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Review of  Theories of Lexical Semantics

Reviewer: Clara Molina
Book Title: Theories of Lexical Semantics
Book Author: Dirk Geeraerts
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Discipline of Linguistics
Issue Number: 21.3042

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AUTHOR: Geeraerts, Dirk
TITLE: Theories of Lexical Semantics
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2009

Clara Molina, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, Spain


''Theories of Lexical Semantics'' provides a comprehensive yet synoptic overview
of research paradigms in lexical semantics. The book fills a crucial gap in the
literature on word meaning, a field of increasing theoretical relevance as well
as a vantage point from which one can understand modern linguistics as a whole.
No full account of trends in lexical semantics has been available for decades,
nor does the existing literature provide insights into theoretical and
methodological interfaces across traditions. ''Theories of Lexical Semantics''
charts the evolution of the discipline from the mid-nineteenth century to our
day, not only offering a chronological account of ideas, landmark publications
and dominant figures, but also describing undercurrents that have shaped the
field’s evolution. It thus stands as a long-awaited must-read in lexicological
and semantic theory.

The monograph contains five chapters, each dedicated to a major school of
lexical semantic theory, as well as a general reference section (plus an
annotated bibliography for each approach), and author and subject indexes. The
format is suitable for both extensive reading aimed at the full scope of lexical
semantics and for the detailed inspection of individual traditions. In
presenting the foundational tenets for each of the approaches, and the
entailments of those postulates for the study of word meaning, the books
provides linguists of any specialty (semanticists or not) with the background
for understanding the lexicon within various schools of thought, and for
comparing dominant ideas from one approach to another.


The first chapter (Historical-philological Semantics) provides the reader with
perspectives for surveying the birth of linguistics. Back in the nineteenth
century, the study of meaning emerges as a necessity for charting and
documenting the systematic correspondences identified within the Indo-European
family. Surveying, classifying and interpreting the mechanisms of semantic
change based on etymological research inaugurates semantics with a historical,
contextual and psychological twist that places meaning at the core of language
and frames outstanding lexicographic projects. The theoretical premises would
radically change with the advent of structuralism, addressed in chapter two.

The second chapter (Structuralist Semantics) traces developments from the 1930s
to the 1960s, when a ''langue'' (rather than ''parole'') oriented approach that
prevails in the field moves the focus away from diachrony, and words and
meanings fit into abstract, systematic mosaics. With a focus on literalness
(rather than figurativeness) and linguistic structure (rather than
extra-linguistic or encyclopedic context), structuralist semantics, the dominant
approach at the time, gives way to lexical field theory, relational semantics
and componential analysis. The mode would remain until late in the century, for
generativism proceeds with an atomistic understanding of meaning.

The tension between maximalist and minimalist approaches to meaning frames the
third chapter in the book (Generativist Semantics). Katzian semantics brings the
lexicon into the formal study of grammar and, in doing so, revolutionizes the
discipline. Componential analysis blends with formalist, algorithmic
representations of word meaning and with enquiries on the mental reality of
semantic analyses, which engenders bitter disputes of far-reaching consequences
for lexical semantics. The transformational interpretive orientation that would
prevail from the 1970s demotes the study of word meaning and enhances the
logical study of sentential, rather than lexical, semantics. However, mentalism
also gives rise to a radically different understanding of meaning towards the
end of the twentieth century, addressed in chapter five.

The fourth chapter (Neostructuralist Semantics) draws on the subsequent attempts
at elaborating decompositional and relational approaches, with an emphasis on
formalization on the one hand, and on delimiting the demarcation between word
and world knowledge on the other, which creates distances between semantics and
pragmatics. The post-generativist continuation of structuralist semantics brings
forth various formal, componential theories for the description of lexical
meaning, as well as relational models connected to computational approaches
(distributional corpus semantics and statistical semantics) of increasing
relevance today.

The fifth chapter (Cognitive Semantics) presents developments in semantic theory
not yet systematically approached in earlier histories of lexical semantics.
Born in the late 1970s as a reaction to a fracture within the generativist
paradigm, and to the lack of usage-based pragmatic insights, Cognitive Semantics
rediscovers the significance of meaning as the basis of structure, and,
according to Geeraerts, currently stands out as the most productive approach in
lexical semantic research. In focusing on lived experience, it addresses the
epistemological problem of objectivity and aims at integrating contextual,
experiential and cross-disciplinary insights into the study of word meaning.
Modularity and independence thus give way to a heterogeneous continuum in which
traditionally divorced domains meet: semantics and grammar, synchrony and
diachrony, linguistic and encyclopedic knowledge.

