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INTRODUCING SEMANTICS, NICK RIEMER (2010)
Sa’adatu Rimi College of Education, Kumbotso, Kano, Nigeria
Book Title: Introducing Semantics Author: Nick Riemer Publishers: Cambridge University Press No. of Pages: Year of Publication: 2010 Price: Not stated This book provides a rich and accessible detail explanation of various issues in the study of meaning in language. “Introducing Semantics” is a textbook that introduces some of the aspects of meaning studied in linguistic semantics and is intended to provide a variety of ways in which meaning is currently studied in linguistics without sticking to a particular approach. Thus, the book is not written from the unique point of view of any approach. Rather, the author has tried to explain the range of theoretical perspectives that inform linguistic semantics research and also presents the advantages and disadvantages of these perspectives. In a systematic way, Riemer also included some important topics in the semantic discipline. These topics include semantic typology, computational semantics and corpus semantics. According to the author, the major aim of the book is to present a balance picture of how meaning is studied across the discipline and to introduce the reader to linguistic semantics whether as part of a linguistic degree or independently. It exposes the striking lack of consensus among linguistics even on the simplest or most fundamental linguistic phenomena like the question of meaning in semantic discipline. Riemer has succeeded in highlighting this diversity and also reveals that divergence is a source of semantics vitality and interest despite the fact that it creates a problem for the writer who want to present a comprehensive and balance introduction to the semantic field. This book is an excellent volume for anyone interested in linguistic semantics. This book begins with a “Note to the reader”. It provides a rich source of information to the reader and the first chapter provides the framework for what follows in the other chapters and explains some preliminary ideas. The rest of the chapters have a modular structure and can be read in whatever sequence. The glossary provides the most important current terms and the exercises interspersed through-out the text deepens the reader’s knowledge on the content of what he/she reads. Chapter I is titled “Meaning in the Empirical Study of Language”. It examines some ground-level concepts in the study of linguistic semantics. In particular, Riemer explains the concepts of meaning, communication and significance. The relationships between these concepts are also provided. After giving some definitions of “semantics”, the author looks at ways of talking about meaning in English and other languages. These languages are Ancient Greek, Warlpiri, French and Chinese. According to the author, ordinary English provides “at least three different ways of talking about languages: meaning, use and truth” (P9) as against other languages that differ in some of these ways. Further, he briefly introduces three principal terms: language, the world and the human mind in an effort to explain the meaning phenomena which he describes as the “semiotic triangle”. In this chapter, also, Riemer introduces some basic concepts in semantics. These concepts include lexemes, sense/reference/denotation/connotation and compositionality, levels of meaning, object language and metalanguage. Apart from these concepts, he identifies the problem inherent in a theory of meaning especially as it relates to definition. To solve this problem,
possible solutions are provided. These include meaning as denotations, meaning as mental representation, memory as brain states and meaning as usages. The chapter ends with a brief section on meaning and explanation and a summary section that summarizes the whole chapter. Chapter 2, entitled “Meaning and Definition” emphasizes the role of definition in the description of meaning. Riemer begins by contrasting the types of definition that are found in the dictionaries and the types that are found in theoretical semantic analysis. Thus, his focus at this point surrounds in semantics versus the meaning of lexicography. He also introduces the concept of mental lexicon and then proceeds to associate meanings and forms to the meaning – bearing units of language. In so doing, the basic units of meanings are discussed. These basic units are the words and morphemes, meaning below the morpheme (sound symbolism), meaning above the word level (idioms), contextual modulation of meaning comprising first possibility: compositionality and second possibility: non compositionality. In order to elaborate different ways of defining meanings, the author looks at meanings from the perspectives of real and normal definition by ostentation, synonymy, context or typical exemplar and by genus and differentia. He also discusses the accuracy of a definition and substitutability through what he refers to as “substitution of the definiens for the definiendum should be truth preserving in all contexts”. (P69). Other important things the author indicates are the issues of semantic primitives dealing with cognitive definition and problems with definitions. He concludes the chapter with a brief section on definition, understanding and use. Apart from further reading; exercises and questions for discussion are also provided at the end of the chapter. Chapter 3, The Scope of Meaning I: External Context focuses on linguistic expressions occurring in particular contexts. Thus, this chapter considers one essential type of context that Riemer calls external or real world context. He treats external context by considering the relation between sense and reference explaining the Fregean distinction (‘force’, ‘tone or colouring and its sense’ P.90), reference, speakers and hearers, the limit of sense and reference and deixis. Further, the author discusses a possible distinction between dictionary knowledge and encyclopedic knowledge. In this distinction, the knowledge of meaning and knowledge of facts are contrasted and Riemer concludes that dictionary knowledge is knowledge of essential meaning of a word and encyclopedic knowledge by contrast is not essential meaning of the word but it is independent of the dictionary knowledge. The chapter ends with problems associated to dictionary – encyclopedia distinction and finally with summary and exercises. Chapter 4, The Scope of Meaning II: Interpersonal Context is an extension of meaning not only through external context but by interpersonal context of linguistic action. The chapter introduces the notion of illocutionary force and speech acts, speaker’s intention and hearer’s inference, implicature, Gricean maxims and cooperative principle. The question of universal maxims, relevance theory and finally the discussion between semantic and pragmatics are also provided. Chapter 5, Analyzing and Distinguishing Meanings, emphasizes three logical categories in meaning analysis. In the first part, Riemer exemplifies and discusses different possible semantic relations between words in antonym, meronymy, hyponymy, taxonomy and synonymy. The second part introduces the possibility of analyzing senses in relation to semantic component and componential analysis. In the third part, the author provides the number of senses associated with lexeme using the theory of meaning principle. The final section distinguishes the case where a single lexeme can have several related meanings either as polysemy or monosemy and homonymy. He concludes the issues that are raised above involve a number of complex questions that would continue to be a source of problem in identifying the “objectivity of meaning as linguistic phenomena” (P. 169).
