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Review of  Contrastive Lexical Semantics

Reviewer: Toby Ayer
Book Title: Contrastive Lexical Semantics
Book Author: Edda Weigand
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Semantics
Issue Number: 10.935

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Weigand, Edda, ed. 1998. Contrastive Lexical Semantics, John Benjamins,
Amsterdam. 268 pages hardback.

Reviewed by Toby Ayer, Oxford University

This book is a collection of papers from a conference in Munster in
May 1997, published as volume 171 of Current Issues in Linguistic
Theory. Three of the papers are printed in German with English
summaries; others appear to be translations or at least non-native
writing, and occasionally the clarity suffers from it. Because there
are thirteen papers, this will mainly be a summary, with a couple of
comments mostly at the end. When I can, I will use the authors' words
to represent their positions.
In the Foreword, Weigand emphasizes that lexical semantics is to be
seen as 'part of a theory of language use,' thus largely pragmatic in
nature. In order to verify semantic conventions with 'hard, measurable
evidence' rather than native intuitions, most of the authors adopt a
corpus-oriented approach. The goal is 'a new methodology for the new
object of vocabulary-in-use,' which will account for lexical
idiosyncrasies, multi-word lexical units, and varieties of word use
that a model-oriented approach cannot handle. Much of the work is
directly oriented towards improving dictionaries, both of one language
and between languages.
A basic model of contrastive analysis is set out by John Sinclair in
the first paper. He points out the inadequacy of traditional theories,
which divide the lexicon from the grammar, for dealing with the way
word meanings change when they are combined in phrases. One example is
the phenomenon of 'reversal,' in which the meaning of a word 'arises
predominantly from the textual environment, rather than the item
choice.' For instance, in white wine the color-word white refers to a
wine-specific color, not the usual color white; and in the expression
borders on Adj., the adjective means something like 'abnormal,'
regardless of what adjective it is. Further, considering meaning in
multi-word units, ambiguity is seen to be rarer than usually thought
(it is 'created by the method of observation, and not the structure of
the text').
Form and meaning are the same thing--a lexical item is one or the
other, when seen relative to other forms or meanings. There seems to
be a conflict between the paradigmatic and the syntagmatic when
considering the choice of a lexical item, but the two can be reconciled
by a theory that takes cotext into account. Sinclair proposes five
categories of item co-selection, which are the components of the
lexical item. They are the core, semantic prosody, collocation,
colligation, and semantic preference. His example is the verb budge.
This word is defined in positive terms, but almost always used with a
negative sense. Only the core and the semantic prosody are obligatory;
here the core is 'NEG budge' (with the usual narrow definition) and the
semantic prosody includes a notion of frustration with the 'budging.'
Weigand follows with two papers, first elaborating on the
priorities and assumptions behind the 'contrastive lexical semantics'
approach, then starting to apply it to expressions of the emotion
'anger'. Again, the importance of pragmatics, of conventions rather
than rules, is stressed. It is such conventions that 'determine how
words are used.' And again, semantic conclusions must be quantifiable,
checked by 'the criterion of frequency' in the corpus.
Contrastive goals are finally laid out here. Weigand assumes a
'quasi-universal semantic structure' that is the basis for deciding on
equivalence between languages. There is 'no independent reality,'
however the universal structure 'contains the ways by which human
beings perceive the world.' Accordingly, the theory is conceived in
terms of human abilities, social/cultural conditions, etc.: 'our way
of life determines our way of using language.' The six 'universal
EMOTION, SOCIAL BEHAVIOR. These are divided subsequently into partial
fields, predicating positions, and meaning positions, the minimal units
of meaning. While she dissociates the theory from others 'based on
independent semantic primitives,' she posits a basis of 'heuristic
predicating positions' like BE, BECOME, LOSE, CAUSE.
Multi-word units, or 'words-in-use,' are again taken as basic to
linguistic expression: 'syntactically defined phrases are the lexical
units of our communicative competence.' The facts of word combination
cannot be covered by standard rules. Semantically equivalent phrasal
expressions in individual languages (i.e. collocations) vary by
convention, not by rule. With words-in-use as the object of study,
Weigand hopes to provide the basis for improved dictionaries and tools
for foreign-language learning.
Weigand's analysis of the emotion anger consists substantially of
parallel lists of expressions in German, English, and Italian. They
are arranged by the criteria of [moral], [intensification], [curbed],
and [minimization]. Within these, the 'predicating positions'
mentioned above are also used to divide the example expressions (e.g.
CAUSE + [moral] anger). The lists show how equivalent senses are
captured in the different languages. The conclusion here is that 'to
learn a language is to know how words are used and what utterances are
used in specific situations.' Ways of use vary between languages in
complicated ways. Meaning cannot be explained completely, so any
language cannot be explicated completely. Weigand reminds us again
that we need corpora both to determine and to confirm the semantic
conventions revealed in the contrastive analysis.
The next three papers--by Christian Schmitt, Valerij Dem'jankov,
and Henning Westhiede--continue with the same method of contrastive
analysis. They too concern 'anger,' comparing respectively
German/French/Spanish, German/Russian, and German/Dutch. Schmitt's and
Dem'jankov's papers are in German. All give similar parallel lists to
Weigand's, divided under the same headings and comparing two languages
at a time.
Schmitt emphasizes action-oriented description. 'The function of
words does not consist in making objective and ontological statements
about the world but in applying words in meaningful propositions,'
according to the English summary of the paper. 'We have to determine
the purpose of expressions and the role linguistic entities play in
concrete speech acts.'
