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(A compilation)

Course coordinator: ELENA BUJA

Chapter 1: Introduction to semantics: a short history of semantics
Chapter 2: The problem of meaning
Chapter 3: Motivation of meaning
Chapter 4: Seven types of meaning
Chapter 5: The componential analysis of meaning
Chapter 6: The distributional analysis of meaning
Chapter 7: Ambiguity and vagueness

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Chapter 1. A short history of semantics

1.1. Why study semantics?
Semantics (as the study of meaning) is central to the study of communication; and as
communication becomes more and more a crucial factor in social organization, the need to
understand it becomes more and more pressing.
Semantics is also at the centre of human mind thought processes, cognition, conceptualization
all these are strongly connected to the way in which we classify and convey our experience of
the world through language.
Semantics can be defined as a branch of linguistics; it is an area of study parallel to, and
interacting with syntax and phonology. While syntax and phonology study the structure of
expressive possibilities in language, semantics studies the meaning that can be expressed. Nearly
all linguists have accepted a linguistic model in which semantics is at one end and phonetics at
the other, with grammar somewhere in the middle. However, until recently, semantics has been
the Cinderella of linguistics, a branch that had been abandoned to philosophers and
anthropologists. But in the past20 25 years there has been a swing away from the view that
semantics is a messy, unstructured intellectual no-mans-land on the fringes of linguistics, and
little by little it has acquired a central position in linguistic studies. The concentration on
semantics has come not only from linguists, but from logicians, too. Consequently, in semantics
we witness an unusual convergence of disciplines; the techniques and investigations of
philosophy and cognitive psychology, in particular, have helped to lay a more solid foundation
for linguistic studies.
1.2. A short history of semantics
Although semantics is consider a rather young branch of linguistics, interest in todays problems
of semantics was alive already in ancient times.
In ancient Greece, philosophers dealt with the problem of the way in which words acquired their
meaning. One of the questions they tried to find an answer to was the following: Why is a thing
called by a given name? The answers provided made the Greek philosophers divide into two
parties: on the one hand we have the adepts of the physei theory, and on the other hand the
adepts of the thesei theory. Let us now briefly present these two points of view.

a) The physei theory. Some philosophers considered that the names of things were arrived at
naturally, that they were somehow conditioned by the natural properties of the things themselves.
An example provided by them is that of the letter rho [] which seems apt to express motion,
since the tongue moves rapidly in its production; hence, its occurrence in such words as rhoein
to flow. Other sounds like [s], [f] and [ks], which require greater breath-effort in production,
seem suitable to appear in words like kseon shaking. Despite the inadvertences of such
correlations, the adepts of the physei theory kept on believing that it is the physical nature of
sounds in a name that can tell use something about its meaning.
b) The thesei theory. Some other philosophers held the opposite view, namely that names are
given to things arbitrarily through convention.
The physei thesei controversy was discussed by various philosophers of the time, one of the
most representative one being Plato. He wrote a dialogue entitled Cratylus in which the two
discussants are Cratylus, the partisan of the physei theory, and Hermogenes, the defendant of the
thesei point of view. The two positions are debated by Socrates, who in an attempt to mediate
between the two discussants, points out an interesting fact, i.e. that there are two types of names:
simple names and compound names, which are divisible into smaller constituent elements and
analysable into the meaning of these constituents.
Two other dialogues by Plato, Theatetus and Sophists mark an important step in the
development of semantics. In them, he dealt with problems such as the relation between
THOUGHT, LANGUAGE and the OUTSIDE WORLD. Language is defined as the expression
of ones thought be means of onomata (the name of the performer) and rhemata (the name
defining the action).




Identifying onoma and rhema as the constituents of LOGOS, Plato opened the way for analysing
the sentence in terms which are partly linguistic and partly pertaining to logic. He was dealing
therefore with the meaning of utterances rather than the meaning of individual words.
Another philosopher of Antiquity who had a contribution to the birth of semantics was Aristotle.
His works (Organon, Rhetorics, Poetics) mark a major contribution to language study in general,
and to semantics, in particular. He approached language from the point of view of a logician and
was interested in the following issues:

What is there to know about the world?

How men know it?

How they express this knowledge in language.

He also identified the lexical level of language analysis the aim of which was to study the
meaning of words either in isolation or in syntactic constructions. This marks his own
contribution to semantics.
The Middle Ages
During the Middle Ages an important contribution to linguistics and semantics was brought by a
group of philosophers called the Modistae because of their writings entitled On the Modes of
Signification. These writings were some kind of speculative grammars in which semantics
considerations held an important position. The Modistae adopted the thesei point of view of the
ancient philosophers and their efforts were directed towards pointing out the ways in which we
can know things and the various ways of signifying things.
Throughout Antiquity and the Middle Ages, and almost until the 19th century, almost everything
that came to be known about meaning in language was the result of philosophic speculation and
logical reasoning. Philosophy and logic were the two important sciences which left their strong
impact on the study of linguistic meaning.
The 19th century
In the 19th century, semantics became an independent branch of linguistics. The fist works which
dealt with the study of semantic problems as we understand them today date as far as this century.
Ch. C. Reisig, a German linguist, was the first to formulate the object of study of the new science
of meaning, which he called semasiology = a historical science studying the principles governing
the evolution of meaning. Towards the end of the century, more exactly in 1877, M. Bral, a

