The investigation of morphology and lexical semantics is an investigation into the very essence of the semantics of word formation: the meaning of morphemes and how they can be combined to form meanings of complex words. Discussion of this question within the scholarly literature has been dependent on (i) the adopted morphological model (morpheme-based or word-based); and (ii) the adopted theoretical paradigm (such as formal/generativist accounts vs. construction-based approaches)—which also determined what problem areas received attention in the first place. One particular problem area that has surfaced most consistently within the literature (irrespective of the adopted morphological model or theoretical paradigm) is the so-called semantic mismatch question, which also serves as the focus of the present chapter. In essence, semantic mismatch pertains to the question of why there is no one-to-one correspondence between form and meaning in word formation. In other words, it is very frequently not possible out of context to give a precise account of what the meaning of a newly coined word might be based simply on the constituents that the word originates from. The article considers the extent to which the meaning of complex words is (at least partly) based on nondecompositional knowledge, implying that the meaning-bearing feature of morphemes might in fact be a graded affair. Thus, depending on the entrenchment and strength of the interrelations among sets of words, the meaning of the components contributes only more or less to a meaning of a word, suggesting that “mismatches” might be neither unusual nor uncommon.
Construction Morphology is a theory of word structure in which the complex words of a language are analyzed as constructions, that is, systematic pairings of form and meaning. These pairings are analyzed within a Tripartite Parallel Architecture conception of grammar. This presupposes a word-based approach to the analysis of morphological structure and a strong dependence on paradigmatic relations between words. The lexicon contains both words and the constructional schemas they are instantiations of. Words and schemas are organized in a hierarchical network, with intermediate layers of subschemas. These schemas have a motivating function with respect to existing complex words and specify how new complex words can be formed. The consequence of this view of morphology is that there is no sharp boundary between lexicon and grammar. In addition, the use of morphological patterns may also depend on specific syntactic constructions (construction-dependent morphology). This theory of lexical relatedness also provides insight into language change such as the use of obsolete case markers as markers of specific constructions, the change of words into affixes, and the debonding of word constituents into independent words. Studies of language acquisition and word processing confirm this view of the lexicon and the nature of lexical knowledge. Construction Morphology is also well equipped for dealing with inflection and the relationships between the cells of inflectional paradigms, because it can express how morphological schemas are related paradigmatically.
Throughout the 20th century, structuralist and generative linguists have argued that the study of the language system (langue, competence) must be separated from the study of language use (parole, performance), but this view of language has been called into question by usage-based linguists who have argued that the structure and organization of a speaker’s linguistic knowledge is the product of language use or performance. On this account, language is seen as a dynamic system of fluid categories and flexible constraints that are constantly restructured and reorganized under the pressure of domain-general cognitive processes that are not only involved in the use of language but also in other cognitive phenomena such as vision and (joint) attention. The general goal of usage-based linguistics is to develop a framework for the analysis of the emergence of linguistic structure and meaning. In order to understand the dynamics of the language system, usage-based linguists study how languages evolve, both in history and language acquisition. One aspect that plays an important role in this approach is frequency of occurrence. As frequency strengthens the representation of linguistic elements in memory, it facilitates the activation and processing of words, categories, and constructions, which in turn can have long-lasting effects on the development and organization of the linguistic system. A second aspect that has been very prominent in the usage-based study of grammar concerns the relationship between lexical and structural knowledge. Since abstract representations of linguistic structure are derived from language users’ experience with concrete linguistic tokens, grammatical patterns are generally associated with particular lexical expressions.
Children’s acquisition of language is an amazing feat. Children master the syntax, the sentence structure of their language, through exposure and interaction with caregivers and others but, notably, with no formal tuition. How children come to be in command of the syntax of their language has been a topic of vigorous debate since Chomsky argued against Skinner’s claim that language is ‘verbal behavior.’ Chomsky argued that knowledge of language cannot be learned through experience alone but is guided by a genetic component. This language component, known as ‘Universal Grammar,’ is composed of abstract linguistic knowledge and a computational system that is special to language. The computational mechanisms of Universal Grammar give even young children the capacity to form hierarchical syntactic representations for the sentences they hear and produce. The abstract knowledge of language guides children’s hypotheses as they interact with the language input in their environment, ensuring they progress toward the adult grammar. An alternative school of thought denies the existence of a dedicated language component, arguing that knowledge of syntax is learned entirely through interactions with speakers of the language. Such ‘usage-based’ linguistic theories assume that language learning employs the same learning mechanisms that are used by other cognitive systems. Usage-based accounts of language development view children’s earliest productions as rote-learned phrases that lack internal structure. Knowledge of linguistic structure emerges gradually and in a piecemeal fashion, with frequency playing a large role in the order of emergence for different syntactic structures.
Analogy is traditionally regarded as one of the three main factors responsible for language change, along with sound change and borrowing. Whereas sound change is understood to be phonetically motivated and blind to structural patterns and semantic and functional relationships, analogy is licensed precisely by those patterns and relationships. In the Neogrammarian tradition, analogical change is regarded, at least largely, as a by-product of the normal operation (acquisition, representation, and use) of the mental grammar. Historical linguists commonly use proportional equations of the form A : B = C : X to represent analogical innovations, where A, B, and C are (sets of) word forms known to the innovator, who solves for X by discerning a formal relationship between A and B and then deductively arriving at a form that is related to C in the same way that B is related to A. Along with the core type of analogical change captured by proportional equations, most historical linguists include a number of other phenomena under the analogy umbrella. Some of these, such as paradigm leveling—the reduction or elimination of stem alternations in paradigms—are arguably largely proportional, but others such as contamination and folk etymology seem to have less to do with the normal operation of the mental grammar and instead involve some kind of interference among the mental representations of phonetically or semantically similar forms. The Neogrammarian approach to analogical change has been criticized and challenged on a variety of grounds, and a number of important scholars use the term “analogy” in a rather different sense, to refer to the role that phonological and/or semantic similarity play in the influence that forms exert on each other.
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.