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Review of  Pragmatics and the Flexibility of Word Meaning

Reviewer: Lisa Kristine DeWaard
Book Title: Pragmatics and the Flexibility of Word Meaning
Book Author: K. Bibok E. Nimeth
Publisher: Elsevier Ltd
Linguistic Field(s): Pragmatics
Issue Number: 13.1732

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Date: Mon, 17 Jun 2002 15:15:04 -0500
From: Lisa DeWaard Dykstra
Subject: Nemeth & Bibok (2001) Pragmatics and the Flexibility of Word Meaning

Németh T., Enikö & Karoly Bibok (2001) Pragmatics and the Flexibility of Word Meaning. Elsevier, hardback ISBN 0-08-043971-3, xii+329 pp., Current Research in the Semantics/Pragmatics Interface: Volume 8.

Lisa DeWaard Dykstra, Doctoral student in Second Language Acquisition at the University of Iowa

The current book is a collection of eleven papers focused on the confluence of two only recently connected (in scholarly research) disciplines: pragmatics and semantics. It is a compilation of current research, and as such is not intended for use as a textbook. In many of the papers examples are provided. Each time an example is presented it is translated into a grammatical interpretation of the sentence in English followed by a translation, making all of the examples accessible.

The overarching thesis of this volume is that research in semantics has traditionally not included valuable insights offered by pragmatics research, and that research in pragmatics could be enriched by the inclusion of the role of lexical semantics in its analyses. Issues of conversational implicature, for example, are central to the understanding of a lexeme in context. Likewise, much information is encoded in the lexicon that exists independently of pragmatic factors. The articles in this work address this theoretical convergence. Although the authors use a variety of methodological approaches and languages in the development of their arguments certain theories appear consistently throughout their discussions: optimality theory, relevance theory, conversational implicature, Bierwisch's two-level conceptual semantic approach, mono- and poly-semy, and others.

Introduction: Towards the New Linguistic Discipline of Lexical Pragmatics by Enikö Németh T. and Karoly Bibok
The introduction concisely states the purpose of the book and gives an overview of how the articles are and are not connected in purpose and methodology. A brief discussion of how semantics and pragmatics relate is followed by a succinct description of each paper.

Two Case Studies in Lexical Pragmatics by Reinhard Blutner and Torgrim Solstad
In this paper, Blutner and Solstad examine the situated meaning of gradable adjectives and the dimensional designation of spatial objects by applying Atlas and Levinson's (1981) Q- and I-principles and Horn's (1984) division of pragmatic labor to a bidirectional version of optimality theory. Two case studies show that situated meaning is a combination of lexical meanings and conversational implicature: an investigation into negative strengthening in context using the English adjective 'happy,' and a discussion of the spatial adjectives 'long,' 'wide,' 'deep' and 'thick.'

On the Scales and Implicatures of 'even' by Igor Boguslavsky
In this paper, Boguslavsky is concerned with the treatment of 'even' in regard to traditional understandings of the scales and implicatures associated with it. Previous literature suggests an existential and a scalar implicature, but Boguslavsky demonstrates that these phenomena fail to account for certain usages of 'even,' and that they allow usages that result in deviant sentences. After a detailed analysis, he arrives at the conclusion that to accommodate the discrepancies inherent in the traditional view, one must either split the lexeme into two separate lexical units or devise another explanation for the various uses. His proposal is of a double scalarity which would account for sentences of the type 'not x and not even y but z' is based on scales of expectedness, where sentences of the diminuendo type (going from least to most expected) and of the crescendo type (going from most to least expected). The two types of sentences are similar in their structure, and it falls to the hearer to apply interpretation strategies to the utterance which may include strategies of conversational implicature, as well as context and background knowledge. He then addresses the issue of the universality of interpretation strategies, examining data from Russian, English, Japanese and German. He concludes that "even maxims of conversation turn out to be language or culture specific."(p. 45) His analyses of diminuendo and crescendo sentences in the languages mentioned above support this theory.

