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Introduction to English Linguistics

Part I


Cornelia Hamann

Handout based on word by

Cornelia Hamann

And

Geneveva Puskas (Syntax)



For additional reading please consult

Fromkin, Rodman and Hyams: An Introduction to Language

Stand: 22.3.2005

Semantics and Pragmatics

Cornelia Hamann

University of Oldenburg

1. Introduction p. 3

2. Lexical Semantics p. 4

2.1. Semantic properties and semantic features p. 4

2.2. Relationships between words (-nyms) p. 7

2.3. Levels of language p. 11

3. Phrasal and sentential semantics p. 12

3.1. Three basic approaches to meaning p. 12

3.2. Building up meanings p. 13

3.2.1. Important constraints p. 13


3.2.2. From atomic to complex expressions p. 16

3.3. Sentence meaning p. 21

3.3.1. Preliminary considerations p. 21

3.3.2. The definition of sentence meaning p. 23

3.3.3. Meaning relations between sentences p. 23

4. Pragmatics p. 26

4.1. Conversational Maxims p. 26

4.2. Speech Acts p. 28

4.3. Discourse and Situation (Deixis) p. 29

References p. 33

Chapter 4

Semantics and Pragmatics – the meaning side of language



1. Introduction

Semantics and pragmatics describe how meaning is assigned to the expressions of a language. To understand an utterance we must know the meanings of words and morphemes, we must know how the meanings of words combine into the meanings of larger syntactic units and how the meanings of such phrases combine into sentence meanings, and finally we must interpret the utterance according to the context in which it is made. So there are several layers which contribute to the final interpretation or “reading“ of an utterance. Normally, interpretation proceeds in three steps.


Step 1: The meanings of words (mare) and morphemes (un-) have to be defined.

Such meanings are discussed and defined in lexical semantics.


Step 2: The meanings of lexical units (mare, brown) must be combined to form larger chunks of meanings (brown mare) in order to arrive at the meaning of phrases and constituents. The rules for combining meanings are discussed in phrasal or sentential semantics. The most fruitful way to define sentence meaning with respect to the meaning of the parts of a sentence is truth conditional semantics.
Step 3: Some expressions and their “meaning“ can only be fully interpreted when the situational or discourse context are taken into account. The contribution of context (situation, discourse) to the meaning of a phrase or sentence is dealt with in pragmatics. The situational context may tell us that a question like “can you pass the salt?“ is not a question and should not be answered by “yes, I can“, but is actually a request and that the appropriate “answer“ is to pass the salt.
Example (1)
He loves his new girlfriend

Word WWW LOVE

Meaning
WWW = male person (not the speaker or the hearer) salient in the discourse context

LOVE: is a verb which takes a complement (and a subject) and…

Phrasal ( WWWi ( ( WWWi ( ))))

compositon

same person

WWW is the subject of the sentence etc.

Situation John John‘s

Discourse

2. Lexical Semantics

2.1. Semantic properties and semantic features

Speakers of a language share a basic vocabulary. This mental store of words and morphemes and their meanings is called a lexicon. Because we are not speaking of a written dictionary or a lexicon in the usual sense, this shared knowledge which is stored somewhere in the brain is called the mental lexicon. It contains the phonological shape of a word (pronunciation and stress) and the minimal, shared meaning definition which enables speakers of the same language to communicate.


Example (2)
human
a’ssassin murderer
murderer of important person
(3) The assassin of Thwacklehurst escaped.
Even if you do not know who Thwacklehurst is, you can deduce from your knowledge of word meaning, see (2), that Thwacklehurst must be an important person. You also know that he was killed and that he was killed by some other person – not a wolf or a snake or some other animal, even though nothing of this is explicitly mentioned in sentence (3). Such pieces of information on which speakers agree are part of the semantic properties of a word.

In example (2) we have split up the meaning of assassin into several smaller components. Such meaning components (pieces of information) of words (or morphemes) are called semantic properties or semantic features. When trying to define word meaning, one way to go is to find as many of these properties of a word as is possible.