Chapter 6, Logic as Representation of Meaning, introduces the basic logical tools and concepts in order understand the ways in which some types of meaning can be represented in logical symbolism and to appreciate the advantages and disadvantages of logical representation. Riemer also introduces the ideas of validity, soundness and logical form. He presents an exposition of the basic principles of propositional logic (including logical operators, conjunction and disjunction, the material conditional etc) logic as representation of and perfection of meaning and predicate logic dealing with its argument, universal qualifier and existential quantifier. The issues of one place predicate, two-place predicate and three-place predicate are also exemplified. He also discusses the concept of truth, model, extension and intention. Finally, Riemer explains the relations between propositions such as entailment, presupposition, contradictories, contraries and subcontraries; and meaning postulates. Definite descriptions proposed by Bertrand Russell (1905) and logic and language are some of the key concepts that he discusses at the end of the chapter. In Chapter 7, Meaning and Cognition I: Categorization and Cognitive Semantics, Riemer considers meaning from the perspective of cognitive operations. He introduces word categorization and two different models of the way categories work. These are the classical view and the prototype view. The problems with classical categories (like there seem to be different statuses of category membership) are explained. The prototype categorization and the problems associated with prototype categories are also provided by the author. Some of these problems include nature of the semantic attributes: eg attribute identification depends on category identification, attributes vary with context, alternative description of attributes, accounting for category boundaries, scope of prototype categorization, prototypes and formulation definitions and prototype experiments and metalinguistic belief. He then gives an insight of prototype research on cognitive approaches to semantics in order to develop a comprehensive theory of mental representation. He explains that cognitivists like Langacker (1987), Johnson (1987), and Lakoff (1987) reject the modular approach to language, meaning as conceptual structure, rejection of the semantics – syntax distinction and rejection of the semantics – pragmatics distinction. Finally, Riemer introduces the concepts of idealized cognitive models (ICMs) Lakoff (1987) embodiment and image schemas, metaphor and metonymy, and radical categories in word meaning. The chapter closes with the problems of cognitive semantics which are the ambiguity of diagrammatic representations, the problem of determining the core meaning and the indeterminate and speculative nature of the analyses. In chapter 8, Riemer looks at some proposals about the types of cognitive operation that underlie semantic ability. The chapter titled Meaning and Cognition II: Formalizing and Stimulating Conceptual Representation, involves examining Jackendoff’s (1983) conceptual semantics and the modes of their interaction. He then explains concepts and decomposition, how conceptual semantic analyses are developed and briefly addressees the problems with conceptual semantics. Further, he looks at the role of computer technology in linguistic analysis with semantics as no exception. The lexicon in computational linguistic using the wordNet is elaborated and he also discusses word sense disambiguation and a summary of Pustejovskian (1991) semantics. In Chapter 9, Riemer discusses issues that relate to meaning and morphosyntax. He investigates a range of semantic phenomena that are relevant to morphosyntax. The major focus in this chapter is on parts of speech, variation in parts of speech systems and how they are delimited. Some of these delimitations are the morpho-distributional criteria and multicategoriality. He also addresses the issue of grammatical category and discourse function citing Hopper and Thompson (1984) examples on semantically or grammatically oriented approaches to the study of parts of speech. In the second section, he considers the semantics of tense and time, Aspect and Aktionsart. Thus, a rich aspectual system in Mandarin is discussed. He also discusses states and occurrences, variation within a single class and finally typology of tense – aspect interactions.
