"Moreover, you scorned our people, and compared the Albanese to sheep, and according to your custom think of us with insults. Nor have you shown yourself to have any knowledge of my race. Our elders were Epirotes, where this Pirro came from, whose force could scarcely support the Romans. This Pirro, who Taranto and many other places of Italy held back with armies. I do not have to speak for the Epiroti. They are very much stronger men than your Tarantini, a species of wet men who are born only to fish. If you want to say that Albania is part of Macedonia I would concede that a lot more of our ancestors were nobles who went as far as India under Alexander the Great and defeated all those peoples with incredible difficulty. From those men come these who you called sheep. But the nature of things is not changed. Why do your men run away in the faces of sheep?"
Letter from Skanderbeg to the Prince of Taranto ▬ Skanderbeg, October 31 1460

Semantics

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Semantics

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Post by Orakulli » Thu Dec 20, 2012 5:42 am

Semantics, By John I. Saeed

Three Challenges in Doing Semantics

Analyzing a speaker’s semantic knowledge is an exciting and challenging task, as we hope to show in this book.

We can get some idea of how challenging by adopting a simple but intuitively attractive theory of semantics which we can call the definitions theory.
This theory would simply state that to give the meaning of linguistic expressions we should establish definitions of the meanings of words. We could then assume that when a speaker combines words to form sentences according to the grammatical rules of her language, the word definitions are combined to form phrase and then sentence definitions, giving us the meanings of sentences. Let us investigate putting this approach into practice.
As soon as we begin our task of attaching definitions to words, we will be faced with a number of challenges. Three in particular prove very tricky for our theory. The first is the problem of circularity. How can we state the meaning of a word, except in other words, either in the same or a different language? This is a problem that faces dictionary writers: if you look up a word like ferret in a monolingual English dictionary, you might find a definition like 'Domesticated albino variety of the polecat, Mustela putorius, bred for hunting rabbits, rats, etc.' To understand this, you have to understand the words in the definition. According to our aims for semantics, we have to describe the meanings of these words too, beginning with domesticated. The definition for this might be 'of animals, tame, living with human beings'. Since this definition is also in words, we have to give the meaning, for example, of tame. And so on. If the definitions of word meaning are given in words, the process might never end. The question is: can we ever step out­ side language in order to describe it, or are we forever involved in circular definitions?

A second problem we will meet is how to make sure that our definitions of a word's meaning are exact. If we ask where the meanings of words exist, the answer must be: in the minds of native speakers of the language. Thus meaning is a kind of knowledge. This raises several questions; for example: is there a difference between this kind of knowledge and other kinds of knowledge that people have? In particular: can we make a distinction be­ tween linguistic knowledge (about the meaning of words) and encyclopedic knowledge (about the way the world is)? For example, if I believe that a whale is a fish, and you believe that it is a mammal, do our words have different meanings when we both use the noun whale? Presumably you still understand me when I say I dreamt that I was swallowed by a whale.

There is another aspect to this problem: what should we do if we find that speakers of a language differ in their understanding of what a word means? Whose knowledge should we pick as our ‘meaning’? We might avoid the decision by picking just one speaker and limiting our semantic description to an idiolect, the technical term for an individual's language. Another strategy to resolve differences might be to identify experts and use their knowledge, but as we shall see, moving away from ordinary speakers to use a scientific definition for words has the danger of making semantics equivalent to all of science. It also ignores the fact that most of us seem to understand each other talking about, say, animals, without any training in zoology. This is a point we will come back to in chapter 2.

A third type of challenge facing us comes from looking at what particular utterances mean in context. For example: if someone says to you Marvellous weather you have here in Ireland, you might interpret it differently on a cloudless sunny day than when the rain is pouring down. Similarly He's dying might mean one thing when said of a terminally ill patient, and another as a comment watching a stand-up comedian failing to get laughs. Or again: It's getting late if said to a friend at a party might be used to mean Let's leave. The problem here is that if features of context are part of an utterance's meaning then how can we include them in our definitions? For a start, the number of possible situations, and therefore of interpretations, is enormous if not infinite. It doesn't seem likely that we could fit all the relevant information into our definitions.
These three issues: circularity; the question of whether linguistic knowledge is different from general knowledge; and the problem of the contribution of context to meaning, show that our definitions theory is too simple to do the job we want. Semantic analysis must be more complicated than attaching definitions to linguistic expressions. As we shall see in the rest of this book, semanticists have proposed a number of strategies for improving on this initial position. In the next section we discuss some initial ideas that will enable us to follow these strategies.

