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Review of  Meaning

Reviewer: Eduard Barbu
Book Title: Meaning
Book Author: Jaroslav Peregrin
Publisher: Elsevier Ltd
Linguistic Field(s): Pragmatics
Issue Number: 16.3414

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Date: Wed, 23 Nov 2005 10:18:59 -0800 (PST)
From: Eduard Barbu
Subject: Meaning: The Dynamic Turn

EDITOR: Peregrin, Jaroslav
TITLE: Meaning
SUBTITLE: The Dynamic Turn
SERIES: Current Research in the Semantics-Pragmatics Interface
PUBLISHER: Elsevier Ltd.
YEAR 2003

Eduard Barbu, Researcher, Graphitech Italy


The volume to be reviewed consists of contributions of a symposium
held in Prague in September 2001. The main theme of the symposium
was the dynamic turn in the study of meaning. My review has the
following structure: In the rest of the introduction I survey the field of
Dynamic Semantics and introduce its main paradigms. Then I give the
gist of each paper. Two papers are not presented: The introduction
written by Peregrin (Chapter 1) and van Benthem's very technical
paper (Chapter 2) that characterizes the structural properties of
dynamic inference. The reason I do not present van Benthem's paper
is that would be odd to verbalize some logical proofs. I conclude with
some final remarks.

The name Dynamic Semantics is given to a bunch of theories that
depart from Montagovian paradigm of meaning, emphasizing that
sentence meanings are dependent on the discourse they are part of.
The general point is that the meaning of a sentence is not given
(only) by its Truth conditions as we know from Montague. The
theoretical unity of the diversity of approaches that are known as
dynamic semantics is given by the acceptance of the following points:
1. The meaning of a sentence is always interpreted in a certain
context. The context includes the hearer's beliefs and intentions and
the meaning of previous sentences.
2. Each sentence has a context change potential. The sentences are
thus not only context consumers, but are also context producers.
3. Moreover, the meaning of a sentence is its context change
potential. Formally the meaning of a sentence is a function that maps
contexts to contexts.
The concept of dynamicity becomes clearer if we explain it using the
non-accidental analogy between the denotational semantics of
programming languages (PL) and the dynamic approaches to
discourse. An extensive discussion on these lines and a sound
comparison of discourse interpretation with the execution of a
computer program can be found in J. Groenendijk and M. Stokhof
(1991) and R. Muskens, A. Visser & J. van Benthem (1997).

The denotational approach to the semantics of PL is concerned with
the mathematical models of PL. Each part of a computer program is
given a denotation (let's call it [[D]]) that is a mathematical object and
represents the contribution of the part of program to any complete
program. Further the denotation of a part of a program is a partial
function that links states to states. This analogy helps us to easily
understand many discourse features. For example, the order
sensitivity of sentences has a parallel with the fact that the result of
the execution of two programs is in general dependent on their order
of execution.

The most famous systems of dynamic semantics are (the order is
1. Heim's File Change Semantics (FCS). FCS attempts to model a
reader's understanding of text by using the concept of File of cards,
when a new referent is introduced in discourse a new empty card is
filled in. For every indefinite noun phrase that is found a new card is
set up and for each definite noun phrase the information on the
corresponding card is updated. The theory is dynamic in that it
conceives the meaning of a text as being its file change potential.
2. Kamp's Discourse Representation Theory (DRT). Elaborated in
approximately the same period, FCS and DRT have many points in
common. The information available in the discourse is represented in
DRT by a DRS (Discourse Representation Structure). The DRSs are
built by a construction algorithm. Each sentence in the discourse is
interpreted as an instruction of the construction algorithm.
3. Groenendijk and Stokhof's (GS) Dynamic Predicate Logic (DPL) is a
dynamic system that borrows many ideas from DRT, but departs from it
in original ways.
Like DRT, DPL treats the discourse information that has no potential
role in anaphora in a static way. However the differences between
DPL and DRS languages have semantic significance. But probably the
most original departure of DPL from DRS is that it aims at developing
a compositional and nonrepresentational theory of meaning. It
deviates from DRT in that it rejects the contention that the
interpretation of a text is a two-phase process: Building a
representation of the discourse and building an interpretation. In the
first chapter of the book, ''Introduction'', Peregrin gives a more
extensive coverage of the field of dynamic semantics.