Some common, recurring properties are [animate], [human], [male], [female]. Such basic properties can be supplemented with more specific properties like [(very) young], [married/single] or [was married and partner died]. Table 1 and table 2 give examples of how semantic features approximate word meanings.
Table 1




father

parent

husband

baby

child

widow

student

animate

+

+

+

+

+

+

+

human

+

+

+

+

+

+

+

male

+

+/-

+

+/-

+/-

-

+/-

female

-

+/-

-

+/-

+/-

+

+/-

young

-

-

-

+

+

-

+

married

+/-

+/-

+

-

-

-

+/-

was married, partner died
















+



Table 2





father

woman

girl

mare

animate

+

+

+

+

human

+

+

+

-

male

+

-

-

-

female

-

+

+

+

young

-

-

+

-

special

parent







equine

Consider the word list: lioness, doe, ewe, hen, mare, vixen, niece, debutante, girl, maiden, wife, woman. The words all share the feature [female]. Words which share a feature form a semantic class with respect to this feature. In the above list, two classes emerge if you consider the feature [human].

Focussing on the feature [human], the semantic class includes doctor, father, boy, widow, aunt, uncle, niece, girl, maiden, wife, woman. The words, niece, debutante, girl, maiden, wife, woman, aunt have the feature [female] and the feature [human]. They are both in the class of humans and in the class of females. They are thus in the intersection of these two classes.

Considering similarities and contrasts in meaning helps to find the semantic properties of words. Note that by considering such properties or features you arrive at word fields.

Note also that the tables could be made more concise if one leaves out one of the features [male] or [female] and uses only one of them. This works because [+male] is the same as [-female] and [+female] is the same as [-male]. Table 1 and 2 are redundant in information with respect to these features (but not wrong).
In order to describe the meaning of verbs other features are needed. Again, some features are useful in almost any verb description, whereas others specify certain verb meanings or contrast the meanings of two verbs. An important feature is [motion], as shown in table 3.
Table 3





walk

run

stalk

motion

+

+

+

on foot

+

+

+

slow

+

-

+

fast

-

+

-

purposeful

-

-

+

Contrasting walk and stand, the feature [motion] would be differently specified:



walk: [+motion, ….], stand: [-motion,…]

Another verb feature is [cause]. It occurs in darken or kill which can be described as [cause to become dark] and as [cause to die]. We also find verbs for which [contact] is the important feature (touch, kiss), for which [creation] plays a role (build, make, draw), or for which [result] is the dominant feature (reach, die, drown).


The tables we have drawn specifying features as +/- are a formal way of capturing the semantic properties of words. Features have been used also in other fields of linguistics (phonology, syntax). Such formal descriptions of linguistic expressions are often called ‚structural linguistics‘. Decomposition of word meanings into semantic features would thus sometimes be called ‚structural semantics‘.

Features can be relevant for a noun, but equally for a verb. Features can be shared, or there can be a feature clash, in which case an utterance does not make sense or cannot be interpreted.

If someone says „X swims“, you know that X is in a liquid. If „X splashes“, again [+liquid] is a feature. Moreover, from example (4) based on your knowledge about the features of swim (and container), you can deduce that goop has the feature [+liquid], you can also figure out that goop is a noun from the way it is used here.
(4) I saw a bug swimming in a container of goop
Having figured out this feature of goop, you know that examples (5a) and (5b) make sense, because pour and drink are also marked [+liquid]. Example (5c) does not make sense because cut and eat are marked [+solid]. In example (5c) there is a feature clash.

Note that drink is marked as [+liquid], whereas eat is marked as [+solid] in English.

So only (6a) is a good English sentence, (6b) is not. German is different here, (6c)!
(5a) I‘ll pour the goop away

(5b) Bill always drinks goop for breakfast

(5c) *#Bill always cuts his goop and eats it

(6a) drink your soup

(6b) *#eat your soup

(6c) Ich esse meine Suppe nicht!


Some semantic features have consequences for syntax – for the way in which words can be combined. The feature [+/-count] is important for nouns and influences the type of articles, determiners and quantifiers the noun can combine with or whether the noun can form a plural or not.
(7) Count noun Mass noun
dog [+count] rice [-count]
I have a dog *I have a rice

I‘ll walk the dog *I’ll have the rice (?)

I have two dogs *I have two rice

I have many dogs *I have many rice, much rice

I have dogs *I have rices
If a noun has the feature [+count], it can combine with articles, with numerals, with the quantifier many, and it forms a plural. If a noun is [-count], it cannot take articles, numerals, and cannot take the quantifier many, it takes much instead. It cannot form a plural either. The features [concrete] and [abstract] do not predict whether a noun is a count noun or not:
(8) [+concrete, +count]: book, dog, man, desk…

[+concrete, - count]: rice, tea, flour, furniture…

[+abstract, +count]: idea, view, concept…

[+abstract, - count]: love, hate…


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