1.4 Meeting the Challenges

In most current linguistic theories, semantic analysis is as important a part of the linguist's job as, say, phonological analysis. Theories differ on details of 1he relationship between semantics and other levels of analysis like syntax and morphology, but all seem to agree that linguistic analysis is incomplete without semantics. We need, it seems to establish a semantic component in our theories. We have to ask: how can we meet the three challenges outlined in the last section? Clearly we have to replace a simple theory of definitions with a theory that successfully solves these problems.

One of the aims of this book is to show how various theories have sought to provide solutions to these problems and we will return to them in detail over subsequent chapters. For now we will simply mention possible strategies which we will see fleshed out later. To cope with the problem of circularity, one solution is to design a semantic metalanguage with which to describe the semantic units and rules of all languages1We use metalanguage here with its usual meaning in linguistics: the tool o"f description. So in a grammar of Arabic written in French, Arabic is the object language an French the metalanguage. An ideal metalanguage would be neutral with respect to any natural languages, i.e. would not be unconsciously biased towards English, French, etc. Moreover it should satisfy scientific criteria of clarity, economy, consistency, etc. We will see various proposals for such a metalanguage, for example to represent word meanings and the semantic relations between words, in chapters 9 and 10. We will also meet claims that such a metalanguage is unattainable and that the best policy is to use ordinary language to describe meaning.

For some linguists, though, translation into even a perfect metalanguage would not be a satisfactory semantic description. Such a line of reasoning goes like this: if words are symbols, they have to relate to something; other­ wise what are they symbols of? In this view, to give the semantics of words we have to ground them in something non-linguistic. In chapter 2 we will review the debate about whether the things that words signify are real objects in the world or thoughts.

Setting up a metalanguage might help too with the problem of relating semantic and encyclopaedic knowledge, since designing meaning representations, for example for words, involves arguing about which elements of knowledge should be included. To return to our earlier example of whale: we assume that English speakers can use this word because they know what it means. The knowledge a speaker has of the meaning of words is often compared to a mental lexicon or dictionary. Yet if we open a real dictionary at the entry for whale, the definition is likely to begin 'large marine mam­ mal ...'.To rephrase our earlier question: does it follow that someone who doesn't know that whales are mammals fails to understand the meaning of the word whale? What if the speaker knows that it is a large animal that lives in the sea, but is hazy after that? The real issue is the amount of knowledge that it is necessary to know in order to use a word. We shall see aspects of this debate, which is really part of the general psychological debate about the representation of concepts and categories, in chapters 2, 3 and 7.

In tackling the third problem, of context, one traditional solution has been to assume a split in an expression’s meaning between the local contextual effects and a context-free element of meaning, which we might call conventional or literal meaning. We could perhaps try to limit our definitions to the literal part of meaning and deal with contextual features separately. As we shall see in chapter 3, though, it turns out to be no easy task to isolate the meaning of a word from any possible context. We discuss some aspects of this idea of literal meaning in 1.6.3 below. The other side of such an approach is to investigate the role of contextual information in communication, and try to establish theories of how speakers amalgamate knowledge of context with linguistic knowledge. As we shall see in chapter 7, it seems that speakers and hearers cooperate in using various types of contextual information. Investigating this leads us to a view of the listener's role which is quite different from the simple, but common, analogy of decoding a coded message. We shall see that listeners have a very active role, using what has been said, together with background knowledge, to make inferences about what the speaker meant. The study of these processes and the role in them of context is often assigned to a special area of study called pragmatics.

Meaning, Thought and Reality

2.6 English
You have a cold.

2.7 Somali
Hargab baa ku haya. a.cold FOCUS you has
'A cold has you.' i.e. 'You have a cold.'

• 2.8 Irish
Ta slaghdan ort.
is a.cold on.you
'A cold is on you.' i.e. 'You have a cold.'

In English and Somali, 2.6 and 2.7, we see the situation viewed as possession: in English the person possesses the disease; in Somali the disease possesses the person. In Irish, 2.8, the situation is viewed as location: the person is the location for the disease. We shall look at such differences in later chapters. The point here is that different conceptualizations influence the description of the real-world situations. Theories of meaning can be called representational when their emphasis is on the way that our reports about reality are influenced by the conceptual structures conventionalized in our language.
We can see these two approaches as focusing on different aspects of the same process: talking about the world. In referential theories, meaning derives from language being attached to, or grounded in, reality. In representational approaches meaning derives from language being a reflection of our conceptual structures. This difference of approach will surface throughout this book and we outline a specific referential theory in chapter 10, and versions of representational theories in chapters 9 and II. These two approaches are influenced by ideas from philosophy and psychology and in this chapter we review some of the most important of these. We begin, however, with language: by looking at the different ways linguistic expressions can be used to refer. We then go on to ask whether reference is indeed all of meaning and examine arguments that reference relies on conceptual knowledge. Here we review some basic theories about concepts from the philosophical and psychological literature. Finally we discuss how these ideas from philosophy and psychology have influenced the ways that semanticists view the task of describing meaning.

