Cognitive semantics (CS) is an approach to the study of linguistic meaning. It is based on the assumption that the human linguistic capacity is part of our cognitive abilities, and that language in general and meaning in particular can therefore be better understood by taking into account the cognitive mechanisms that control the conceptual and perceptual processing of extra-linguistic reality. Issues central to CS are (a) the notion of prototype and its role in the description of language, (b) the nature of linguistic meaning, and (c) the functioning of different types of semantic relations. The question concerning the nature of meaning is an issue that is particularly controversial between CS on the one hand and structuralist and generative approaches on the other hand: is linguistic meaning conceptual, that is, part of our encyclopedic knowledge (as is claimed by CS), or is it autonomous, that is, based on abstract and language-specific features? According to CS, the most important types of semantic relations are metaphor, metonymy, and different kinds of taxonomic relations, which, in turn, can be further broken down into more basic associative relations such as similarity, contiguity, and contrast. These play a central role not only in polysemy and word formation, that is, in the lexicon, but also in the grammar.
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.
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.