The flexibility and polysemy of meaning and the regularity of semantic processes
are the focus of what the author describes as a contemporary ''return to
hermeneutics.'' This reveals a cyclic process of rediscoveries within the history
of lexical semantics in which two trends emerge. On the one hand, a minimalist
view that argues for a distinction between usage and structure, pragmatics and
semantics, context and system, flexibility and permanence, cognition and
meaning. On the other hand, a maximalist view aims at integrating the
dichotomies. The same ideological assumptions come up at different stages and,
on every occasion, methodological advances unknown to previous traditions (or
non-salient within them) find room and shape a field that ''Theories of Lexical
Semantics'' portrays with precision.


In the conclusion, Geeraerts recapitulates, indeed reconstructs, the motivating
forces and methodological perspectives that have shaped the development of
linguistic lexical semantics. The chapter covers an evolution to which each of
the major traditions has made its own substantial contribution. A diachronic
focus on the semasiology of individual words grounds the foundations of the
discipline in the nineteenth century, followed by decades of synchronic stress
on autonomous structures. Over the course of the twentieth century, the
Saussurean chessboard inspires diverse understandings of semantic structure,
each linked to distinct methodological approaches: the analysis of semantic
fields leading to componential analysis, the painstaking formalization of
structure, the decomposition of patterns leading to computational and corpus
linguistics. Towards the end of the century, actual language use comes back into
the picture by means of integrating (with qualitative and, increasingly,
quantitative approaches) meaning and cognition on the one hand, and semantics
and pragmatics on the other. The unwieldy nature of the lexicon thus inspires a
long history of mutual influences and reactions in which ideology blends with

As Geeraerts points out, the overall history of lexical semantics depicts a
cyclic theoretical movement of ''decontextualization and recontextualization'', as
well as a linear movement of ''descriptive expansion.'' For the first, a marked
tendency towards recontextualization stands out as a pattern not alien to the
history of modern linguistic thought at large. For the steady expansion of the
domain of application of word meaning research, a historical progression from
qualitative semasiology to qualitative semasiology ends up leading to an
interest in quantitative phenomena, both on the semasiological (meaning) and on
the onomasiological (naming) level.

By focusing on different domains of activity, the different traditions
successively elaborate the discipline: Historical-philological Semantics, in
dealing with word senses and the semantic ties among those senses, provides a
qualitative treatment of semasiology. Cognitive Semantics contributes a
quantitative insight into semasiology by focusing on prototype effects and on
differences of salience and structural weight within an item or a meaning. In
turn, Structuralist and Neostructuralist Semantics qualitatively address the
onomasiological sphere by focusing on taxonomical hierarchies and on the
semantic relations among lexical items. Finally, Cognitive Semantics opens the
door to a quantitative twist to onomasiological work in focusing on entrenchment
and on the differences in cognitive salience between categories.

The decision to frame the dominant domains of activity of each tradition against
the setting of semasiological/onomasiological work allows an insight into
paradigmatic relations, which, as Geeraerts points out (282), is not surprising,
but not often observed. ''The conceptual relations that are usually studied in
semasiology, i.e. in the semantic structure of a single expression, are
fundamentally of the same kind as those studied onomasiologically between
different expressions ... so we find a basic similarity between the conceptual
relations within words and those between words.''

The parallels between semasiology and onomasiology also allow us to relate the
main traditions on the basis of four basic conceptual relations, i.e., inclusion
within taxonomical categorizations, literal and figurative similarity, and
contiguity. Historical-philological work on specialization and generalization
addresses the semasiological level, while structuralist work on taxonomies
addresses the onomasiological one. Cognitivist insights into family resemblances
address literal similarity at the semasiological level, while structuralist work
on lexical fields does so at the onomasiological one. Figurative similarity
(even if figurativeness admittedly still lacks an adequate, operational
definition, cf. p. 283) is also addressed by the parallelism between semasiology
and onomasiology. The cognitivist study of conceptual metaphor covers the
onomasiological level, and completes the traditional semasiological work on
lexical metaphor. Finally, the historical-philological work on metonymy
addresses contiguity at the semasiological level: cognitive frames do so at the
onomasiological one.

