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SEMANTIC

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1~I-IEORY

RU'TH M, KEMPSON

1.I\CT\lltEIt

IN I.INGUI~TICS

lJNIV~:ltg\TY

01' I.ONIlOI"

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CAMURIDGE UNIVERSITY

PRESS

CAM Dnr D GE

LONDON'

NEW YOHK' fv\l:LDOUTlNE

"

Introduction

Aspects o/ the Theory o/ Synt ax ch. 1, hut Sl'C also C'ltolllsky {,all.t:/wg r (/11I/

 

Mind (enlarged

edition),

and Ilach Syntactic TIrt'tJ,y ch. 11. 'I'he prohlelll

01'

2

the nature of linguistic

evidence

has not hccn

¡:ivt"1l mucl, d('lailnl

al/cnlion

 

hy

trans(ormational

Iinguists

hut sce Sampson

The ¡'-O'III '1 LfllI.t:/w.t:r

ch

1,

Labov 'Methodology',

Fillrnore

'On ¡.;en<:rativity'

and I'!ouscholdl'f

'On

Explanations of word meaning

argumcnts

from asterisks'.

The distinction

bctwcc.i compcrcncc

and pcr-

 

formance

is discussed in Chomsky's

Aspects of the Tlreo,y 'if Syntax, ami in

more detail in Lyons and Wales [eds.) /'s)'dru/i1lKl/istir l'aper¡ (Sl'C in particular

Fodor

and Garrctt

'Sorne rellections

on cUlllpctelln'

and IH:rfllflllanec').

 
 

.\

Chomsky's

account

of this division

has hCCTl attuckcd

hy 1I yrncs 'On cum-

 

r.

¡.

f

municative

cornpetence',

and more n'el'ntly

hy (;. l.akofT amI nthcr s (scc t lu-

rccommendcd

reading

for chapter

.¡).

~

f

·t

.$

,

 

1n the first chaptcr 1 suggestcd

SOl/le prcliminury

conditions

of udcquucy

for scmantic theories by which particular theories could be tested, and

it rnight seem that we are now in a position to consider

the detailed

mcchanism

of some proposed

thcory. llut there was one large and

t

~.

 

unwarrantcd

assumption in the way that thcse cOllllitions wcre spccificd ;

it was assumcd that the rclationship

hctwcen a word ami what it is uscd

 

~:

to imply and that between a sentence nnd what it is uscd to imply

 

presented no problerns, ano were not a matter for

debate. But, quite to

 

~

the contrary, an explanation of these rclationships - i.e. the problem of

~:

 

':

what we mean when we rcfer to the rncaning that a word or scntence

r~

has - is the classical problem of scmantics,

the problem indeed on

,.

which scrnantics has traditionally

[oundercd. Since any formal represen-

~ ~

tation of sernantics will implicitly present one particular

solution to this

:,

problem, we cnnnot usefully consider the dctuils in the light of a eoherent account 01 meaning.

of such a theory except

There are

three main ways in which linguists und pliilosophers

have

IS

attcrnpted to construct explanations of mcaning in naturallanguage:

(o)

.~ p.

~

 

by defining the nature of word rneaning, (h) by defining the nature of

sentence meaning, and (e)

by explaining thc process of eommunication.

.~

In the first wa}:, word meaning is taken as the eonstruet

in terms of

which sentence meaning and communication

can be explained;

in the

sccond, it is sentence meaning whieh is taken as basic, with words

',:

 

characterised

in terms of the systernatic

contribution

they make to

sentenee mcaning; and in the third, both sentence

and word meaning are

J

~~; ~.

.~~

.~

1<:-

':~~

10

-,

explained in terms of the ways in which sentencés

and words are used in

the act of communication.

It is no coincidence that there are these three

types of explanation.

In the first place, thcre c1early is a relation between

words and objects. We use words lo refer to objccts, and to actions (eonsider such words as ClIP, liorse, tooman, grodllate, cooking, noeeping,

11

Explanations o/ toord mcaning

Ihinkinc), ami the explun.uion of this n-l.u ion is induhitabf y thc t ask of

semantics. Similarly scntcnces

opinions,

ami it is unquestionably

are uscd lo dcscr ihc cvenrs, bc licfs,

t he task of scmant ics lo cxplnin

thc

nature of the rclation betwccn scntcnces

ami the statcs of alfairs those

sentences describe. Finally, since lunguagc

is the

vchicl« by mcuns of

which we effect cornmunication,

it is argllahle thut

the intcrprct.uion

of

language should

be explaincd

in tcrrns 01' its rolc in communication.

