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Review of  Definitions: Implications for Syntax, Semantics, and the Language of Thought

Reviewer: Heidi Harley
Book Title: Definitions: Implications for Syntax, Semantics, and the Language of Thought
Book Author: Annabel Cormack
Publisher: Garland Publishers
Linguistic Field(s): Philosophy of Language
Issue Number: 11.1318

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Cormack, Annabel (1998) Definitions: Implications for Semantics, Syntax
and the Language of Thought. Garland Publishing, New York and London.

Reviewed by Heidi Harley, University of Arizona

This book, one of the useful series of Outstanding Dissertations published
by Garland, is an unmodified version of Cormack's 1989
University College London doctoral dissertation. Some dissertations lose
their relevance if not read in the context of the theoretical trend du
jour; this is not one of them. Indeed, in some respects, it anticipates
discussion that followed in the subsequent decade; in others, it
addresses foundational questions that will remain relevant to any approach
to theoretical semantics and syntax. Before summarizing the material, let
me comment on two particularly surprising aspects of Cormack's general
Cormack's primary source of data, dictionary definitions,
is, to say the least, unusual if not unprecedented in a
theoretically-oriented dissertation. Upon initial reaction, dictionary
definitions qua semantic data felt tainted by my intuition that dictionary
definitions tell you only what is least theoretically
interesting about word meaning. Children, after all, learn the meanings of
words without ever consulting a dictionary, and I assume that in fact by
far the bulk of adult word-learning goes on without the help of a
dictionary either. From the point of view of theoretical linguistics,
then, it had seemed to me that there were more important things to worry
about than what a dictionary might say about a word. On the other hand, I
can see that there's a crucial flaw in that stance: I use dictionaries
all the time, and I'm not the only one. There are even fields, including
theoretical syntax and semantics, where precise definition of terms is
crucial for theory-creation. Cormack (perhaps because of her background in
mathematics, where definitions are even more central than linguistics)
adopts the radical position that definitions actually do what they're
supposed to: allow you to understand the meaning of a new term. Since the
sound-meaning connection is the essence of language, dictionary
definitions then ought to shed light on some questions that are pretty
central to linguistic investigation. Cormack was insightful enough to
recognize this, and gets a lot of mileage out of her otherwise
theoretically virginal data set.
The second way in which Cormack's work is surprising is that she
explicitly addresses the question of the construction of representations
in Fodor's Language of Thought (LoT). That is, she argues that the
properties of definitions can provide insight into the actual syntax and
semantics of the LoT. That in itself is perhaps not remarkable. What is
surprising is that she couches her semantic discussion in model-theoretic
terms; most model-theoretic semanticists avoid explicitly addressing the
question of whether and how their proposed analyses are mentally
represented, perhaps for philosophical reasons, perhaps for practical
ones. Fodor himself (I think wrongly) asserts that the necessary
externalness of model-theoretic representations means that they don't
stand a chance of being appropriate tools for analyzing the LoT. Cormack,
dealing with the supremely external dictionary definition, does a
convincing job of using model-theoretic tools to make assertions and
predictions about the nature of the supremely internal LoT.
Cormack's dissertation is written in five fairly long chapters.
Chapter 1 introduces the theoretical syntactic and semantic frameworks she
adopts as a starting position: essentially Government-Binding theory and
model-theoretic semantics. She also outlines the Relevance Theory of
Sperber and Wilson and later uses it to address some pragmatic issues; it
seemed, however, that there were fewer predictive consequences of
Cormack's investigation for Relevance Theory than for the other two
(and, to boot, I'm not particularly qualified to comment on it anyway).
Chapter 2 begins the investigation with a consideration of
off-the-rack dictionary definitions: she assumes that they have a coherent
syntax and a coherent semantics, and that they can serve to eliminate the
unknown term at some level of representation: perhaps in a
natural-language level which Cormack terms LF', or perhaps at LoT itself.
Here she addresses questions of type/category mismatch, attributive vs.
predicative uses of adjectives, and the problem that non-intersective
adjectives pose for the distinction between internal and external
Chapter 3 involves definitions found in running text, like the
following: "a 'convex' deltahedron is one in which all the vertices point
outwards," or "a mammal suckles its young." Here Cormack faces the problem
of identifying the elements which constitute the definitional material.
She notes that there are different types of textual definitions: ones
which make use of the word "call" (most like dictionary definitions), ones
which use "say" (with consequences for the treatment of genericity), and
complex definitions with "if" and "when" (with consequences for donkey
Chapter 4 treats syntactic issues raised in the preceding two
chapters, in particular, the question of what types of mismatch between
c-selection and s-selection may arise. Here, the main subject is the
different types of complements which adjectives permit, and the
fundamental issue at stake is the question of learnability: how can we
constrain the set of possibilities such that all the different possible
configurations are learnable? In passing, she treats control constructions
extensively , as well as ECM, Raising, tough-movement and expletives.
Finally, in Chapter 5, she discusses the implications of the
previous four chapters for the LoT. Given her approach to elimination, it
is essential that the type system is common to both natural language and
the LoT. Further, as for Fodor, NL words correspond to LoT 'words',
more-or-less one-to-one. Elimination of an undefined term probably
proceeds after all natural language processing is over -- that is, a
definition is an instruction to create a new LoT concept, and fix its