French linguist, published an important book Essay de smantique, which in many ways marks
the birth date of semantics as a modern linguistic discipline. Bral did not only provide the name
of the new science, which became general in use, but also defined more clearly its subject matter.
The theoretical sources of semantics as outlined by Bral are:
-classical logic
- rhetorics, and
- psychology.
In following the various changes in the meaning of words, interest is focussed on identifying
certain general laws governing these changes. Some of these laws are arrived at by recourse to
the categories of logic:
-extension of meaning: eg. persona (Lat.) = face mask worn by actors characters in a play
a man, somebody a person (feminine or masculine).
- narrowing of meaning: e.g. the River may be used by a Londoner to refer to the Thames, or by
a French person to refer to the Seine.
- transfer of meaning (metaphor): e.g. the camel = the ship of the desert.
Other changes are due to a psychological approach:
-degradation of meaning: e.g. silly (Old English) = happy, poor, innocent helpless stupid.
-elevation of meaning: e.g. minister = a servant an important public official.
In the 19th century, the study of meaning was considerably enhanced by the writing of
dictionaries. Lexicography played a significant role in the development of semantics. The
dictionaries represent collections of a huge volume of data concerning the meaning of words and
the changes in their meaning throughout the history of languages. Some dictionaries resorted to
the alphabetical order of listing lexical items. Others, however, tried to arrange words according
to some more natural ties existing among them. It is in this manner that notional or
conceptual dictionaries appeared, having a tremendous importance for the progress of semantic
The 20th century
Within the process of development of the young linguistic discipline, the 1921 1931 decade
has a particular significance. This period was marked by the publication of three important books.
In 1931, Jost Trier published his Der Deutsche Wortschatz im Sinnbezirk des Verstandes (The
German vocabulary related to the semantic field of understanding). Analysing the meaning of a
set of lexical elements related to one another by their content, and thus belonging to a semantic

field, Trier reached the conclusion that they were structurally organised within this field in such
a manner, that the significative value of each element was determined by the position which it
occupied within the respective field. It was for the first time that words were no longer
approached in isolation, but analysed in terms of their position within a larger ensemble the
semantic field which, in turn, is integrated together with other fields into an even larger one
the lexicon. Unfortunately, at that time Triers valuable ideas did not enjoy broad circulation.
The second important publication of the decade mentioned above was that of Gustav Stern,
Meaning and Change of Meaning. This was an ambitious attempt at examining the component
factors of meaning and of determining the causes and directions of changes of meaning. Stern
postulated several classifications and principles which are essential in answering one of the most
important problems of semantics, namely: WHY and HOW does change of meaning occur in
linguistic forms?
The third important book, published in 1923, was co-authored by C.K. Ogden and J.A. Richards
and was entitled The Meaning of Meaning This was a book which dealt with different accepted
definitions of the word meaning, not only in linguistics, but in other disciplines, as well.
In the following decades a period of crisis in semantics appeared. Meaning was completely
ignored in linguistics, particularly due to the position adopted by Leonard Bloomfield1, who
considered that the study of meaning was outside the scope of (semantics) linguistics proper. He
believed that the study of meaning should be the object other sciences, such as philosophy,
psychology, sociology and anthropology. Reference to semantics was only made in extremis,
when the various linguistic theories were not able to integrate the complexity of linguistic events
within a unitary system. Thus, semantics was considered some kind of dumping place, a vast
container in which all language facts that were difficult to formulate could be disposed of.
In the last years of the 60s, semantics was given again due attention. Nowadays, the various
linguistic theories admit that no language description can be regarded as being complete without
including facts of meaning in its analysis. A specific feature of modern research in linguistics is
the ever growing interest in the problem of meaning.

Leonard Bloomfield (1887-1949), American linguist who had a strong formative influence on structural linguistics.