Moreover these

thrce nspects of Illeaning,

word mcuning,

scntence

rneaning,

and comrnunication,

are reflcctcd in diflercnt uses 01' the word

mean, Corrcsponding

to cxplanut ion (11) is :

(1) Supererogatory rncans 'supcrfluous'.

(2) Spinster means 'unmurricd

woru.ur'.

Corresponding to (11) is :

\

(3) The sentenee Ja/lles murdcrrd

,HII,\' mcans

t hat somcone

called [ames delibcrntely

killcd snmeonc called Mnx.

In these two uses, the word mean has a lIleaning approximaling

lo

indica/f. Butthe

word /IIf(lI/ is uscd in a ditlcrcnt

scnsc in the [nllowing

conversationbetwccn

two spcakcrs, A and Il, a sense

which corrcspnnds

to ~xplanatidn (e):

 
 

(4) A:

Are yOIl going lo bcd soou?

D: Whut d'you

mcnn?

 

A:

1 rnean that

I'm t ircd , and thc sooner

yOIl go lo bcd, the

sooncr 1 can.

In

this case, mean is attributable

lo speukers und has the

sume Illeanillg

as the expression intend /0 indicate. 'I'hus we have at least thrce possible

 

starting points from whieh to construct

un explanation

of meaning - the

signification of words, the interprctarion

of scntcnces,

or what a speaker

¡:

is intending

to convey in ucts of conununicatiou.

Of thcse thrce uses,

:.

most traditional explanations

of mcaning

constitutc

un nttcmpt

lo cxplnin

meaning in terms of the naming rclurion which holds bct wcen

a word

and its object, and it is this that wv shull hr conccrncd

with in this

chapter.

2.1

Meaning

and refer en

Thc narning rclat ion hct wccu a word ami

it~ ohjL'C! is most

transparent

with proper narnes, thc paradiglll case of nallling. llcre

<

ª

12

!

I

Al

I

2.1 Meaning and rejerence

there is a one-to-one

correspondence

hctwcen

name and object:

  • I exarnple the name The j>arllu/I(;ll

rcfer s to thc objcct the Parthenon

Ior

in

  • I Athens, the name Ruth Kempsou refcrs lo th~ individual who wrote this

book. This rclationship
I

betwccn

word and objcct is called the rclation-

ship of reference, and there is a long tradition of equating the problem of meaning with the problem of rcference. According to this view, known

as extensionalism

beca use of its trcatmcnt

of meuning in terms of the

objects, callcd extcnsions,

to which thc items of the language refer,'

the meaning of a word can be explained in tcrms of the relation bctween

that word ami ohject or objccts to which it refcrs. Just as propcr narnes

rcfer to individuals,

it has hccn suid , common nouns rcfer to scts of

individuals,

verbs rcfer to aetions, adjcctives

rcfer to properties -of

individuals, and udverbs refer lo propcr ties of actions. Thus, for exarnplc,

it would be said that thc rclation bctwccn the express ion Ruth Kempson

and the individual

Ruth Kcmpson

is directly comparable

with the

relation betwccn the word mice and the scts of objects which can be referred to by the use of that word; ami moreover both of these relations

are said lo be siruilarly comparable lo the relation which holds between, say, the word red and the scts of objects which have the property of redness, and too to the rclation which holds betwccn the word quickly

and the sets of actions which liavc the appropriatc

propcrty of speed.

IIowever, assuming for the momcnt that we can acccpt the clnirn of

hornogeneity in connection

with thcse difTerent relations, there are a

number of reasons to believe that any theory of meaning which attcmpts

to explain all aspects of word meaning in terms of rcferenee is mistaken.

