Lexical semantics is the study of word meaning. Descriptively speaking, the main topics studied within lexical semantics involve either the internal semantic structure of words, or the semantic relations that occur within the vocabulary. Within the first set, major phenomena include polysemy (in contrast with vagueness), metonymy, metaphor, and prototypicality. Within the second set, dominant topics include lexical fields, lexical relations, conceptual metaphor and metonymy, and frames. Theoretically speaking, the main theoretical approaches that have succeeded each other in the history of lexical semantics are prestructuralist historical semantics, structuralist semantics, and cognitive semantics. These theoretical frameworks differ as to whether they take a system-oriented rather than a usage-oriented approach to word-meaning research but, at the same time, in the historical development of the discipline, they have each contributed significantly to the descriptive and conceptual apparatus of lexical semantics.
John E. Joseph
Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913), the founding figure of modern linguistics, made his mark on the field with a book he published a month after his 21st birthday, in which he proposed a radical rethinking of the original system of vowels in Proto-Indo-European. A year later, he submitted his doctoral thesis on a morpho-syntactic topic, the genitive absolute in Sanskrit, to the University of Leipzig. He went to Paris intending to do a second, French doctorate, but instead he was given responsibility for courses on Gothic and Old High Gerrman at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, and for managing the publications of the Société de Linguistique de Paris. He abandoned more than one large publication project of his own during the decade he spent in Paris. In 1891 he returned to his native Geneva, where the University created a chair in Sanskrit and the history and comparison of languages for him. He produced some significant work on Lithuanian during this period, connected to his early book on the Indo-European vowel system, and yielding Saussure’s Law, concerning the placement of stress in Lithuanian. He undertook writing projects about the general nature of language, but again abandoned them. In 1907, 1908–1909, and 1910–1911, he gave three courses in general linguistics at the University of Geneva, in which he developed an approach to languages as systems of signs, each sign consisting of a signifier (sound pattern) and a signified (concept), both of them mental rather than physical in nature, and conjoined arbitrarily and inseparably. The socially shared language system, or langue, makes possible the production and comprehension of parole, utterances, by individual speakers and hearers. Each signifier and signified is a value generated by its difference from all the other signifiers or signifieds with which it coexists on an associative (or paradigmatic) axis, and affected as well by its syntagmatic axis. Shortly after Saussure’s death at 55, two of his colleagues, Bally and Sechehaye, gathered together students’ notes from the three courses, as well as manuscript notes by Saussure, and from them constructed the Cours de linguistique générale, published in 1916. Over the course of the next several decades, this book became the basis for the structuralist approach, initially within linguistics, and later adapted to other fields. Saussure left behind a large quantity of manuscript material that has gradually been published over the last few decades, and continues to be published, shedding new light on his thought.
American structuralism is a label attached to a heterogeneous but distinctive style of language scholarship practiced in the United States, the heyday of which extended from around 1920 until the late 1950s. There is certainly diversity in the interests and intellectual stances of American structuralists. Nevertheless, some minimum common denominators stand out. American structuralists valued synchronic linguistic analysis, independent of—but not to the exclusion of—study of a language’s development over time; they looked for, and tried to articulate, systematic patterns in language data, attending in particular to the sound properties of language and to morphophonology; they identified their work as part of a science of language, rather than as philology or as a facet of literary studies, anthropology, or the study of particular languages. Some American structuralists tried to establish the identity or difference of linguistic units by studying their distribution with respect to other units, rather than by relying on identity or difference of meaning. Some (but not all) American structuralists avoided cross-linguistic generalizations, perceiving them as a threat to the hard-won notion of the integrity of individual languages; some (but not all) avoided attributing patterns they discovered in particular languages to cultural or psychological proclivities of speakers. A considerable amount of American structuralist research focused on indigenous languages of the Americas. One outstanding shared achievement of the group was the institutionalization of linguistics as an autonomous discipline in the United States, materialized by the founding of the Linguistic Society of America in 1924. This composite picture of American structuralists needs to be balanced by recognition of their diversity. One important distinction is between the goals and orientations of foundational figures: Franz Boas (1858–1942), Edward Sapir (1884–1939), and Leonard Bloomfield (1887–1949). The influence of Boas, Sapir, and Bloomfield was strongly felt by the next generation of language scholars, who went on to appropriate, expand, modify, or otherwise retouch their ideas to produce what is called post-Bloomfieldian linguistics. Post-Bloomfieldian linguistics displays its own internal diversity, but still has enough coherence to put into relief the work of other language scholars who were close contemporaries to the post-Bloomfieldians, but who in various ways and for various reasons departed from them. American structuralism has at least this much heterogeneity. This article illustrates the character of American structuralism in the first half of the 20th century. Analysis of a corpus of presidential addresses presented to the Linguistic Society of America by key American structuralists grounds the discussion, and provides a microcosm within which to observe some of its most salient features: both the shared preoccupations of American structuralists and evidence of the contributions of individual scholars to a significant collaborative project in the history of linguistics.