1.3. Definition and object of semantics
In linguistic terminology, the word semantics is used to designate the science of word-meaning.
However, the term has acquired a number of senses in contemporary science and, at the same
time, it has sometimes been replaced by other terms that cover the same area of study (i.e. the
study of meaning), such as semasiology and semiotics. But, there is a clear distinction between
semantics and the other two terms and branches of linguistics.
The term semasiology (Introduced by Ch. Reisig) should be kept for a more restricted usage, in
opposition to onomasiology. Semasiology stands for the study of meaning starting from the
signifier (i.e. the acoustic/graphic image) of a linguistic sign and examining the possible
signified attached to it. Onomasiology, on the other hand, accounts for the opposite direction of
study, i.e. from the signified to the various signifiers that may stand for it. Therefore we need to
linger for a while on the terminology used in the study of meaning and to point out the main
concern in the science devoted to the study of meaning.
On particular meaning of the term semantics is used to designate a new science, general
semantics, which is the psychological and pedagogical doctrine founded by Alfred Korzybsky
(1933), aiming at the general improvement of human beings by better training them in the use of
words. General semantics points out that there is a dialectic interdependence between language
and thought in the sense that language does not merely serve to express thought, but takes an
active part in the moulding of thought.
In the more general science of SEMIOTICS (the study of signs), the term semantics is used in 2
a) theoretical (pure) semantics, whish aims at formulating an abstract theory of meaning in the
process of cognition and therefore belongs to logic;
b) empirical (linguistic) semantics, which studies meaning in natural languages, i.e. the
relationship between linguistic signs and their meanings.
Of the two types of semantics, it is the latter that falls within the scope of linguistics. However,
even within the narrower field of linguistics, the term is far from having a unique and commonly
agreed upon usage. Differences in usage refer mostly to the definition and object of study.
The most commonly agreed upon definition of semantics remains the one given by M. Bral as
the science of the meanings of words and of the changes in their meaning. With this definition,

semantics is included under lexicology, the more general science of words, being its most
important branch. In this capacity, as a sub-branch of lexicology, semantics is concerned with:

the identification, definition and evolution of the meaning of words;

the uncovering of the multiple relations established among words;

the possibility of analysing the meaning of words into component elements of meaning,
which are shared by a set of words in various combinations, characteristic of each item;

the analysis of those lexical items which are larger than just one word (i.e. compounds) into
meanings which are not simply the sum of the meanings of the component words.

With the advent of generative, grammar, emphasis has been switched from the meaning of
words to the meaning of sentences. Semantic analysis will be required:

to explain how sentences are understood by the speakers of a language;

to explain the relation existing among sentences, namely:

why certain sentences are anomalous, though grammatically correct: e.g. Colourless
green ideas sleep furiously.
why other sentences are semantically ambiguous, since they admit several
interpretations: e.g. Flying planes can be dangerous.
other sentences are synonymous or paraphrases of each other: e.g. She would water her
plants every day/She used to water her plants every day.

Still, much of the information required to provide an answer to these problems is carried by the
lexical items themselves.


Chapter 2. The problem of meaning (explanations of the word meaning)

One classical problem of semantics is that of what we mean when we refer to the meaning a
word or a sentence has. In order to answer this question we have to give a coherent account of
There are 3 main ways in which linguists and philosophers have attempted to construct
explanations of meaning in natural languages:
a) by defining the nature of word meaning;
b) by defining the nature of sentence meaning;
c) by explaining the process of communication.
In the first case, lexical/word meaning is taken as the construct (i.e. something constructed by
mental synthesis) in terms of which sentence meaning and communication can be explained.
In the second situation, it is sentence meaning which is taken as basic, with words characterised
in terms of the systematic contribution they make to sentence meaning.
In the third, both sentence and word meaning are explained in terms of the ways in which
sentences and words are used in the act of communication.
The existence of these 3 types has an explanation. In the first place, there is a relation between
words (on the one hand) and objects and actions (on the other hand), and one of the tasks of
semantics is to explain this relation.
Similarly, sentences are used to describe events, beliefs, opinions, and again it is the task of
semantics to explain the nature of the relation between sentences and the states of affairs those
sentences describe.
Finally, since language is the vehicle by means of which we communicate, it is arguable that the
interpretation of language should be explained in terms of its role in communication.
Moreover, these 3 aspects of meaning, i.e. word meaning, sentence meaning and communication
are reflected in different uses of the word MEAN.
Corresponding to a) word meaning: SPINSTER means unmarried woman;

Corresponding to b) sentence meaning: JAMES MURDERED BILL means that someone
called James deliberately killed someone called Bill.
In these 2 uses, the word MEAN has a meaning approximating the verb to indicate/to show.
But the word MEAN is used in a different sense in the following conversation between speakers
A and B, a sense which corresponds to explanation c) what he means to say:
A: Are you going to bed soon?
B: What do you mean?
A: I mean that Im tired, and the sooner you go to bed, the sooner I can.
Consider the following example:
I mean to be here tomorrow (MEAN= to intend)
In the last two examples, MEAN is attributed to speakers and has the same meaning as the
expression to intend.
Thus we have at least 3 possible starting points from which to construct an explanation of
meaning + the signification of words, the interpretation of sentences, or what a speaker is
intending to convey in the act of communication. Most traditional explanations of meaning
constitute an attempt at explaining meaning in terms of the naming relation that holds between a
word and its object.
2.1. Definitions of meaning
The two best-known theories of meaning are:
A) the sign theory of F. de Saussure (1922);
B) the semiotic triangle of Odgen and Richards (1931).
A) The simplest and most obvious concept of meaning is to regard it as a bipolar relation
between two independent sides of a linguistic sign, i.e. between EXPRESSION (Saussures
signifier, more strictly a sound image) and CONTENT (Saussures signified or concept).
According to Saussure, these two elements of the LS are linked by a psychological associative
bond. Both the noises we make and the objects in the world that we talk about are mirrored in
some way by the conceptual entities.
This, in fact, can be said of any sign, irrespective of the semiotic system to which it belongs. One
would be tempted to equate meaning with content.