Chapter 10, Meaning and Morphosyntax II: Verb Meaning and Argument Structure, first discusses the semantic of the clause particularly the relationship between a verb and its noun participants. He introduces the notion of thematic role and go on to consider the modifications this notion has undergone in research into argument structure. He also mentions the problems with thematic roles, proto – roles as proposed by Dowty (1991), thematic relations and conceptual structure. Finally, he discusses verb classes and alternations and the meaning of constructions. In the last chapter, Riemer examines two concepts of meaning variation: synchronic meaning and diachronic meaning. Thus, he calls this chapter Semantic Variation and Change. He begins with illustrations on the traditional categories in which meaning changes and elaborates some of the shortcomings of this approach. The mechanisms and pathways of semantic change and grammaticalization are briefly touched. The importance of corpora studies in the study of semantic variation is also explained. He then presents a precise semantic typology on body parts, colour vocabulary, deictic motion, lexicalization patterns in motion verbs and spatial reference. The chapter ends with a brief section on language and thought, including discussion on Whorf. The position of Whorf is clearly stated at the end of the chapter which suggests that “grammatical categories of one’s language determine the categories of broader cognition. This idea is known as linguistic determinism or linguistic relativity hypothesis” (P420). Quite interesting is the glossary, a list of references and thorough index provided at the end of the book. Riemer in this case has successfully achieved a comprehensive introduction to semantic –a book that both graduate and postgraduate students can use in their effort to understand the concept of meaning. In addition, Introduction to semantics by Riemer is a very elaborate book that introduces the study of meaning in language. He has succeeded in presenting a balance picture of semantics as a branch of linguistics. The author’s ability to maintain neutrality is quite commendable even though, he appears very bold in presenting both advantages of different theoretical views. The author also has achieved impressive depth as well as breadth in dealing with the concept of meaning in an introductory book. The fact that the author continues to point out questions that still need answers in the field of semantic is another major strength of the book. Riemer’s organizational ability is also commendable. The organisation of the book is well-thought-out especially for those people coming to linguistic semantics for the first time. Each chapter has a preview, a summary at the end of the each chapter, questions for discussions and sometimes analytical questions to serve as exercises. This strategy is not only useful for beginners studying linguistic semantics but it is also important to even high level and postgraduate students interested in the field of semantics. I believe that the book is more than an introduction. It is an elaborate and useful book that exposes the reader to linguistic semantics. In fact, this book in my opinion is a masterpiece. The further-reading section also provides the reader with useful materials that the reader may require. This effort can benefit higher level students that are interested in research and other academic writings. It shows the depth of knowledge the author has on the subject matter. The author’s use of tables, graphs, illustration, pictures and bold or coloured marking for emphasis portrays Riemer’s ingenuity and methodology of imparting knowledge not only to students but to other writers that are involve in the art of writing books on linguistics and other disciplines. I found these illustrations, graphs and tables very useful and informative. In addition, his ability to give examples not only from English but other languages such as Ancient Greek, Chinese and French testify his mastery of the subject-matter and proves him to be a reknown and world expert in linguistic semantics. In the book also, Riemer has successfully integrated other subfields of linguistics such as syntax, morphology and
pragmatics. It is indeed a brilliant effort to do such an interspersed without confusing the reader. However, in my own opinion, the thorough nature of this book (even though not a weakness) should not only aimed at the beginners but the graduate and high level students interested in studying meaning from a broader perspective. It is more than just introduction to undergraduate students. Also, the frequent questions asked immediately after an explanation may be regarded as another weakness of this book especially because the book as stated by the author aims to introduce anyone coming to linguistic semantics for the first time. I think these frequent questions can confuse the beginner and move him/her away from the interesting knowledge semantics provide in the field of linguistics. Again, the layout of the book is a bit-confusing because the set-off questions and data on the tables are presented in blue-type. An explicit explanation of this convention at the preface or ‘Note to the reader’ as Riemer calls it, would be very significant and may reduce the complexity and confusion. Finally, the book in general is an excellent introductory textbook and it is very useful for the teaching of linguistic semantics especially in the area of meaning in language. It is going to be extremely useful tool for both students and teachers that are interested in the field of linguistic semantics. The book has again affirmed Riemer as a world class writer and an erudite scholar in the field of linguistic semantics.
Dowty, David. (1991). Thematic Proto-roles and argument Selection, Language
Hoper, Paul. and Thomson, S. (1984) The Discourse Basis of Lexical Categories in
Universal Grammar Language
Jackendoff, Ray. (1983) Semantics and Cognition
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Johnson, Mark. (1987) The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
Lakoff, George. (1987). Women, Fire and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About
Chicago: (University of Chicago Press).
Langacker, Ronard. (1987). Foundation of Cognitive Grammar, Vol. I.
Pustejovsky, James. (1991) The Generative Lexicon: Computational Linguistics
Reed, S. (2011). Review: Semantics, Linguist list
Riemer, Nick. (2010). Introducing Semantics
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Russell, Bertrand. (1905). On Denoting, Mind
Statistics Concentration)M. S. (Applied Statistics)University of the Philippines at Diliman, 1985Department of BiostatisticsUniversity of Alabama at Birmingham, Oct 2008 – presentCenter for Cardiovascular BiologyUniversity of Alabama at Birmingham, November 2010 – presentCenter for AIDS ResearchUniversity of Alabama at Birmingham, May 2008 – presentDepartment of BiostatisticsUniversity
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