The Flexibility of Inference in Triggers for Inferable Entities: Evidence for an Interpretability Constraint by Sharon A. Cote
According to Cote, speakers often use different types of referring expressions so that hearers will make the correct references within a discourse situation. She examines a variety of types of inferable entities and discourse triggers, such as: inexact triggers, contained triggers, and pronominal references, fleshing them out with data she gathered for a 2000 study. Cote proposes that the use of inexact triggers which contain pronominal references is an area in need of an interpretability constraint that suggests that the "hearer must be able to assign as much meaning to a pronoun as is needed to avoid causing a speaker to fail to achieve his discourse purpose" (p. 68). Among other evidence in favor of this constraint, Cote provides a partial list of ways in which speakers can help to satisfy this constraint.

In Defense of Monosemy by Thorstein Fretheim
While not disputing the existence of lexical polysemy, Fretheim argues that what often appears to be polysemy is in fact a modification of the meaning of a word due to pragmatic factors. Citing Sperber and Wilson's relevance theory (1985, 1986), Fretheim contends that linguistic encoding can be either conceptual or procedural. He focuses on the latter in his paper: "Linguistic items that encode a procedure do not contribute to the proposition expressed by an utterance; rather, by guiding the addressee's inferential phase of comprehension they place constraints on the thought processes by which implicatures and ground-floor and higher-level explicatures are derived" (p. 80). He states that procedural information is conveyed lexically, via intonation and syntactically. The subsequent parts of the paper consist of case studies in which he demonstrates the modification of meaning of the English expressions 'at least,' 'after all,' and the Norwegian expressions 'likevel,' and 'med en gang' as they are affected by varying intonation and syntactic patterns.

Pragmatics and the Flexibility of Theoretical Terms in Linguistics: Two Case Studies by Andras Kertesz
Kertesz maintains that there is a problem involving theoretical terms, and that it can be represented by a dichotomy: scientific terms are useful for the explanation of scientific understanding, but their status is questionable. He begins his discussion of the problem by examining the historical view in terms of the analytic philosophy of science and by examining the problem in terms of generative linguistics. After formulating the problem (P1): a. What is the structure of theoretical terms in generative linguistics? b. How does the structure of theoretical terms influence the structure of scientific explanations in generative linguistics? c. To what extent are the answers to (a) and (b) related to semantic and pragmatic factors? He fleshes out the issue via two methodological frameworks: modularism and holism. Kertesz's case studies concern the cognitive theory of metaphor (holism) and the two-level approach (modularism). The results of the two approaches yielded some commonalties and a few differences, with one of the main conclusions being that cognitive linguistics can provide "novel and unexpected solutions" (p. 147) to the problem of theoretical terms.

The Development of the Grounding Predication: Epistemic Modals and Cognitive Predicates by Peter Pelyvas
In this paper, Pelyvas examines changes in word meaning and use that are also indicative of changes in the grammatical system; specifically, evidence that cognitive predicates can function as grounding predications. He analyzes two areas: modal auxiliaries and cognitive/modal predicates. The paper begins with a brief description of the problem, followed by a detailed description of non-factive predicates -- how they function, what constraints there are, etc. The descriptions are followed by a series of examples. Pelyvas continues by creating image schemas of the modal auxiliaries 'should,' 'ought,' taking into account deontic v. epistemic meaning and narrow v. wide scope. These image schemas are compared and contrasted with image schemas for the modal and cognitive predicates 'be bound to,' 'be going to.' Attention is then turned to a detailed individual examination of various predicates, such as 'permit,' 'want,' 'believe,' 'appear/apparent/see.' Pelyvas concludes that modals are exceptional in the way that they grammaticalize, but they are not exceptional in the way that they interact within the image schemas. Examples are in English and Hungarian.

What is Polysemy? -- A Survey of Current Research and Results by Gergely Petho
This lengthy paper synthesizes the research done on polysemy from the early 1980s to the present. Petho argues that much research has been done on the topic of polysemy in a variety of linguistic fields, but that little has been done to consolidate those findings into a cohesive summary. In addition, he takes care to spell out the differences between homonymy, monosemy and polysemy. Petho takes findings from descriptive lexical semantics, classical structural semantics, cognitive linguistics, natural language processing, holistic cognitive semantics, two-level semantics and generative lexicon theory. He highlights a few key figures in the development of certain theories (listed here in order of their appearance in the paper), namely Deane (his Ph.D. dissertation from 1987, 1988), Geeraerts (1993), Nunberg (1978), Bierwisch (1983a), Kilgarriff (1992) and Pusejovsky (1995). Petho concludes that, although the methodologies and terms used by researchers in the various fields differ, a coherent picture of polysemy emerges: the lexicon and the conceptual system both contain information related to the word form, which is linked to several addresses. The addresses are linked to possible interpretations which are linked to appropriate parts of the conceptual system.

