. Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp.

Michael Crombach is research & development engineer at Nuance Communications Austria, working on statistical language models and phonetic transcriptions for speech recognition systems. He has a background in historical linguistics (Ph.D.) and biology. His main interests are biology and evolution of language, statistics and language, theory and history of linguistics.

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