..........Languages differ in both how many divisions of space are coded in their demonstratives and what other information is obligatorily included. We can look at some examples. In the West African language Rausa (Afroasiatic; Nigeria, Niger), as 7.8 below shows, the demonstrative and adverbial systems include terms which obligatorily make reference to the location of the addressee (Jaggar 2001: 323-30, 645-7):

7.8 (SP = speaker; ADR = addressee, a = falling tone; a = high tone)
nan 'here' (near the SP)
nan 'there' (near the ADR)
can 'there' (away from both)
can 'there' (further away from both)

184 Semantic Description

The English translation 'there' for nan in 7.8 is, of course, inaccurate: as Jaggar and Buba (1994) observe, nan has to relate to the vicinity of the addressee and thus a sentence like 7.9 below is impossible: 1

7.9 ?jee-ka nan!
'OFF you go there!'

Similar reference to the addressee is reported for Japanese demonstratives and adverbs by Kuno (1973).
Other languages incorporate more complex divisions of space in their demonstratives, for example Malagasy (Austronesian; Madagascar), as shown in 7.10 (Anderson and Keenan 1985: 294):

7.10 Near SP Increasingly far from SP

uy zo irsy zny troa try

More unusual is the addition of a vertical dimension, as is described by Anderson and Keenan (1985: 291) for Daga (Trans-New Guinea; Papua New Guinea), shown in 7.11:

7.11 oea ao 'overhead'
'up, high' ea ae 'underneath'
'down, low' ata ase 'same level'
'same level, far'

uta 'higher
(near)'
ita 'lower
(near)'
ma 'near SP, this'
utu 'higher
(far)' isi 'lower (far)' ame 'near ADR, that'
use 'higher tse 'lower
(remote)' (remote)'

As 7.11 shows, these Daga demonstratives distinguish locations in space above, below and on the same level as the speaker's position.
The examples so far have been of deictic elements relating to location and proximity relative to the speaker. Deictic elements may also include information about motion towards and away from the speaker. We can see this in English: the comparison between come and go in 7.12 and 7.13 below tells us something about the location of the speaker:

7.12 Don't come into my bedroom.

7.13 Don't go into my bedroom.

This explains why the sentences in 7.14 and 7.15 below sound odd at first:

7.14 ?Fred went to me.

7.15 ?Fred came from me.

Context and Inference 185

We have to interpret the situations described in a rather complicated way to accept these sentences. Some languages have specific deictic motion morphemes: Somali for example has two: soo 'towards the speaker’ and sii
'away from the speaker', which combine freely with verbs, as in 7.16:

7.16 a. Soo soco!
DEIC walk
'Come this way!, Approach!'
b. Sii soco!
DEIC walk
'Go on over there!, Go away!'


Finally we can end this look at spatial deixis with an example of a very complex system, and one which includes information other than distance and position: Yup'ik (Eskimo-Aleut; Alaska) in 7.17 (Anderson and Keenan
1985: 295):

7.17 Extended man'a tamana


ukna Restricted
una tauna Obscured


zmna

'this (near SP)'
'that (near ADR)'
'the aforementioned one'
'the one approaching
the speaker'
augna mgna amna 'the one going away
from the speaker'
agna ikna akemna 'the one across there'
qaiigna kiugna qamna 'the one inland, inside,
upriver'
qagna k eggna qakemna 'the one outside'
un'a kan'a camna 'the one below, towards
river'
unegna ugna cakemna 'the one downriver, by
the exit'
paugna pingna pamna 'the one up there, away
from river'
pagna pikna pakemna 'the one up above'

The headings in 7.17 describe a semantic classification of the objects to which the demonstratives refer: 'extended' forms are for either large expanses of land or water, or objects that are lengthy or moving; 'restricted' applies to objects that are stationary, or moving within a confined area, and fairly small in extent, relatively near, and visible; and 'obscured' describes objects that are farther away and not clearly in sight. See Anderson and Keenan
(1985) for details.
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