With all cells in the grid thus addressed, we have come full circle. ''Theories
of Lexical Semantics'' goes well beyond the description of individual paradigms:
it brings out the intricate ties between traditions, demonstrates empirical
progress in the development of the discipline, and expands the explanatory scope
to help the reader understand the evolution of linguistic thought. What is next
on the lexical semantics agenda? Geeraerts completes the overview with likely
next steps for the future. After addressing the likelihood of convergence and
divergence between the main strands of contemporary research on word meaning,
the book concludes with a challenging invitation to interdisciplinary
interaction that, in transcending the limits of individual traditions, fills
gaps and opens new horizons: theoretical, descriptive and methodological. At the
same time, in raising awareness about traditions often unknown today, or simply
rejected on ideological grounds, it provides valuable general insights.


It takes considerable expertise to take readers on a journey through theories of
lexical semantics that ends up grasping the evolution of linguistics throughout.
Geeraerts meets the challenge. As the author of ''The Structure of Lexical
Variation'' (1994), ''Diachronic Prototype Semantics'' (1997) and ''Words and Other
Wonders'' (2006), he has made substantial contributions to lexicological
research. As the founder of the journal ''Cognitive Linguistics'' and co-editor of
''The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics'' (2007), he has followed recent
developments in theoretical linguistics from close-up. In addition, he has
hands-on experience with lexicography, the practical counterpart of theoretical
lexicology. (See

It is no surprise, then, that ''Theories of Lexical Semantics'' should be
background knowledge for anyone seriously committed to lexical work. There has
been no overview in English exclusively devoted to word meaning research since
Cruse's 1986 ''Lexical Semantics'' (avowedly descriptive rather than theoretical
in orientation), and no comprehensive account of research paradigms in lexical
semantics since Ullmann's 1963 ''The Principles of Semantics''. The work under
review, a state-of-the-art overview awaited for decades, provides an
indispensable reference in semantic theory. It offers a well-planned, clearly
written text well suited for specialized courses in lexical semantics. Arguably,
the book might have been more effective if written in textbook-style rather than
monograph-style, for the density is sometimes great. However, its orderly
arrangement makes the book a valuable and accessible resource not only for
lexical semanticists, but also for students of literature, psychology,
anthropology, philosophy and cognitive science.

The latter will certainly welcome a text that gives Cognitive Semantics its
rightful place. Geeraerts, a pioneer in prototype-theoretical studies of the
lexicon in synchrony and in diachrony, comes out at times lop-sided towards
cognitivism, but then again, Cognitive Semantics is certainly the most dynamic
and productive current framework for lexical semantics. In this book, Geeraerts
acknowledges the centrality of this new approach for understanding the lexicon,
and is the first to provide an adequate treatment of the paradigm.

''Theories of Lexical Semantics'' lives up to classical standards of scholarship
by being both comprehensive (two centuries of research on word meaning are
covered) and richly documented (including over 800 items). It contains nuanced,
well-argued evaluations on many approaches to word meaning with the same
critical stance, which makes for an unbiased reference work. By bringing
together the various approaches in a perceptive architecture of affinities and
dissimilarities, the monograph reveals the underlying lines of development in
what otherwise might seem a chaotic and unstructured field. Geeraerts presents
not only encyclopedic information on lexical semantics, in nature and quantity,
but also an insight into word meaning that matches the explanatory force
required of scientific research. In sum, ''Theories of Lexical Semantics'' is a
book that the community of lexical researchers has long been waiting for -- but
the wait was definitely worth the while.


Cruse, David Alan (1986) Lexical Semantics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Geeraerts, Dirk (1994) The Structure of Lexical Variation. Berlin/New York:
Mouton de Gruyter.

Geeraerts, Dirk (1997) Diachronic Prototype Semantics. Oxford: Clarendon.

Geeraerts, Dirk (2006) Words and Other Wonders. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Geeraerts, Dirk and Hubert Cuyckens (eds.) (2007) The Oxford Handbook of
Cognitive Linguistics. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ullmann, Stephen (1963) The Principles of Semantics, 2nd edition. Oxford: Blackwell.

Clara Molina is a lecturer in English language and linguistics at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (Spain). Her research interests are in the realm of language-culture-cognition and her work includes topics in lexical semantics, language variation and change, and multilingualism. She is particularly interested in the interface of semasiology and onomasiology and the grammar/semantics continuum.

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