The papers in the book are grouped into three sections: Part I,
Foundations; Part II, Syntax, Semantics and Discourse; Part III,
Semantic Games.

Part I. Foundations
3. Construction by description in discourse representation, by Noor
van Leusen and Reinhard Muskens

The conventional wisdom in the linguistic community is that the role of
a language's syntax is to be associated with proof theory and its
semantics with model theory. This idea is exploited by Montague who
gave the semantics of a small fragment of the English language in this way.
However this is not the only way to proceed and in the literature there
were proposed different alternatives: Blackburn (1993) proposed a
model theoretic syntax and Ranta (1994) proposed a proof theoretic
account of natural language semantics. The main purpose of the
paper is to emphasis the duality of procedural and declarative aspects
of language. The paper shows a way to construct in a purely
declarative way important parts of DRT. It is exposed how
presuppositions or the introduction of a new referent in discourse can
have elegant logical formulations in Muskens's framework Logical
Description Grammars (LDG). What is interesting about Muskens
approach is that it uses a logic theory for formulation of both syntax
and semantics. The paper introduces LDG then presents a
formalization of DRS in type logic framework. Finally, it is shown how
some important features of DRT can be formalized in a declarative
way. The appendix of the paper gives the formalization of a fragment
of English.

4. On the dynamic turn in the study of meaning and interpretation, by
Richard Breheny
Breheny's paper is the first paper that provides an in depth critical
analysis of the foundations of dynamic semantics. He argues that the
theoretical agreement of dynamic theories of meaning is very low.
Nevertheless, he claims that the common characteristic of all dynamic
theories of meaning is a focus on process. According to the author the
field of dynamic semantics is shaped by two approaches: one
conservative and the other one radical. After the assumptions of
dynamic semantics are presented and the empirical motivations for
adopting this new framework introduced the author criticizes both
approaches. The problem that neither the conservative nor the radical
view solves is that of underdetermination of content by linguistic
meaning (ironically this problem of was one of the empirical
motivations for the dynamic approach to meaning). The conservative
view fails because it cannot provide an adequate analysis of natural
language conjunction. The radical view failure is due to the fact that
an operational distinction between updating process relevant to
content and updating processes not relevant to content is missing.
Breheny does not limit to criticize the dynamic theories of meaning but
also makes a proposal of how the compositionality problem can be
adequately handled inside the static framework.

5. Real dynamics, by Wolfram Hinzen
Hinzen' s paper illustrates a Chomskyan's point of view. On the
surface the answer that Hinzen and dynamic theories of meaning give
to the question about the nature of meaning are the same: Meaning is
Dynamic. For Hinzen the dynamicity of meaning means that the
meaning derives solely from the internal working of the mind. The
meaning is dynamic because it is the result of a set of syntactic (non
semantic) transformations. So the dynamicity of meaning is seen in a
purely syntactic way. Besides arguing extensively for this conclusion,
the paper presents some problems that dynamic conception of
meaning has. The targeted conception of dynamic meaning is mainly
that of GS. The most interesting point and in the same time a
challenge to the fundaments of dynamic semantics is a question: What
is the cognitive mechanism by which a new sentence updates the
information state of the hearer?

Part II. Syntax, Semantics and Discourse
6. Growth of logical form: The dynamics of syntax, by Ruth Kempson,
Wilfried Meyer Viol and Masayuki Otsuka
This paper discusses the dynamicity of syntax. The central question of
the paper is: ''Do we need any mode of representation other than
growth of logical form in order to express generalizations about
natural language syntax?'' The authors show the interdependence
between the phenomenon of context dependence which is considered
to be a purely semantic problem and long-distance dependency which
is usually considered a syntactic problem. They treat anaphora,
relative clauses and long-distance dependencies as processes of
structural growth. The framework in which all the problems are solved
is Dynamic Syntax (DS). DS is a formal model of the process of how
humans build incrementally from left to right an interpretation from the
words they encounter. The interpretation is a computational process,
goal driven that involves a level of syntactic representation. The
authors claim that they can elegantly solve two problems that in other
frameworks are problematic: ''The distinctive properties of
nonrestrictive relative clauses in English and the notorious head-
internal relative clauses of verb final language.''