1n the first place, there are a nurnbcr of ernbarrassing

counter-examplcs:

even if the relationship

of refcrence can be said to hold between a word

such

as imagination and sorne cluss of abstract objccts which constitute

acts of imagination, tohether rcfer to

therc is no .sense in which words such as and, not,

present a similar prob-

anything. And '0111 prepositions

lern, Wliat does o/ rcfer to? What , in this very sentenee, docs the pre-

position in rcfer to - or indced uery or toltat] NOl only is there a large

and non-homogeneous

c1ass.i)f:exceptions,

anornalies in explaining more straightforward

reference which holds betwccn expressions

but there are a number of

cases. The relationship of

and non-cxistcnt

objects will

be the sarne : it is therefore hard for a theory which explains rneaning in

  • I T'he rnost well-knowu.cxposu

ion is Russcll

I ()OZ. hui chis view has rcccntly

becn expounJcJ

1I~lIin hy Duvidson

(ef. Duvidson

196711) within

a trurh-

bused rheory of meunj ng (cf. J,I below).

13

R:~p'lallaliolls 01 uord I/ltallillg

terms of rcference to uvuid prnlil'lillg

following: the pterodactyl,

tlte unicoru

SyllOIl)'lIly betwccn ;111 of the

tlu: [trs!

10(11I1//1/ 'o ///11/1 (J/I the

moon, And, for the sarne reason, 0111 cxprvssion SIIl'h

;IS tlte jirst /IUIII lo

land on thc moon will he prcclictcd 10 he quite diílercnt in kind frorn the

expression the first tooman lo 1(/11/1011 1!tf./II1J1J/1, hccuusc only in t lie former

case is there a rcferent to which t he cxprcssion cm

relationship.

Prohlerns

arise cvcn in un .malys is

st.md in a referring

of common

nouns

which refer to a set of ohjccts. ror in what srnsc can thc rc be s.rid lo be a ,consistent identifiable rclat ionsh ip of rcfcrcncl' bct wccn t hr wor d igunna and a set of objects to whicl: it rcfcrs in C,) (7r

(5) Iguanas are not very COlll11Il111.

(6)

Are iguanas cxt inct?

(7) .Professor 11ra ncst a \\'1 1I is looking for

igllallas,

In {S),

the word might be suid to refcr to a class

of objccts, viz. igu.mas ;

but in (6), the word either refers to a cluss of objccts or a null class,

apparently depending

on the

unswcr to the qucst iou.i And in (7), the

problem is no less acure: for

on one intcrprct.uion

there lIlay be, say,

 

two specific iguanas that

I'rofessor Hruncstuwm is Iuoking Ior, but on

another interpretation

he lIlay just be looking without thcrc ncccssarily

being any such objcct. On this intcrprct.uion,

it makes no sensc to

question whieh objects does thc word igual/a rcfcr to? This problern

arises

in a large number of cases (culled 'opaque coutcxts'),

following

vcrbs

such as beliet:e, soan] nnd /1Of>e; ami t hcse present a notor ious

problern to anyonc attelllpting

tu providc un .m.rlysis of rcfercnce.

 

. Furthermore,

iC we return to the paradiglll case of rcferring,

propcr

names, we fino an important

diílcrcncc

bctwccn thcse and an)' uther

syntacric category. Thollgh

in proper n.uncs thcrc is a OIlC-tO-OIlC

correspondence betwecn narncs have any meaning meaning of thc expression

word ami ohjcct , it is 1101 ohvious that propcr ut all, ror it m.rkcs no se nse lo ask '\Vhat is the nnc can nnly usk '\V11Odocs

NIJIIIII C/IIl/lIsII.l'?':

the cxpression

NOIIIII

C/lIJlIIshy

rcfer to?' Th is slIggesls al t hc very lcast

that a semantic account of prnpcr n.uncs should not be like that of other

words, Ilut if this is so, the semantie properties

thcn the original ussumpt iun of homogcneity

of proper nouns

in

uud thc other categories, and so 011, was a mistakc.

cornrnon nouns, vcrbs, udjectives, udvcrbs,

I Sentences such as Ihese pose ,',,,asiderahle

prohlcrns

fnr " rheory of

reference, as WilllCSS 11,,· larg,· a"'''"111 of pl.ilosophi<:al litcr.uu re 011 the subjrcl.

I

Ii

If

2.1 Meaning aud reference

This is not lo dcny that thcre are

problema in the nnalysis of refercncc.