B) Ogden and Richards (1931) saw the relationship as a triangle, pointing out that there are at
least 3 factors involved in any symbolic act:

the symbol itself, in our case the material aspect phonic or graphic of the LS;

the thought or reference , which stands for the mental content that accompanies the
occurrence of the symbol in the minds of both speaker and listener;

the object itself (the referent) designated by the symbol.

THOUGHT (reference)

SYMBOL (word)

(thing) REFERENT

Figure 1. Ogden and Richards triangle of signification

While the relations symbol reference and reference referent are direct & causal ones, in that
the symbol expresses or symbolises the reference, which, in turn, refers to the referent, the
relation symbol referent is an imputed, indirect one.
Of the three sides of the triangle, only the right-hand side can be left out in a linguistic account
of meaning (of interest to psychologists and philosophers). Linguists have directed their attention
towards the other two sides. Hence two basic types of meaning definitions: REFERENTIAL
definitions, which analyse meaning in terms of the relationship symbol-object, and
CONCEPTUAL definitions, that regard the relation, and CONCEPTUAL definitions, that regard
the relation symbol thought.

REFERENTIAL definitions of meaning

TENET: meaning is taken to be outside the word itself; meaning = an extralinguistic entity.
1) these definitions reduce the LS to its material (phonic/graphic) aspect alone. This would mean
leaving meaning to a large extent undefined, for it is debatable to what extent the characteristic
traits of an object as an extralinguistic reality, are identical with the distinctive features of lexical
meaning as a linguistic reality. (e.g. woman [+ A, +H, +AD, -Male]; but woman [
big mouth, etc.

]+/- long hair,

2) not all words have a referent in the outside world: e.g. ghost, unicorn, elf. The reverse is also
true, namely that there are words with an identical referent, but with clearly different meanings:
the Morning Star and the Evening Star (common referent; planet Venus).

CONCEPTUAL definitions of meaning

- meaning defined in terms of the other possible relation in the basic triangle the relation
symbol thought. In other words, it is proposed to define meaning in terms of the notion, the
concept, or the mental image of the object/situation in reality, as reflected in mans mind, which
can be transferred from the mind of the speaker to the mind of the hearer by embodying them in
the form of one language or another.
The identification of meaning with concept will not help us to answer the Q: What is meaning?,
unless the term concept is clearly defined. As it is commonly employed, the term is too vague, or
too general to be taken as a foundation stone in the conceptual theory of meaning. What is there
common among the concepts associated with the following words: the, for, I, first, year, little,
school, boy, development, name? In some cases, we might reasonably say that the associated
concept is a visual image of some kind. But we cannot surely maintain this view with respect to
words like the, for or name. Even for the cases for which it is plausible to think of concepts as
visual images, this creates more problems than it solves. Take, for example the word boy. I can
visualise a boy in my minds eye, but I do not do so every time I utter the word boy. More
reasonably would be to say that I relate my utterance of the word boy to some more abstract
concept. But this would not be of much help what is this abstract concept, what is his age,
colour of eyes/hair, shape of face, height, etc?
Mental images associated with a certain word by different people, are variable and full of detail.
Very often there is little or nothing that is common to these detailed and very personal images.
And yet, we still wish to say that, in general, people use words with more or less the same
meaning. There is no evidence to suggest that the visual images that we can call up, voluntarily
or involuntarily, in association with particular words are an essential part of the meaning of those
Semantic studies have used mainly such conceptual definitions of meaning, taking it for granted
that for a correct understanding of meaning it is necessary to relate it to that reflection in our
mind of the general characteristics of objects and phenomena. Any study of meaning which takes
into account the close relationship between language and thought cannot ignore this aspect of

language meaning. On the other hand, complete identification of meaning with concept or notion
is not possible either. This would mean depriving meaning of any objective foundation.
Furthermore, languages provide whole categories of words (proper names for one, but also
prepositions, conjunctions, etc.). It has been argued that even in the case of notional words, the
notion (concept) may be regarded as being both wider and narrower than meaning. The former
has a universal character, the latter a specific character. The meaning of a word can be defined
only within a given language.
In practice we all know that a word has to have a meaning. Knowing the meaning of a word
means that we can do a number of things: we can use it properly and we can explain it to others
in terms of paraphrase or synonyms. But it does not follow from this that there is an entity that is
MEANING, or a whole group of entities that ARE the meaning of words.
From all this we could conclude that the problem of semantics is not to search for an elusive
entity called MEANING, but rather an attempt to understand how it is that words and sentences
can mean at all, or how they can be meaningful.