7. The double dynamic of definite descriptions, by Klaus von Heusinger
In his paper von Heusinger discusses the dynamicity of definite
descriptions (DD). In the first part a recap of the Russell's classical
theory of definite descriptions is presented. Following Peregrin (2000),
he argues that Russell misunderstood the ''unique availability'' of the
referent of a definite description and built it as a part of its lexical
meaning. Instead the uniqueness of DD is to be determined by both
their lexical material and their function. The two components of the
function of DD are: the situational component and the anaphoric use.
A formalism for capturing the meaning of DD is proposed. It relies on
Hilbert's concept of epsilon term and the Lewis's concept of salience
structure . The author contrasts his approach not only with Russell's
classical approach but also with dynamic approaches. The theories of
Dynamic semantics treat the DD as being static, that is they are
considered not to change the context and their interpretation is context-
independent. Instead, the author shows that the DD have a double
dynamic aspect: they are dependent on context and they are
changing the context.

8. Dynamics in the meaning of the sentence and of discourse, by Petr
Petr Sgall tries to integrate into the dynamic conception of meaning
the insights of classical Prague School. The Prague School represents
sentence structure at level of tecto-grammatics (a kind of predicate
argument structure). The tectogramatical representation (TR) has two
important characteristics:
1. The sentence structure is based on dependency relations.
2. The topic and the focus (TFA) of the sentence are explicitly
represented and seen as an aspect of its syntactic structure
The difference between linguistic meaning and cognitive content is
discussed, and it is stated that the linguist's task is not to check
the ''conditions under which a sentence can carry a true assertion''.
His task is passed to the semantic-pragmatic interpretation. Also
discussed is the impact of TFA on the semantic pragmatic
interpretation. According to Sgall, the identification of Discourse
Referents by the hearer is based on Lewis's degree of salience. This
point nicely links the paper with the previous one. Finally the author
proposes a set of rules for modeling the hearer's capacity to identify
the right referents in the discourse.

9. On the meaning of prescriptions, by Timothy Childers and Vladimir
The paper aims at capturing the meaning of prescriptive language.
According to the authors the best way to do it is to specify the role
prescriptive expressions play in the language games of commanding
and permitting. The paper has two main parts: in the first part it is
argued that the best way to study the kinematics of permissions is to
use the insights of dynamic semantics. It is claimed that we cannot
understand the meaning of a prescriptive sentence unless we account
for the way it is working in various language games. In the second part
of the paper a formal procedure for understanding different kinds of
prescriptions is given and a solution of the Cornides problem is

10. Imperative negation and dynamic semantics, by Berislav Zarnic
The paper focuses on the informational content of imperatives. It is
concerned with three problems:
1. What is the informational content of an affirmative imperative?
2. What is the informational content of a negative imperative?
3. How are they related?
Firstly, some approaches on the semantics of imperatives are
presented and are all criticized. Lemmon's approach is criticized on
the ground that it seems to over-evaluate the expressive power of
natural language imperatives. Chellas's modal treatment of the
negation of an imperative is found to be faulty because the negation
of a imperative does not necessarily imply bringing about the situation
that is the negation of the situation affirmed by the positive imperative.
Belnap's and Sergerberg's proposals receive negative evaluations as
well. In the second part a positive proposal in the framework of
dynamic semantics is made that is claimed to overcome all the
problems that the other approaches failed to solve.

Part III. Subgames in Discourse
11. Dynamic game semantics, by Tapio Janasik and Gabriel Sandu
The paper is a study of the recent extension of Game Theoretical
Semantics (GTS). It aims at formalizing the notion of subgame and in
the same time at making clearer the dynamic fundaments of GTS.
After stressing that the motivation for the introduction of the concept of
game was the intention of capturing the true semantics of conditionals,
a comparison between DRT and GTS is done. It is shown how the
notion of subgame finds a very nice place in the analysis of the
discourse. The first part of the paper introduces a more convenient
formulation of DRT in the perspective of comparing its structure and
predictions with GTS approach to discourse. The second section
gives a thorough formal exposure of semantic games and shows the
link of the notion of game with the developments in dynamic logics.
The last but one section argues for a theoretical change in the
apparatus of GTS. The last section compares the GTS framework with
dynamic semantics, dynamic choice function theory and shows that
the GTS successfully overcomes some hard problems in discourse