Interpreting Morphologically Complex Lexemes Revisited by Tvrtko Prcic
Prcic outlines three goals for his paper: (1) to offer a description of the process necessary for the interpretation of morphologically complex lexemes, (2) to reassess the roles of semantics and pragmatics in those interpretations, and (3) to reassess the roles of semantics and pragmatics in general and in their relation to lexical analysis. Using the vehicle of six agentive English suffixes, he discusses the role of semantics and pragmatics in the interpretation of each of them. The paper deals first with the role of semantics, focusing on morphosemantic compositionality, binary processing and semantic underspecification. Prcic then examines the role of pragmatics, specifically the issues of inferables, the transparency/opacity line, explicit v. implicit meaning, and pragmatic specialization. Finally, he explains how an understanding of the role of each can improve lexicographic practice.

Cultural Constraints on Meaning Extension: Derivational Relations between Actions and Happenings by Raissa Rozina
In standard Russian there exists a type of slang that is intuitively felt by native speakers to be slang, although it does not differ significantly in its form from the standard language. This slang is used by educated speakers, and in the media. The problem that Rozina has set for herself is this: How is it possible that native speakers immediately feel a word to be either slang or standard, even if they have never come across the word before? Rozina sets forth that this intuition is based on regular patterns of semantic extension which differ for slang and standard words. Her paper consists of an analysis of such words that are derived from verbs, namely actions and happenings. Through analysis she arrives at the conclusion that derivation of happenings from action verbs results in standard word meanings, while derivation of actions from happenings results in slang words. Examples are in Russian.

The Communicative Function of the Hungarian Adverbial Marker 'majd' "later on, some time" by Ildiko Vasko
Vasko sets out to identify the pragmatic interpretations of the Hungarian marker 'majd,' which means 'later on,' or 'some time.' Through the use of many examples of sentences containing 'majd' it is made clear that 'majd' can indicate two things: (1) the potentiality of the future realization of an action and (2) an indication that the action in question cannot happen now, for reasons that may or may not be specified. 'Majd' often does not often add any semantic information to the utterance, rather it modifies the intended propositional form. In addition, 'majd' can function as a connective which encodes sequential information. In this capacity, it can be used in the past and future tenses. 'Majd' may also contain the nuance of a suppressing/moderating effect designed to calm the hearer by indicating that the event in question will happen in the future. Examples are in Hungarian.

How the Lexicon and Context Interact in the Meaning Construction of Utterances by Karoly Bibok and Enikö Németh T.
Bibok and Nemeth T. examine Hungarian (1) implicit arguments, (2) implicit predicates, and (3) arguments and predicates that are connected by co-compositionality (as defined by Pustejovsky). Their analysis begins with descriptions of each category, including examples in English. They proceed to work through a series of examples in Hungarian that contain the three types of utterances. The types of words that produce the above types of utterances are given semantic representations according to Jackendoff's approach (1990). They conclude that meaning can only be inferred by "assuming an intensive interaction between the lexicon and the context" (p. 317). The construction of meaning is made possible due to the cognitive principle of relevance. Examples in English and Hungarian.

First, a note of caution for potential readers: The authors assume a great deal of prior knowledge in the area of theoretical linguistics. It is not a textbook, and is written with the advanced graduate student and linguistics researcher in mind. Overall, the papers included present a number of different explorations into the field of lexical pragmatics, all conducting their investigations using different methodologies. With the exception of the theories that create a common thread among the papers and the format (all of the papers observe a similar organizational style), there is little that connects them. This, though, was the intention of the editors. There is little critical commentary that needs to be made, save the following: The papers by Fretheim, Rozina and Vasko are to be commended for their excellent readability and clear exposition. On the other hand, the final essay by Bibok and Nemeth T., while a fine paper with a great deal of important information, suffers from some awkward phrasing and grammatical irregularities.

BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH Lisa DeWaard Dykstra is a Ph.D. student in Second Language Acquisition at the University of Iowa. Her research interests are acquisition of spoken and written pragmatic competence in advanced learners of Russian, and Spanish and Russian language pedagogy at the post-secondary level.