Chapter 3: Motivation of meaning

The physei thesei controversy of the antique philosophers concerning the way in which words
acquire their names has been settled in favour of the physei theory by modern linguists.
Ferdinand de Saussures statement that the linguistic sign is arbitrary, in the sense that there is
no direct relationship between the sound sequence (the signifier) and the idea expressed by it (the
signified) was taken for granted in the study of language. However, the discussion on the
arbitrary character of the linguistic sign in the late thirties and early forties proved that the
problem is not as simple as it might seem. To begin with, as Benveniste (1940) pointed out, to a
certain extent the relationship between the signifier and the signified is not arbitrary, on the
contrary, it is a necessary one.
What Benveniste had in mind was the fact that there must be a necessary signified attached to a
signifier in order for the linguistic sign (LS) to discharge its function. But in addition to this
obviously correct statement, there are numerous words in all languages in which a special
correlation may be said to exist between meaning and sound. These words include in the first
place INTERJECTIONS and ONOMATOPOEIA, which are somehow imitative of nonlinguistic sounds, as well as those instances in which it can be said that some sounds are
somehow associated with certain meanings, in the sense that they suggest them. This latter
aspect is known as phonetic symbolism.
In addition to these cases, which are marginal in the language, there is also another instance in
which the meaning of words may be said to be related to their forms, i.e. the possibility of
analysing the LSs by reference to the smaller meaningful elements of which they are made up.
Indeed, complex (derivative and compound) words can be analysed from the point of view of
meaning of their constituent morphemes.
It is obvious that while the general principle remains valid, i.e. that there is no inherent reason
why a given concept should be paired to a given string of sounds, it is the linguists task to
examine those instances when it is possible to sat something about the meaning of the LS by
reference to its sound and grammatical structure, in other words it is necessary to assess the
extent to which there is some motivation in the case of at least a number of words in the

Motivation is viewed as a manifestation of the theoretical category of condition. Linguistic signs
are said to be more or less motivated to the extent to which their inner organisation is not
altogether accidental.
There are two main types of linguistic motivation postulated by F. de Saussure: absolute and
relative motivation.
1. Absolute motivation includes linguistic signs whose sound structure reproduces certain
features of their content. There is a quasi-physical resemblance between their signifier and the
signified .There are several classes of linguistic signs which can be said to be absolutely
a) Interjections. It would be wrong to consider that interjections somehow depict exactly the
physiological and psychological states they express. The fact that interjections differ in sound
from one language to another is the best proof of it. Compare, for instance, the Romanian
interjections au!, aoleu!, vai! and the English ouch!, which may be used in similar situations.
b) Onomatopoeia. The same holds true for onomatopoeic words. Despite the relative similarity in
the basic phonetic substance of words meant to imitate the sounds of animals or other sounds and
noises, their phonological structure follows the rules of patterns and arrangement characteristic
of each separate language. Compare the following examples:


An even more illustrative example, picked from a French magazine EHOS No.67/1992, is
represented by the sound produced by the cock:
French: cocorico, English: cock-a-doodle-doo, German: kikeriki, Dutch: kukeluku, Italian:
chicchirichi, Spanish: quiquiriqui, Portuguese: cocoroco, Romanian: cucurigu, Greek:
koukoupikou, Finish: kukkokkiekuu, Sweedish/Norwegian: kuckeliku, Danish: kykliky, Polish:
kukuryky, Russian: kykapeky.
c) Phonetic symbolism. This is based on the assumption that certain sounds may be associated
with particular ideas or meanings, because they somehow seem to share some attributes usually
associated with the respective referents. The problem of phonetic symbolism has been debated in

linguistics and psychology, and numerous experiments have been made without reaching very
conclusive results.
Otto Jesperson (1920) paid particular attention to the phonetic motivation of words and tried to
give the character of law to certain sound and meaning associations. On the basis of ample
evidence provided by a great variety of languages, he maintained that the front, close vowel [i]
suggests the idea of smallness, rapidity and weakness.
English: little, slim, kid, bit, flip, tip, pinch, flicker, twinkle
German: bisschen
French: petit
Italian: piccolo
Romanian: mic, pic
Of course, one can find counter examples e.g. big but on the whole, it doesnt seem
unreasonable to argue that a given sound, or sequence of sounds is associated to a given meaning.
Eduard Sapir (1929) maintained that a contrast can be established between [I] and [a] in point of
the size of referents in the names of which they appear, so that words containing [a] usually have
referents of larger size, e.g. Rom. mic vs. mare, Engl. little vs. large.
A similar finding was reported by Newman (1933) who found a systematic relationship between
the vowels arranged along the close-open axis and the scale of sizes arranged from small to large,
in the sense that larger sizes are associated with larger oral cavity characteristic of open vowels.
At the same time he pointed out that very often the initial cluster of consonants gives an
indication of meaning of a rather special kind. Thus, words beginning with:

sl- are slippery in some way: slide, slip, slush, sluice, sludge; or are merely pejorative:
slut, slang, sly, sloppy;

sk- refer to surface or superficiality: skate, skim, skid, skin

sn-/fl- suggest rapid movement: snap, flicker.

On the other hand, almost all the words ending in ump refer to some kind of roundish mass:
plump, chump, rump, hump, stump.
But one should not generalise too far. Not every word with these phonological characteristics
will have the meaning suggested.