On thc contrary.

the solution tI; -thc prohlcm of opacity in particular

rcmains an opcn OI1C, and sonH:thing

of an issue for philosophers.

But it <loes cast doubt

on t hc 'assumption

thut any solution to the'

problerns of reference autnrnnt ically provides a solution to thc problern

of meaning.

  • 2.2 Thc imagc theor y of mcaning Another solut ion to thc prohlcm of cxplaining the naturc of .

wurd rncaning, which has an cqunlly long 'tradition,

is to cxplain the

mcaning of a word in tcrms of rhc iougc in thc spcnkcr's (or hearcr's)

bruin. 'he problcm

here is to know what form thc imagcs tuke, 'I'hc

most obvious point is that these'illlages

cannot be visual. For suppose

rny image of a triangle is an cquilatcrul:

'

Fig. I

If this is said to constitute Cor me the meanmg oCthe word triangle, then eithcr triaugle has to mcan cquilatcrul triangles only, or triangle has tobe

said lo be arnbiguous according as the image is cquilateral,

isosceles,

or

scalenc. For cuch of thcse is nuitually exclusive. In a similar vein,

an

;'

owncr of an alsatian ma)' havc a radically different image of dogs from an

owncr of a miniaturc

poodlc, but it is not obvious that they thereby'

spcak a diffcrent language. Thcrc is no image corrcsponding

to what i~.

sharcd betwccn dogs, ami none either which has just those fcaturcs shnrcd by all triangles. Ancl this is just one of the m:1I1y problerns Iacing a SImple illlage theory of mcuning. Furthcr problema are prescntcd by the fact that (a) one Illay llave more than ore image for a single expresa-

ion, and (b) two expressions may havc the sarne image. Thus the ex-

pression a tlred child may cvoke cithcr an irnage of a child (notice that

there is no

visual image neutral as between a boy or a girl) curlcd up and

nearly aslecp, or an image of a child stamping its Coot and screaming. According to an account of rneaning which cquates the meaning a word has with an image, any word which relates to more than onc image is

15

",

Explallaf¡ons o/ word meal/il/g

predicted to be ambiguous.

But

a tired child is not ambiguous. On

despitl' t hc prcdict ion, t hc vxprcssinn the othcr hand, sliould t \\'0 cxpressions

bear the same irnagc, the image theory of ll1eanillg prcdicts that they will

 

be synonymous.

Dut many cxpressions

hnve the same ill1age: (/ tired

child, an unliappy child, (/1/ tlngry cluld , (/[uture tyrant maya" cvoke the

identical image of a child stamping its foot und screarning.

Yct thcse

cxprcssions are by

no mc.ins synOIl)'1I10US, /\s I huvc alrc.uly

partly

thcory of meaning faces

the ndclirional

problcm of

indicated, an image

speaker variation. The ill1ages

we havc of what might be rcferred to by

any word may not only v;lry fmlll occasioll

to occ.isiou, hut since they

 

arcdepcndent

on our expericnce are certuin

to dill'cr in lI1any dctuils, if

not radically in substance

from those 01' othcr pcople. 'I'akc t hc wor d

lecture for example. To those who give lccturcs, t hc wnrd Illight call IIp

animage of an audience

of bctwccn,

S;¡y, twenty and one hundrcd

 

people staring up

at one wretchcd

individual

who, per haps sclf-con-

and down in front of t hcm. Ilut ror t hosc who have

sciously, walks up

never lectured, the image is more likcly to be that of one pcrson droning

on, often boring, sometimos incomprehensible,

with thc accoll1panying

sensation ofhaving to fight feclings of dro\\'siness, Such ditlercnt images

should, if they correspond

to the ll1eaning associatcd

with the word

, lecture

guarantee

that cornmunicarinn

bct wccn two such grollps of

people

using the word lecture would be impossible

beca use cnch group

. , has radically different illlages of Iecturing ami hcnce diílcrcnt concep-

" tions of the meaning of the word lert ure, Worst of al/, there are lIlany

words wit,h

whieh it

is irnpossible to

nssociatc any image at all - and,

or, because, therefore, cte. Yet they are by no mcnns rncnninglcss.

r

I~

2·3 :Meaning and conccpts

The standard view of méaning is to say

retrcat Iróm thc extreme [orm of the image that thc ill1ages are not visual; but, if so, it is

not obvious what claim is being m.ulc. Considcr for cxample the sug- gestion that 'the speech clernent 'housc' is thc symbol, Iirst ami Iorcmost,

not of a single perception,

rior cven of t hc notion of a particular objcct,

but of a 'concept',

in other words, of a convenicnt

capsuh; of thought

that embraces thousands

of distinct cxpcr icnccs :11)(1 that is ready to

takc in thousands more' [Sapir 1921: IJ), \Vhat is involvcd in this clairn

~

l~

J

,.

