Semantics, part 2
December 6, 2010
The Last Details
• For starters: a word association Quick Write.
• Semantics/pragmatics homework is due on Wednesday.
• any questions?
• Future plans:
• Wednesday - wrap up semantics
• + some comments on language preservation
• also: in-class USRIs
• Friday - review session (for whoever wants one)
• We will attempt to grade the semantics homeworks
between Wednesday and Friday.
Moving On
There are several different ways to study meaning in
1. Pragmatics
The meaningful use of linguistic expressions in
conversation and discourse.
2. Compositional Semantics
How the meaning of phrases and sentences is built up
from the meanings of individual words.
3. Lexical Semantics
The meaning of individual words, and how they’re
related to one another.
Lexical Semantics
Here are two basic meaning relationships that words
can have with one another:
1. Synonymy
Two words have the same meaning
couch/sofa, groundhog/woodchuck, hide/conceal
= real-world extensions are identical
2. Hyponymy
one word’s extension is a subset of another word’s
poodle/dog, laptop/computer, gas giants/planets
Synonym Schematic
Mr. Meowser
The Death Star
is a dog
is a canine
canines and dogs are
Hyponym Schematic
Mr. Meowser
The Death Star
is a dog
is a poodle
poodle is a hyponym
(subset) of dog
Another One
• Antonymy: when words that mean the “opposite” of each
• Complementary antonyms:
• Everything in the world is one or the other
• unmarried/married, present/absent, visible/invisible
• Relational antonyms:
• Reflect a symmetrical connection between each other
• give/receive, buy/sell, teacher/pupil
• employer/employee, adviser/advisee
• Scalar antonyms: words form two ends of a scale
• hot/cold, happy/sad, big/small, fast/slow
• Homonyms/Homophones are words with:
• same pronunciation
• unrelated meanings
• from Greek: /homo-/ “same” + /onyma/ “name”
• Examples:
• trunk (of an elephant), trunk (chest), trunk (of a tree)
• also: bear, bare
• Homonyms can create ambiguity:
• We saw her duck.
• Polysemy is when one word has several different, but
related meanings.
• From Greek: /poly-/ “many” + /sema/ “signal”
• Examples:
• Mouth of a river ~ mouth of an animal
• A baseball diamond ~ a geometric diamond ~ a
diamond stone
• Compositional semantics, continued...
• We have discussed how the referents of nouns and
the extensions of predicates get put together to form a
meaningful proposition.
• Now let’s consider adjectives and nouns in noun phrases.
• Simplest case: pure intersection
• black dogs =
• the set of all dogs
intersected with
• the set of all black things
Pure Intersection Schematic
Darth Vader
black things
Pure Intersection of Geekery
Semantic Features
• Idea: the meaning of a word can be precisely determined
by the pure intersection of predicates of which it is a
hyponym (subset).
• Example: “square”
• Example: “bachelor”
• The predicate sets form a word’s semantic features
• “hen” and “mare” share the feature [FEMALE]
• “bachelor” and “woman” share the feature [HUMAN]
Verb Features
• The same semantic feature can be expressed by a variety
of different verbs.
• Example: the feature [GO]
• reflects a change in position
• fly, walk, roll, stumble, run, crawl, etc.
• More subtle examples of [GO]:
• give: “John gave Mary an engagement ring.”
• “The boy threw the ball over the fence.”
A Syntax Flashback
• Remember that, in syntax, we learned that different verbs
require specific complement structures.
• For instance, transitive verbs require an object NP in
their verb phrases.
I devoured the sandwich.
I met the Professor.
• Similarly, ditransitive verbs can take two objects in their
verb phrases.
The dog trainer sold me a chew toy.
Larry gave Shelly the textbook.
• There are sub-features of [GO], which are reflected in
constraints on verb complements in English.
• [BALLISTIC]: a one-time [GO]
V’  V NP NP
• [SUSTAINED]: a continuous [GO]
*V’  V NP NP
• Ballistic Verbs
Sustained Verbs
throw the boy a ball
*push the boy a ball
toss the boy a ball
*pull the boy a ball
kick the boy a ball
*lift the boy a ball
fling the boy a ball
*drag the boy a ball
• The objects of ditransitive verbs can be expressed in two
different syntactic ways:
Larry gave Shelly the textbook.
Larry gave the textbook to Shelly.
• Despite the syntactic differences, each noun plays the same
role in both sentences:
Larry: Agent
(the entity performing the action)
Textbook: Theme
(thing being acted upon)
Shelly: Recipient
(being coming into possession
of something)
Thematic Roles
• Verbs have semantic requirements.
• For a sentence to make sense, it has to include nouns
which can play the roles required by the verb.
• give: Agent; Theme; Recipient
Larry gave Shelly the textbook.
Larry gave the textbook to Shelly.
Shelly was given the textbook by Larry.
!Anger gave Shelly the textbook.
Other Thematic Roles
• Experiencer
• = animate being that has a perceptual or mental
• Ex: Susan heard the music.
• Source
• = the origin of a change.
• Ex: Jan arrived from Detroit.
• Instrument
• = the means used to accomplish an action (not agent)
• Ex: The hammer cracked the window.
Other Thematic Roles
• Goal
• = the end point of a change in location or possession.
• Ex: Chris hitchhiked to Alaska.
• Location
• = the place where an action occurs.
• Ex: Neil Young played a show in Winnipeg.
Cross-language Data
• Consider the sentence: I like the book.
