There are two main theoretical traditions in semantics. One is based on realism, where meanings are described as relations between language and the world, often in terms of truth conditions. The other is cognitivistic, where meanings are identified with mental structures. This article presents some of the main ideas and theories within the cognitivist approach. A central tenet of cognitively oriented theories of meaning is that there are close connections between the meaning structures and other cognitive processes. In particular, parallels between semantics and visual processes have been studied. As a complement, the theory of embodied cognition focuses on the relation between actions and components of meaning. One of the main methods of representing cognitive meaning structures is to use images schemas and idealized cognitive models. Such schemas focus on spatial relations between various semantic elements. Images schemas are often constructed using Gestalt psychological notions, including those of trajector and landmark, corresponding to figure and ground. In this tradition, metaphors and metonymies are considered to be central meaning transforming processes. A related approach is force dynamics. Here, the semantic schemas are construed from forces and their relations rather than from spatial relations. Recent extensions involve cognitive representations of actions and events, which then form the basis for a semantics of verbs. A third approach is the theory of conceptual spaces. In this theory, meanings are represented as regions of semantic domains such as space, time, color, weight, size, and shape. For example, strong evidence exists that color words in a large variety of languages correspond to such regions. This approach has been extended to a general account of the semantics of some of the main word classes, including adjectives, verbs, and prepositions. The theory of conceptual spaces shows similarities to the older frame semantics and feature analysis, but it puts more emphasis on geometric structures. A general criticism against cognitive theories of semantics is that they only consider the meaning structures of individuals, but neglect the social aspects of semantics, that is, that meanings are shared within a community. Recent theoretical proposals counter this by suggesting that semantics should be seen as a meeting of minds, that is, communicative processes that lead to the alignment of meanings between individuals. On this approach, semantics is seen as a product of communication, constrained by the cognitive mechanisms of the individuals.
Philippe Schlenker, Emmanuel Chemla, and Klaus Zuberbühler
Rich data gathered in experimental primatology in the last 40 years are beginning to benefit from analytical methods used in contemporary linguistics, especially in the area of semantics and pragmatics. These methods have started to clarify five questions: (i) What morphology and syntax, if any, do monkey calls have? (ii) What is the ‘lexical meaning’ of individual calls? (iii) How are the meanings of individual calls combined? (iv) How do calls or call sequences compete with each other when several are appropriate in a given situation? (v) How did the form and meaning of calls evolve? Four case studies from this emerging field of ‘primate linguistics’ provide initial answers, pertaining to Old World monkeys (putty-nosed monkeys, Campbell’s monkeys, and colobus monkeys) and New World monkeys (black-fronted Titi monkeys). The morphology mostly involves simple calls, but in at least one case (Campbell’s -oo) one finds a root–suffix structure, possibly with a compositional semantics. The syntax is in all clear cases simple and finite-state. With respect to meaning, nearly all cases of call concatenation can be analyzed as being semantically conjunctive. But a key question concerns the division of labor between semantics, pragmatics, and the environmental context (‘world’ knowledge and context change). An apparent case of dialectal variation in the semantics (Campbell’s krak) can arguably be analyzed away if one posits sufficiently powerful mechanisms of competition among calls, akin to scalar implicatures. An apparent case of noncompositionality (putty-nosed pyow–hack sequences) can be analyzed away if one further posits a pragmatic principle of ‘urgency’. Finally, rich Titi sequences in which two calls are re-arranged in complex ways so as to reflect information about both predator identity and location are argued not to involve a complex syntax/semantics interface, but rather a fine-grained interaction between simple call meanings and the environmental context. With respect to call evolution, the remarkable preservation of call form and function over millions of years should make it possible to lay the groundwork for an evolutionary monkey linguistics, illustrated with cercopithecine booms.
Laura A. Michaelis
Meanings are assembled in various ways in a construction-based grammar, and this array can be represented as a continuum of idiomaticity, a gradient of lexical fixity. Constructional meanings are the meanings to be discovered at every point along the idiomaticity continuum. At the leftmost, or ‘fixed,’ extreme of this continuum are frozen idioms, like the salt of the earth and in the know. The set of frozen idioms includes those with idiosyncratic syntactic properties, like the fixed expression by and large (an exceptional pattern of coordination in which a preposition and adjective are conjoined). Other frozen idioms, like the unexceptionable modified noun red herring, feature syntax found elsewhere. At the rightmost, or ‘open’ end of this continuum are fully productive patterns, including the rule that licenses the string Kim blinked, known as the Subject-Predicate construction. Between these two poles are (a) lexically fixed idiomatic expressions, verb-headed and otherwise, with regular inflection, such as chew/chews/chewed the fat; (b) flexible expressions with invariant lexical fillers, including phrasal idioms like spill the beans and the Correlative Conditional, such as the more, the merrier; and (c) specialized syntactic patterns without lexical fillers, like the Conjunctive Conditional (e.g., One more remark like that and you’re out of here). Construction Grammar represents this range of expressions in a uniform way: whether phrasal or lexical, all are modeled as feature structures that specify phonological and morphological structure, meaning, use conditions, and relevant syntactic information (including syntactic category and combinatoric potential).
The noun-modifying clause construction (NMCC) in Japanese is a complex noun phrase in which a prenominal clause is dependent on the head noun. Naturally occurring instances of the construction demonstrate that a single structure, schematized as [[… predicate (finite/adnominal)] Noun], represents a wide range of semantic relations between the head noun and the dependent clause, encompassing some that would be expressed by structurally distinct constructions such as relative clauses, noun complement clauses, and other types of complex noun phrases in other languages, such as English. In that way, the Japanese NMCC demonstrates a clear case of the general noun-modifying construction (GNMCC), that is, an NMCC that has structural uniformity across interpretations that extend beyond the range of relative clauses. One of the notable properties of the Japanese NMCC is that the modifying clause may consist only of the predicate, reflecting the fact that referential density is moderate in Japanese—arguments of a predicate are not required to be overtly expressed either in the main clause or in the modifying clause. Another property of the Japanese NMCC is that there is no explicit marking in the construction that indicates the grammatical or semantic relation between the head noun and the modifying clause. The two major constituents are simply juxtaposed to each other. Successful construal of the intended interpretations of instances of such a construction, in the absence of explicit markings, likely relies on an aggregate of structural, semantic, and pragmatic factors, including the semantic content of the linguistic elements, verb valence information, and the interpreter’s real-world knowledge, in addition to the basic structural information. Researchers with different theoretical approaches have studied Japanese NMCCs or subsets thereof. Syntactic approaches, inspired by generative grammar, have focused mostly on relative clauses and aimed to identify universally recognized syntactic principles. Studies that take the descriptive approach have focused on detailed descriptions and the classification of a wide spectrum of naturally occurring instances of the construction in Japanese. The third and most recent group of studies has emphasized the importance of semantics and pragmatics in accounting for a wide variety of naturally occurring instances. The examination of Japanese NMCCs provides information about the nature of clausal noun modification and affords insights into languages beyond Japanese, as similar phenomena have reportedly been observed crosslinguistically to varying degrees.