12. About games and substitution, by Manuel Rebuschi
The purpose of the paper is to question Hintikka and Sandu's
statement that Kripke's substitutional interpretation of quantifiers is
unsuited for Independence-Friendly languages (IF). In the first part
Hintikka and Sandu's argument is presented and found to be dubious
on the grounds that Kripke's theory was not intended to deal with IF
languages. In the next sections a extension of Kripke's theory is
constructed and is claimed to overcome the objection. The last part of
the paper argues extensively that a substitutional interpretation of
quantifiers is suited for dynamic theories of meaning. The author also
pleas for the idea in Peregrin (2000) that the concept of reference
should be seen as parasitic to the concept of inference and not vice
versa and that dynamic semantics should be conceived rather in a
syntactic manner .

13. In defense of some verificationism, by Louise Vigean
The author warns us that an attempt to make GTS theory more
dynamic than it is compromises the explanatory power of the theory.
What gives uniqueness and great explanatory potential to GTS is the
incorporation of the principles of verificationism. Hintinka's particular
verificationist approach is compared with both Logical Positivism and
Dummet's verificationist theory. The author identifies the dynamic turn
in the GTS in Hodges's results who developed a computational
semantics for ''games of imperfect information''. The change of focus
in the theory that came with Hodges's discovery will weaken the
theory because it will dilute the solid verificationism principles that are at
the core of the theory. For proving that an important result is shown:
the presuppositional effect of strong determiners that was obtained in
the framework before dynamic change is no longer obtained in the
framework after the change.


The book presents a collection of high quality papers that deal with a
fundamental turn in the treatment of meaning. Different points of view
that deal with logical, syntactical, and pragmatic implication of this
change of perspective in the study of meaning are presented. From
an editorial point a view the materials are soundly organized by the
editor Jaroslav Peregrin.
As a personal note I should add that I felt the absence of a chapter
that discusses the cognitive significance of this dynamic turn. What is
the nature of informational states that are updated or changed by the
utterances? Have they any ontological significance? Are they states of
the mind or just convenient devices for capturing the meaning? My
last remark does not mean that this problem is not touched on in the
book: the authors that put it explicitly being Hinzen and Breheny.
Breheny's answer is not surprising given that he sympathizes with
Chomsky's theory. Breheny's paper, however, touches on too many
problems for an in depth discussion of this question.

The heterogeneity of opinions in the book shows that the dynamic
theories of meaning are both strong and weak: they are strong
because the logical apparatus that supports them is well studied and
understood (see van Benthem paper in the volume for details), they
are weak because, despite some achievements in understanding the
natural language semantics, they are still far away from explaining the
true nature of meaning. Another problem that they have is that it is not
at all clear (at least to me) if they should fall into the province of
semantics or into that of pragmatics. The problem is apparent also in
one of the papers in this volume (Childers and Svoboda) in which the
authors claim that: ''we find it useful to conceive semantics studies as
those that concentrate on the meaning of the expressions rather than
the meaning of utterances'' (p. 188). However they do not offer any
relevant criteria for separating the meaning of the expressions from
the meaning of an utterance.


Blackburn P. (1993) Modal logic and attribute value structures. In:
Diamonds and Defaults (M de Rijke, ed.), 19-65. Dordrecht: Kluwer,.

Groenendijk, J. and M. Stokhof (1991) Dynamic predicate logic.
Linguistics and Philosophy, 14(1):39-100.

Muskens, R., A. Visser & J. van Benthem (1997) Dynamics. In:
Handbook of Logic and Language (J van Benthem & A. ter Meulen,
eds.). Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Peregrin, J. (2000) Reference and inference: The case of anaphora.
In: Reference and Anaphoric Relations (K. von Heusinger and U Egli,
eds.), 269-286. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Ranta ,A. (1994) Type Theoretical Grammar. Oxford: Oxford
University Press.

Eduard Barbu is researcher at Graphitech Italy and presently involved
in the AMI-SME European project. Previously he was a researcher at
the Romanian Academy Institute for Artificial Intelligence. His main
interests are: Cognitive Science and Natural Language Processing.