“I” is the (thematic) experiencer in this sentence.
It is also the (syntactic) subject of the sentence.
• Other languages express this notion with different syntax:
German: Das Buch gefällt mir.
French: Le livre me plaît.
Spanish: Me gusta el libro.
• In all of these languages, the speaker is the semantic
experiencer of “liking” the book...
• But is the syntactic object of the sentence.
By the way
• Particular verbs can have highly specific thematic
• E.g.: the Experiencer of “sleep” has to be animate.
!Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.
• The object of “frighten” has to have a mind.
Sincerity may frighten the boy.
!The boy may frighten sincerity.
• Other examples:
Time elapsed.
!John elapsed.
It is snowing.
!The dog is snowing.
Verb Features
• Another verb feature: [CAUSE]
• Contrast:
The water boiled.
Laura boiled the water.
The door opened.
The wind opened the door.
The window broke.
Larry broke the window.
• When these verbs are transitive, they have this
semantic structure:
Laura CAUSED the water to boil.
• In some languages, the [CAUSE] feature is realized
• Songhay (spoken in Burkina Faso):
“The window broke.”
broke [CAUSE]
“Ali broke the window.”
Other Language Differences
Every language has nouns, but different languages can
develop different types of nouns
English: count and mass nouns
Count nouns can be enumerated or pluralized
two potatoes, many potatoes, *much potato
three chairs, many chairs, *much chair
Mass nouns cannot be enumerated or pluralized
*two rices, *many rice, much rice
*three furnitures, *many furniture, much furniture
shoes vs. footwear; coins vs. change
• Some mass nouns in English are count nouns in Italian.
• Ivano ha mangiato molti spaghetti ieri sera.
“Ivano ate many spaghettis last evening.”
• Piero ha comprato un mobile.
“Piero bought a furniture.”
• Luisella ha pettinato i suoi capelli.
“Luisella combed her hairs.”
Collective Nouns
• American English:
• The Minnesota Vikings are winning the game.
• Minnesota is winning the game.
• British English:
• Manchester United are winning the game.
• Windows is shutting down.
Women, Fire and
Dangerous Things
• Dyirbal (Australia) has four types of nouns
• Each noun must be preceded by a word marker
1. /baji/: human males; animals
2. /balan/: human females; water; fire; dangerous things
3. /balam/: nonflesh food (fruit, vegetables, honey, wine)
4. /bala/: everything else
• This system applied to new items, too:
• Matches became a member of category 2
• Cigarettes became a member of category 3
Compositional Rehash
Last time, I introduced the correspondence theory of
1. Propositions can be true or false.
2. Truth is the correspondence of propositions to facts.
A valid objection: subjective vs. objective truth.
Subjective: “It’s chilly outside.”
Objective “fact”: “The Black Hawks won the Stanley
Cup in 2010.”
Possible fix: subjective truths may be true from only
one person’s perspective;
Objective truths are true from all possible
Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
• In the early twentieth century, the linguists Edward Sapir
and Benjamin Whorf proposed the following (controversial)
• A person’s conception of reality is dependent upon the
language they speak.
• Edward Sapir (1929):
“Human beings do not live in the objective world alone,
nor in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood,
but are very much at the mercy of the particular language
which has become the medium of expression for their
society…we see and hear and otherwise experience very
largely as we do because the language habits of our
community predispose certain choices of interpretation.”
Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
• Benjamin Whorf (1956):
“The background linguistic system (in other words, the
grammar) of each language is not merely the reproducing
instrument for voicing ideas but rather is itself the shaper
of ideas, the program and guide for the individual’s
mental activity, for his analysis of impressions, for his
synthesis of his mental stock in trade…We dissect nature
along lines laid down by our native languages.”
• Intriguing thoughts, but…
• Hard to prove in reality.
• One interesting piece of evidence:
• Differences in the way that languages organize the
color spectrum.
Reference: Basic Color Terms
yellow orange
Color names for the spectrum of light in English
Hungarian distinguishes between piros “light red” and voros
“dark red“
Russian distinguishes between sinij “dark blue” and goluboj
“light blue”
Reference: Color Terms
cipswuka citema
Color names for the spectrum of light in Shona
(spoken in Zimbabwe)
Note: cipswuka applies to “orange”, “red” and “purple”
Reference: Color Terms
Color names for the spectrum of light in Bassa
(spoken in the Ivory Coast)
Patterns of Color Terms
• Brent Berlin and Paul Kay (1969) catalogued the color
terms of 98 different languages.
• They presented speakers of different languages with an
array of 329 color chips.
• Task:
• for each color word in the speaker’s language, circle
all the chips that it applies to
• Also: circle the chip that is the best example of that
Color Matching Results
• Every language has at least two basic color terms
• basically: dark (“black”) and light (“white”)
• Bassa is a two-color language
• Languages with three color terms add red
• Languages with four color terms add green or yellow
• Fifth color term: either green or yellow
• Sixth color term: blue
• Seventh color term: brown
• The rest: purple, pink, orange or gray
Big Picture
• Different languages divvy up the color spectrum in
different ways;
• but there are still language-universal patterns in the
types of color schemes available to languages.
• As linguists, we want to know what competent speakers
of a language need to know in order to produce
meaningful utterances in that language.
• = the semantic features of a language
• There are language-specific and language-universal
semantic features.
• As in syntax, whatever is language-universal may be
attributed to our innate mental endowment for both
language and thought.