Dem'jankov extends the metaphor of the 'word family' to that of a
'semantic village,' fancifully using concepts from Soviet
history/society. In such a village, words have pragmatic 'jobs.' They
can be 'rooted' in one village (morphologically), but 'dwell' in
another (semantically). 'Both evolution and revolutions are possible.'
While semantics is where a word lives, and pragmatics is both
travelling (change in the word's use) and 'relations between an actual
lexical meaning of a word and its 'inner form.''
The difficulties of determining the equivalence of expressions
between languages is again stressed by Westheide. The only way to
succeed is through knowledge of the cultures/societies whose languages
are under investigation. Pragmatic rules determine the use of words.
When considering Dutch and German, it is important to remember the
general principle of 'avoid conflict' at play in Dutch. Likewise,
foreign language students need to know that a language is 'a
communicative system bound to a cultural environment.' Westheide
includes information on his learner's German dictionary for Dutch
students, which uses the contrastive method described above.
Eckhard Hauenherm's paper, in German, compares a lexical field
approach with a pragmatic approach employing the notion 'meaning
position' and applies them to the verbs stehen (German) and stare
(Italian). The lexical field approach covers only the 'regular uses'
of the verbs, though they are used in ways that deviate from their core
meanings. The same general approach as above is advocated again here.
Espousing a principle of homology, Claude Gruaz's short paper
extends the above methods to the level of morphemes within words; both
situational and linguistic context is relevant to lexical choices.
Gruaz distinguishes between different aspects of content: referent,
sense, meaning, and signification. He defines motivation, the relation
between root words and derived forms, and describes synchronic word
families based on 'close' or 'loose' motivation. The difference
between composition at the morphological and phrasal levels is that
there is more choice in the latter case. Gruaz's emphasis, though, is
that pragmatics shows that on both levels the one unit-one meaning
relation is clearly wrong--the relation is many-many.
J\252rgen Esser argues more radically for a notion of
'medium-independent word-form.' Given the noun show, the verb show,
the orthographic form 'show', and the phonological form
/&#61682;&#61514;&#61559;/, he posits a single form <show> which is not
bound to phonology, graphology, or grammatical category. This
abstraction is analogous, says Esser, to positing a single root that
underlies words such as find and found. This medium-independent form
is important for analyzing homonyms and homophones, comparing written
and spoken corpora (especially when accents/dialects/spelling
conventions play a part), and for composite corpora. Statistical
comparison of word-forms, indeed, is only possible using this notion.
Focusing on Italian, Christoph Schwarze explores two instances of
lexical variation: numerals used as approximate quantifiers (e.g.
quattro salti 'four jumps' used to mean 'a little dance') and
polysemous spatial prepositions (e.g. sopra/su 'on' used in various
metaphorical expressions). He points out that 'variation of
interpretations which only depend on situations are not to accounted
for by the grammar.' He proposes that there are basic meanings that
comprise the semantic structures of the various words, and the other
readings are derived via a few principles (referential tolerance,
transfer to non-spatial orientations, etc.). The goal is to conceive
of a lexicon that can be both limited and variable, and the key is to
recognize that the variation itself is constrained.
We find a different kind of focus in Anita Steube and Andreas
Spath's paper on Russian partitive constructions. Assuming a
'Chomskian grammar enriched with a semantic component' (i.e. Semantic
Form), they argue for certain lexical entries that have no phonology.
In the case of partitives and pseudo-partitives, they propose that the
quantifier (e.g. 'much') is always present, but is non-overt if a
measure phrase (e.g. 'three cups') is also used. The partitive PP
modifies a head noun, which itself is non-overt. Thus the
pseudo-partitive and partitive constructions are respectively 'three
pots MUCH of strong tea' and '[three pots MUCH] [STRONG TEA of the
strong tea],' where the capitalized words are non-overt. Full SFs of
the elements in these constructions are given, and the amalgamation
process is explained.
Dmitrij Dobrovol'skij contrasts a Russian and a German idiom that
are usually thought equivalent. The fact that they do not really match
in interpretation supports the position that 'absolute cross-linguistic
equivalents are, as a rule, lexicographic fictions which result from
inaccurate semantic analysis.' To continue, he examines the Russian
idiom 'cover one's self with a copper basin' and gives about a dozen
rough equivalents in German, exploring various choices that affect the
exact meaning of the idiom. He concludes that many contextual
variations are crucial for choosing an appropriate equivalent idiom in
another language.
The final paper, by Wolf Paprotte, reports on an experiment in
'sense tagging' a text. The method of 'word sense disambiguation'
attempts to use only the local context of each word to assign it the
correct sense. Assuming that each local context will correspond to a
single sense, this experiment first identified consistently
co-occurring words ('relevant collocators') in a training set. By then
identifying a second layer of collocators, 95% coverage of an
experimental text was achieved. Using such 'signatures' for word
senses is a new approach to defining 'similar contexts.'

Many of the papers here seem to overlap considerably with
each other, covering different data though not advancing distinct
positions. Clearly much of the work is actively directed towards
practical improvements in dictionaries and learning tools, which is
commendable. I would question some instances of practical methods
being abstracted to theoretical assumptions--e.g. a word's meaning being
derived from the surrounding text, or the theoretical need for a
medium-independent word-form. Clearly this book would be of interest
for those who work in corpus-based contrastive analysis or
foreign-language dictionaries, but probably not for those accustomed to
generative approaches.

Background: I graduated from MIT in 1996 and am now a doctoral student
at Oxford University. My thesis concerns lexical semantics and syntax,
specifically denominal and de-adjectival verbs.