2. Relative motivation. In the case of the relatively motivated LSs, it is not the sounds, which
somehow evoke the meaning; whatever can be guessed about the meaning of such words is a
result of the analysis of the smaller linguistic signs, which are included in them. Relative
motivation involves a much larger number of words in the language than absolute motivation.
There are 3 types of relative motivation:
a) Motivation by derivation. An analysis of the use of derivational means to create the new
words in the language will reveal its importance for the vocabulary of a language. The prefix
{in-}, phonologically realised in various ways (i.e. im-, ir-, il-) and meaning either not or in/into,
appears in at least 2,000 English words: inside, impossible, enclose, embrace, irregular, etc.
Similarly, the Latin capere (to take) appears in a great number of English words: capture,
captivity, capsule, caption, reception, except, principal, etc.
Brown (1964) tried to give keys to the meanings of over 14,000 words which can be analysed in
terms of combinations between 20 prefixes and 14 roots.




away, down
between, among
across, beyond




hold, have
bear, carry

These examples alone are sufficient to indicate the importance of relative motivation for the
analysis of meaning. It could be wrong to assume that the derivational form of words does not
suggest to a speaker of English anything about its meaning.
b) Motivation by compounding. In the case of compounds, there is a problem with what St.
Ullmann (1962) called transparent and opaque words.
Transparent words are those words whose meanings can be determined from the meaning of
their parts (e.g. chopper, doorman, greenhouse or blackboard), while opaque words are those for
which this is impossible, i.e. one cannot guess their meanings (e.g. blackleg, legman).
The comparison with other languages, German in particular, is interesting:










This suggests not only that one word may be seen as consisting of several bits of meaning, but
also that the number of bits is arbitrary.
c) Derived compounds represent a special class of words created on the basis of two wordformation rules, i.e. composition and derivation.

heavy smoker is not a smoker who is heavy

artificial florist

amusing examples; they are ambiguous.

criminal lawyer
It is obvious therefore that the lexicon of a language presents items which differ in the degree in
which their meaning can be said to be motivated. While some are opaque, i.e. their sounds give
no indication of their meaning, others are more or less transparent, in that one can arrive at some
idea of their meaning by recourse to their phonetic shape or to their derivational structure or to
some semantic relations that can be established with other words in the language.
Synchronically, any language contains both words with a motivated sound structure and words
with unmotivated sound structure. Each of these types has advantages and disadvantages. In
the case of unmotivated words the advantage lies in the fact that they are not redundant and their
meanings are more clearly revealed and grasped identically bay all speakers. On the other hand,
these words are more difficult to memorize. If there were only such words in a language, it
would mean having a large number of basic words (roots). Such relations as polysemy and
homonymy would not exist.
In the case of motivated (analysable) words, the advantage lies in that they are easy to memorise,
the meaning is found out without any difficulty; on the basis of a small number of words we can
easily form others. The disadvantage is sometimes determined by the length of the sound
structure, by the faulty grasping of the meaning because of some false morphological analyses.
We also have to take into account the danger of false etymologies (sensible vs. sensitive).


Chapter 4: Seven types of meaning

We have seen that some linguists would like semantics to pursue the study of meaning in a wide
sense of all that is communicated by language; others limit it in practice to the study of logical
or conceptual meaning. But, by carefully distinguishing types of meaning, we can show how
they all fit in the total composite effect of linguistic communication, and to show how methods
of study appropriate to one type may not be appropriate to another.
Geoffrey Leech (1990) breaks down meaning in its widest sense into seven different ingredients,
giving primary importance to logical meaning or conceptual meaning. The other types are:

connotative meaning;
social meaning;
affective meaning;
reflected meaning;
collocative meaning and
thematic meaning.

C.M. (sometimes called denotative or cognitive meaning) is widely assumed to be the central
factor in linguistic communication, and it can be shown to be essential to the functioning of
language in a way that other types of meaning are not. Still, we cannot say that CM is the most
important element of every act of linguistic communication. The chief reason why Leech assigns
priority to CM is that it has a complex organisation of a kind which may be compared with
similar organisation on the syntactic and phonological levels of language. In his opinion there are
two structural principles that seem to lie at the basis of all linguistic patterning:
-the principle of CONTRASTIVENESS;
-the principle of STRUCTURE.
Contrastive features underlie the classification of sounds in phonology, for example, in that any
label we apply to a sound defines it positively, by what features it possesses, but also negatively,
by what features it does not possess. Thus, the phonetic symbol /b/ can be described as (+bilabial,
+voiced, +plosive, - nasal). We assume that the distinctive sounds or phonemes of a language are
identifiable in terms of binary contrast. In a similar way, the conceptual meanings of a language
can be studied in terms of contrastive features, so that, for example, the meaning of the word
woman could be specified as [+H, -Male, +Adult], as distinct from, say boy, which could be
defined as [+H, +M, - Ad].