:~

~:'

~ ~

.;

"

"

,~

.' ~.

that a word has as its Illeaning a 'eonvcnient

eapsule of thought'? If this

.is a retraclion from nn im;¡ge theory nf ll1eaning, as it is. then it is ;¡

retraction fmm a specilic, fnlse clailll to one that is entirely untestable

i6

2,3 Meaning ami concepts

nnd hencc vucuous.

\t docs no more than substituto

Ior the problem

tcrm meaning thc equally opaque tcrm conrept . It dOl'~ not providc un

explanation

of the rcquircd

kind (cf. p, I ubovc), If mcaning

is to be

explained

in terrns of conccpts,

it is cssewtial that the

term (Ol/tf!>/

itself be given a rigorous dcfiuitiori.

'

Sapir's

Swiss contcrnporary,

de Suussurc,

goes sorne

\Vay towards

providing

such a charaeterisat ion, FOI" though, like Sapir, de Saussurc

talks freely of conccpts, he strcsscs that the concept (the word he uses is :

signijié) an clement .stnnds for is solcly due to its valuc in the systcrn:

'Language

is a system of intcrdcpcmlcnt

terms in which the valuc of

cach terrn results solcly Iron: the simultancous

prcscncc of orhcrs'. Oh

this basis he would have said thnt thc word bachelor, for exumple, has the

mcaning

it docs solcly by virtue nf the ol,hl'r itcms in the systcm

to

which it is rclatcd - spinster, tooman, huslmnd, boy, Similar/y,

right

across

the vocabulary. 'J'hus eaeh of the mcrnbers of the following sets of

words

stands in a ccrtain

rclut ion one to another

(Iabclled valeur), which

is itself a determinant

of the intcrprctution

of thc word:

 

have

criticise

angry

mother

glve

pralse

h;¡ppy

uncle

lend

accuse

calm

aunt

borrow

assess

' plcascd

grandparent

rcnt

blame

annoycd , nephcw

hirc

rcprirnand

upset

COUSIIl

It is not of eourse obvious that this observation

saves the problem of

defining concept from vacuity, for it is not clear how the inter-relation-

ship of value (valeur) ami mcuning (signifié) can itsclf be tcsted, In any

case, de Saussure's

account is 01)CIIto objections similar to those .raiscd

against both a refercnce

theory of mcaning and an image theory of

. '.

rneaning. In particular, words such as and, because, or, etc., are counter-

exarnples lo this vicw, for it is not clear whether their intcrpretation

can

be analyscd in tenns of conccpts,

1t will not do to suggest that the

meaning of and

is thc concept of co-ordination,

for what is co-ordination

other than by joining by and] Sirnilar/y with or: it is meaningless

to

explain or as having the conccpt of d isjunction for its meaning, when in

order to explain disjunction

one nCl'ds to rcfer to oro And

the general

problern remains:

to expbin

meaning in terms only of concepts is

unempirical.

17

o"

I

  • I Exfilallatiol/J

01 toord /l/eal/il/g

2. J Mfa 11¡IIC a/lll (oIIa!'t,

 

2.J.1 Componential al/(/!.IIj'is

 

of more primitive semantic cornponents,

one is transferring

the burdcn

 
 

,

The assuuipt inn 01' SYSll'III;ltit: rdatiollships

of Illcalling

 

of sernantic

cxplanation

from word mcaning

onto the componcnts

-betwecn words is however indcpcnch-nt

orthe prohlcin of cxplaining the

which together,

in dilfercnt

ccmbin.uions,

constitute

word 'mcnninga.

basis ofthese relationships

; ami a considcruhl« .unuunt nf

dctailcd

work

Indccd what