position via biconditionals in relation to other already understood
concepts. (Here, Cormack has concluded that Fodor's long battle for strict
nativism (babies born with the concept CARBURETOR) has essentially been
misguided. In fact, even Fodor has recently concluded the same thing:
concepts, he has recently conceded, are now in fact learnable. What
Cormack does is provide a sketch of how such learning could take place
through definitions, rather than the canonical ostensive learning.)
Cormack's thesis is overall a remarkably finished piece of work,
especially given that she wasn't able to revise it before its publication
by Garland. As I said earlier, much of her discussion is as relevant now
as it was in 1989. On some points, however, it would have been interesting
to see how she would have incorporated later developments. A central
theoretical device she proposes is a distinction within type theory
between external and internal arguments: rather than simply the canonical
type for predicates <e,t>, predicates which must take an external argument
have type <e*,t>, where the * is intended to indicate the external nature
of the argument's syntactic position. Given the explosion of research on
the 'split-VP' hypothesis, according to which external arguments are not
the arguments of the root V but rather of a light verb, 'little v' or
PredP or some such, and the neo-Davidsonian semantics such an approach
necessitates, Cormack's notational device has most likely been supplanted.
Another question which the advent of the Minimalist program raises
for Cormack's discussion is the status of the ECP. She points out, for
example, that ECM seems strangely relevant to the construction of
legitimate definitions. There are definitions of verbs like 'to launch' of
the form "to cause to slide into water," where the object of 'launch' is
the subject of the embedded infinitival clause in the definition. She
points out that while "to believe to catch mice" seems intuitively like a
possible definition, "to believe catches mice", with the same
corresponding semantic gap, does not. This corresponds to the status of
heavy-NP shift out of these constructions: "*I believe exists more than
one solution to the problem." The heavy-NP shift, being rightward
movement, produces a violation of the ECP in this configuration, and,
Cormack argues, the operator movement which is attempting to produce the
subject gap in "to believe catches mice" is also to the right, and subject
to the ECP. Hence the ill-formedness of "to believe catches mice" as a
definition. (She argued earlier for operator movemnt to create an object
gap in a definition of 'putative', "supposed to be".) This account,
relying as it does on both the notion of linearity at LF (rather than
purely structural relations) and the ECP, would need to be reworked if the
proposal were to be recast in a Minimalist frame, without government.
In addition to addressing a number of major issues in syntactic
and semantic theory, Cormack provides interesting discussion of some
relatively minor points. One such interesting point for me was the
question of why despite being predicative in nature, don't Ns or NPs turn
up as definitions for Adj? All the other predicative categories do:
Adj-AdjP ('deaf' = "inattentive", 'dainty' = "hard to please"), Adj-PP
('dark' = "with little or no light"), Adj-Rel ('decisive' = "that decides
an issue"), Adj-Ppl ('mouldy' = "covered with mold"). The obvious thing to
say is that any phrase of type <e,t> may appropriately define an
(intersective) adjective; why should this generalization break down in the
case of N's?
The answer to the small question of why no N's as definitions of
Adjs is clearly that N's may not act as modifiers. This question,
Cormack asserts, is part of a bigger one: the question of why the
head-modifier relation exists in the first place. The representation of
some property as an N vs. its representation as an Adj has to do with its
perceived utility in identifying individuals: i.e. its stability with
respect to a particular individual. In that respect, "appleness" is a much
more stable, hence identificational, property than "redness" is. Heads and
adjoined modifiers get their combined interpretation essentially through
semantic conjunction: a red apple is red and an apple. So: why isn't a
lawn mower both a lawn and a mower? Cormack speculates that it is because
when one wants to communicate notion of the set formed by the conjunction
of two N predicates, syntactic conjunction is available, so the
interpretively trickier process of adjunction, which is used for
modifiers, is not necessary. This type of explanation is interestingly
reminiscent of more recent Economy-motivated explanations in syntax, but
crucially rests on a distinction between adjunction and conjunction with
respect to semantic transparency; again, it would be very interesting to
see this pursued in a Minimalist framework.
My main beef with Cormack's dissertation is its sheer density.
It's well-written, with astonishingly few typographical errors, but her
expository style makes things very hard on the reader. For instance, in
Chapter 4, she introduces a table of adjectives their c-selection and
s-selection types, numbered 1 through 16, and then refers to them pretty
much solely by number through the rest of the 70-page chapter; that is
symptomatic of the overall style. It would be fair to say that in many
places the prose is so cryptic that it requires a vigorous conscious
effort to follow the argument. That's not to say that the argument isn't
there: it (nearly) always is. But you have to be a very dedicated reader
to follow every twist and turn. It's not designed for causal flipping.
Further, the reader should bring to the table a reasonably well-grounded
knowledge of the mechanics of model-theoretic semantics; Cormack's
exposition of it in Chapter 1 is unproblematic, but a quick reading of the
outlines of the theory will not equip one with the necessary tools to
understand all the proposals. A reader who satisfies the determinedness
and model-theoretic prerequisites, however, will find Cormack's thesis
methodologically innovative, theoretically interesting, and intellectually

Heidi Harley is an assistant professor at the University of Arizona. Her
research interests include argument structure, Case theory, lexical
semantics and morphology. For more info, visit

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Heidi Harley (520) 626-3554
Department of Linguistics [email protected]
Douglass 200E Fax: (520) 626-9014
University of Arizona
Tucson, AZ 85721