The principle of structure is the principle by which larger linguistic units are built up of smaller
units. Looking at the issue from the opposite point of view, we may say that it is the principle by
which we are able to analyse a sentence syntactically into the constituent parts, moving from its
immediate constituents through a hierarchy of sub-divisions, to its ultimate constituents. This
aspect of organisation of language is often given visual display in a tree-diagram,










or it can be represented by bracketing: {(No) (man)} { [(is)] [(an) (island)]}.

It has long been taken for granted that the syntax of a language is to be handled in such terms,
but it is now widely accepted that the semantics of natural languages has its own counterpart of
syntactic structure.
The two principles of contrastiveness and constituent structure represent the way language is
organised on what linguists have termed the PARADIGMATIC (selectional) and the
SYNTAGMATIC (combinatory) axes of linguistic structure. Leech mentions a third generally
acknowledged principle of linguistic organisation, according to which a piece of language is
structured simultaneously on more than one level. At least the following three levels seem to be
necessary for a full account of the linguistic competence by which we are able to generate and
understand utterances:




This means that for the analysis of any sentence, we need to establish a phonological, a syntactic
and a semantic representation, as well as the stages by which one level of representation can be
derived from another. The aim of conceptual semantics is to provide, for any given interpretation

of a sentence, a configuration of abstract symbols, which is its semantic representation, and
which shows exactly what we need to know if we are to distinguish that particular meaning from
all other possible sentence meanings in the language, and to match that meaning with the right
syntactic and phonological expression.
From this account it follows that conceptual meaning is an essential part of what language is,
such that one can scarcely define language without referring to it. A language which
communicated by other means than by conceptual meaning (e.g. a language which
communicates solely by means of expletive words like Oh!, Ah!, Oho!, Alas!) would not be a
language at all in the sense in which we apply that term to the tongues of men.
More of what is distinctive about conceptual meaning will appear when we contrast it with
connotative meaning. Connotative meaning is the communicative value an expression has by
virtue of what it refers to, over and above its purely conceptual content. To a large extent, the
notion of reference overlaps with conceptual meaning. If the word woman is defined
conceptually by 3 features [+Human, -Male, +Adult], then the 3 properties must provide a
criterion for the correct use of the word. These contrastive features, translated into real world
terms, become attributes of the referent. But there is a multitude of additional, non-criterial
properties that we expect a referent of woman to posses. They include not only physical
characteristics (biped, having a womb and breasts), but also psychological and social properties
(gregarious, subject to maternal instinct), and may extend to features, which are merely typical of
womanhood (capable of speech, experienced in cookery, skirt/dress wearing). Moreover,
connotative meaning can embrace the putative properties of the referent, due to the viewpoint
adopted by an individual, or a group of people. So, in the past, woman has been given such
attributes as [frail, prone to tears, emotional, inconstant], as the dominant male has been pleased
to impose on her.
Connotations vary from age to age, from society to society (see the status of women in Iraq vs.
America), from individual to individual within the same speech community.
In talking about connotation, we are actually speaking about the real world experience one
associates with an expression when he uses or hears it. Connotation is somehow incidental to
language rather than an essential part of it.

Connotations refer to the associations that words have for us. Psychologists have long been
aware that in addition to naming things. Words carry overtones of meaning which colour our
reactions to them. Words can conjure up associations that may affect our attitude and our
response to an utterance which contains them.
In an early word-association experiment carried out by Kent and Rosenoff in 1910, 1000 people
were given the stimulus word chair and were asked to write the words which first came to their
minds in connection with it. Nearly 60% of the sample answered with table, seat, furniture, sit or
sitting. 107 of the subjects gave as their first response words which seem to indicate some kind
of evaluatory association: comfort, convenience, rest, idle, pleasure.
If people react to lexical items in this way, with value judgements, sensations of like and dislike
and so on, then it is important to know both in what ways they respond to words and the degree
to which it may influence them in their reaction to speakers who use them. A much more direct
way of getting such connotative or associative meaning is to ask speakers to rate words on scales
such as good/bad, pleasant-unpleasant, strong-weak, fast-slow, etc. Even where such evaluations
appear bizarre or inappropriate, subjects manage to perform this task remarkably well, and find it
possible to indicate how rough, tasty, or hot they perceive a word such as sin. (Graddol et
all, 1994:103-105) introdus in 11.11.2009
Connotative meaning is not specific to language, but is shared by other communicative
systems, such as visual art and music. Whatever connotations the word baby has can be invoked
by a drawing/photo of a baby, or even by an imitation of a babys cry. The overlap between
linguistic and visual connotations is particularly obvious in advertising, where words are often
the lesser partners of illustrations in the task of conferring the product a halo of favourable
A second fact, which shows that connotative meaning is peripheral, as compared to conceptual
meaning, is that connotations are relatively unstable, i.e. they vary considerably according to
culture, historic period, and the experience of the individual.
Thirdly, connotative meaning is indeterminate and open-ended in a sense in which conceptual
meaning is not. Connotative meaning is open-ended in the same way as our knowledge and
beliefs about the universe are open-ended; any characteristic of the referent, identified
subjectively or objectively, may contribute to the connotative meaning of the expression which
denotes it. In contrast, it is generally taken as fundamental to semantic theory that the conceptual

