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.
Elizabeth Closs Traugott
Traditional approaches to semantic change typically focus on outcomes of meaning change and list types of change such as metaphoric and metonymic extension, broadening and narrowing, and the development of positive and negative meanings. Examples are usually considered out of context, and are lexical members of nominal and adjectival word classes. However, language is a communicative activity that is highly dependent on context, whether that of the ongoing discourse or of social and ideological changes. Much recent work on semantic change has focused, not on results of change, but on pragmatic enabling factors for change in the flow of speech. Attention has been paid to the contributions of cognitive processes, such as analogical thinking, production of cues as to how a message is to be interpreted, and perception or interpretation of meaning, especially in grammaticalization. Mechanisms of change such as metaphorization, metonymization, and subjectification have been among topics of special interest and debate. The work has been enabled by the fine-grained approach to contextual data that electronic corpora allow.
Relevance theory is a cognitive approach to pragmatics which starts from two broadly Gricean assumptions: (a) that much human communication, both verbal and non-verbal, involves the overt expression and inferential recognition of intentions, and (b) that in inferring these intentions, the addressee presumes that the communicator’s behavior will meet certain standards, which for Grice are based on a Cooperative Principle and maxims, and for relevance theory are derived from the assumption that, as a result of constant selection pressures in the course of human evolution, both cognition and communication are relevance-oriented. Relevance is defined in terms of cognitive (or contextual) effects and processing effort: other things being equal, the greater the cognitive effects and the smaller the processing effort, the greater the relevance. A long-standing aim of relevance theory has been to show that building an adequate theory of communication involves going beyond Grice’s notion of speaker’s meaning. Another is to provide a conceptually unified account of how a much broader variety of communicative acts than Grice was concerned with—including cases of both showing that and telling that—are understood. The resulting pragmatic theory differs from Grice’s in several respects. It sees explicit communication as much richer and more inferential than Grice thought, with encoded sentence meanings providing no more than clues to the speaker’s intentions. It rejects the close link that Grice saw between implicit communication and (real or apparent) maxim violation, showing in particular how figurative utterances might arise naturally and spontaneously in the course of communication. It offers an account of vagueness or indeterminacy in communication, which is often abstracted away from in more formally oriented frameworks. It investigates the role of context in comprehension, and shows how tentative hypotheses about the intended combination of explicit content, contextual assumptions, and implicatures might be refined and mutually adjusted in the course of the comprehension process in order to satisfy expectations of relevance. Relevance theory treats the borderline between semantics and pragmatics as co-extensive with the borderline between (linguistic) decoding and (pragmatic) inference. It sees encoded sentence meanings as typically fragmentary and incomplete, and as having to undergo inferential enrichment or elaboration in order to yield fully propositional forms. It reanalyzes Grice’s conventional implicatures—which he saw as semantic but non-truth-conditional aspects of the meaning of words like but and so—as encoding procedural information with dedicated pragmatic or more broadly cognitive functions, and extends the notion of procedural meaning to a range of further items such as pronouns, discourse particles, mood indicators, and affective intonation.
M. Teresa Espinal and Jaume Mateu
Idioms, conceived as fixed multi-word expressions that conceptually encode non-compositional meaning, are linguistic units that raise a number of questions relevant in the study of language and mind (e.g., whether they are stored in the lexicon or in memory, whether they have internal or external syntax similar to other expressions of the language, whether their conventional use is parallel to their non-compositional meaning, whether they are processed in similar ways to regular compositional expressions of the language, etc.). Idioms show some similarities and differences with other sorts of formulaic expressions, the main types of idioms that have been characterized in the linguistic literature, and the dimensions on which idiomaticity lies. Syntactically, idioms manifest a set of syntactic properties, as well as a number of constraints that account for their internal and external structure. Semantically, idioms present an interesting behavior with respect to a set of semantic properties that account for their meaning (i.e., conventionality, compositionality, and transparency, as well as aspectuality, referentiality, thematic roles, etc.). The study of idioms has been approached from lexicographic and computational, as well as from psycholinguistic and neurolinguistic perspectives.
Agustín Vicente and Ingrid L. Falkum
Polysemy is characterized as the phenomenon whereby a single word form is associated with two or several related senses. It is distinguished from monosemy, where one word form is associated with a single meaning, and homonymy, where a single word form is associated with two or several unrelated meanings. Although the distinctions between polysemy, monosemy, and homonymy may seem clear at an intuitive level, they have proven difficult to draw in practice. Polysemy proliferates in natural language: Virtually every word is polysemous to some extent. Still, the phenomenon has been largely ignored in the mainstream linguistics literature and in related disciplines such as philosophy of language. However, polysemy is a topic of relevance to linguistic and philosophical debates regarding lexical meaning representation, compositional semantics, and the semantics–pragmatics divide. Early accounts treated polysemy in terms of sense enumeration: each sense of a polysemous expression is represented individually in the lexicon, such that polysemy and homonymy were treated on a par. This approach has been strongly criticized on both theoretical and empirical grounds. Since at least the 1990s, most researchers converge on the hypothesis that the senses of at least many polysemous expressions derive from a single meaning representation, though the status of this representation is a matter of vivid debate: Are the lexical representations of polysemous expressions informationally poor and underspecified with respect to their different senses? Or do they have to be informationally rich in order to store and be able to generate all these polysemous senses? Alternatively, senses might be computed from a literal, primary meaning via semantic or pragmatic mechanisms such as coercion, modulation or ad hoc concept construction (including metaphorical and metonymic extension), mechanisms that apparently play a role also in explaining how polysemy arises and is implicated in lexical semantic change.