The German sinologist and general linguist Georg von der Gabelentz (1840–1893) occupies an interesting place at the intersection of several streams of linguistic scholarship at the end of the 19th century. As Professor of East Asian languages at the University of Leipzig from 1878 to 1889 and then Professor for Sinology and General Linguistics at the University of Berlin from 1889 until his death, Gabelentz was present at some of the main centers of linguistics at the time. He was, however, generally critical of mainstream historical-comparative linguistics as propagated by the neogrammarians, and instead emphasized approaches to language inspired by a line of researchers including Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835), H. Steinthal (1823–1899), and his own father, Hans Conon von der Gabelentz (1807–1874). Today Gabelentz is chiefly remembered for several theoretical and methodological innovations which continue to play a role in linguistics. Most significant among these are his contributions to cross-linguistic syntactic comparison and typology, grammar-writing, and grammaticalization. His earliest linguistic work emphasized the importance of syntax as a core part of grammar and sought to establish a framework for the cross-linguistic description of word order, as had already been attempted for morphology by other scholars. The importance he attached to syntax was motivated by his engagement with Classical Chinese, a language almost devoid of morphology and highly reliant on syntax. In describing this language in his 1881 Chinesische Grammatik, Gabelentz elaborated and implemented the complementary “analytic” and “synthetic” systems of grammar, an approach to grammar-writing that continues to serve as a point of reference up to the present day. In his summary of contemporary thought on the nature of grammatical change in language, he became one of the first linguists to formulate the principles of grammaticalization in essentially the form that this phenomenon is studied today, although he did not use the current term. One key term of modern linguistics that he did employ, however, is “typology,” a term that he in fact coined. Gabelentz’s typology was a development on various contemporary strands of thought, including his own comparative syntax, and is widely acknowledged as a direct precursor of the present-day field. Gabelentz is a significant transitional figure from the 19th to the 20th century. On the one hand, his work seems very modern. Beyond his contributions to grammaticalization avant la lettre and his christening of typology, his conception of language prefigures the structuralist revolution of the early 20th century in important respects. On the other hand, he continues to entertain several preoccupations of the 19th century—in particular the judgment of the relative value of different languages—which were progressively banished from linguistics in the first decades of the 20th century.
The morpheme was the central notion in morphological theorizing in the 20th century. It has a very intuitive appeal as the indivisible and invariant unit of form and meaning, a minimal linguistic sign. Ideally, that would be all there is to build words and sentences from. But this ideal does not appear to be entirely adequate. At least at a perhaps superficial understanding of form as a series of phonemes, and of meaning as concepts and morphosyntactic feature sets, the form and the meaning side of words are often not structured isomorphically. Different analytical reactions are possible to deal with the empirical challenges resulting from the various kinds of non-isomorphism between form and meaning. One prominent option is to reject the morpheme and to recognize conceptually larger units such as the word or the lexeme and its paradigm as the operands of morphological theory. This contrasts with various theoretical options maintaining the morpheme, terminologically or at least conceptually at some level. One such option is to maintain the morpheme as a minimal unit of form, relaxing the tension imposed by the meaning requirement. Another option is to maintain it as a minimal morphosyntactic unit, relaxing the requirements on the form side. The latter (and to a lesser extent also the former) has been understood in various profoundly different ways: association of one morpheme with several form variants, association of a morpheme with non-self-sufficient phonological units, or association of a morpheme with a formal process distinct from affixation. Variants of all of these possibilities have been entertained and have established distinct schools of thought. The overall architecture of the grammar, in particular the way that the morphology integrates with the syntax and the phonology, has become a driving force in the debate. If there are morpheme-sized units, are they pre-syntactic or post-syntactic units? Is the association between meaning and phonological information pre-syntactic or post-syntactic? Do morpheme-sized pieces have a specific status in the syntax? Invoking some of the main issues involved, this article draws a profile of the debate, following the term morpheme on a by-and-large chronological path from the late 19th century to the 21st century.