meaning of a word or sentence can be codified in terms of a limited set of symbols, and that the
semantic representation of a sentence can be specified by means of a finite number of rules.
It is a meaning that a piece of language conveys about the social circumstances of its use. In part
we decode the social meaning of a text through our recognition of different dimensions and
levels of style within the same language. We recognise some words or pronunciations as being
dialectal, i.e. as telling something of the geographical or social origin of the speaker.
The following dimensions of socio-stylistic variation have been recognised:
DIALECT (the language of a geographical region or of a social class)
TIME (the language of the 18th century vs. the lg. of the 20th century)
PROVINCE/REGISTER (language of a particular field of activity: law, science, advertising)
STATUS (polite, colloquial, slang)
MODALITY (language of lectures, jokes)
SINGULARITY (the style of Dickens, Hemingway, Agatha Christie).
The list indicates something of the range of style differentiation possible within a single
e.g. steed (poetic), horse (general, neutral), nag (slang), gee-gee (baby language).
The style dimension of status is particularly important in distinguishing synonymous
e.g. a) They chucked a stone at the cops, and then did a bunk with the loot could be
uttered by criminals
b) They cast a stone at the police, and then absconded with the money might be
said by the chief inspector in making the official report. Both could be describing the same
happening, and their common ground of conceptual meaning is evident.
In a more local sense, social meaning can include what has been called the ILLOCUTIONARY
FORCE of an utterance: for example, whether it is to be interpreted as a request, an assertion, an
apology, a threat, etc. The function an utterance performs in this respect may only be indirectly
related to its conceptual meaning.
e.g. I havent got a knife - has the form and meaning of an assertion, and yet in social
reality (if said to a waiter in a restaurant) it can readily take on the force of a request such as
Please bring me a knife.

D) AFFECTIVE MEANING reflects the personal feelings of the speaker, including his attitude
to the listener or his attitude to something he is talking about. Affective meaning is often
explicitly conveyed through the conceptual or connotative content of the words used. Someone
who is addressed:

- You are a vicious tyrant and I hate you for that

is left in little doubt as to the feeling of the speaker towards him. But there are less direct ways of
disclosing our attitude than this, for example, by scaling our remarks according to politeness.
With the object of getting people to be quiet, we might say the following:

Im terribly sorry to interrupt you, but I wonder if you would be so kind as to lower your
voice a little.

Will you belt up!

Factors such as intonation and voice timbre are also important here. The impression of politeness
in the first sentence can be reversed by a tone of biting sarcasm; the second sentence can be
turned into a playful remark between intimates if delivered with the intonation of a mild request.
Affective meaning is largely a parasitic category in the sense that, to express our emotions, we
rely upon the mediation of other categories of meaning, i.e. conceptual, connotative or stylistic.
On the other hand, there are elements of language (chiefly interjections like Aha!, Yippee!)
whose chief function is to express emotion. When we use these, we communicate feelings and
attitudes without the mediation of any other kind of semantic function.
Two further, though less important types of meaning involve an interconnection on the lexical
level of language.
Reflected meaning is the meaning that arises in cases of words with multiple conceptual
meanings, when one sense of a word forms part of our response to another sense. On hearing in a
church service the synonymous expressions The Comforter and The Holy Ghost, both referring
to the Third Person of the Trinity, the reaction of some people may be conditioned by the everyday non-religious meanings of comfort and ghost. The Comforter sounds warm and
comforting (although in the religious context it means the strengthener or supporter), while the
Holy Ghost sounds awesome.

One sense of a word seems to rub off another sense in this way, only when it has a dominant
suggestive power, either through relative frequency and familiarity (as in the case of The Holy
Ghost), or through the strength of the association.
The cases where reflected meaning intrudes through the sheer strength of emotive suggestion are
most strikingly illustrated by words which have a taboo meaning. Since their popularization in
senses connected with the physiology of sex, it has become increasingly difficult to use terms
like intercourse, ejaculation, erection and rubber in innocent sense without conjuring up their
sexual associations. This process of taboo contamination has accounted in the past for the dyingout of the non-taboo senses of a word: cook, in its farmyard sense, is replaced by rooster due to
the influence of the taboo use of the former.
Collocative meaning consists of the associations acquired on account of the meanings of words
which tend to occur in its environment. Pretty and handsome share common ground in the
meaning of good-looking, but may be distinguished by the range of nouns with which they are
likely to co-occur or collocate.





The ranges may overlap: handsome woman and pretty woman are both acceptable, although they
suggest a different kind of attractiveness because of the collocative associations of the two
Some words are collocationally restricted, in that they occur only in conjunction with other
rancid -bacon

addled -eggs

wander/stroll (cows may wander, but not


This does not seem to be a matter of their meaning, but of the company they keep.
Not all differences in potential co-occurrence need to be explained as collocative meaning: some
may be due to stylistic differences, others to conceptual differences:

e.g. stylistic difference: The knight mounted his steed
Little Tommy got on his gee-gee.
conceptual difference: The donkey ate hay
The donkey ate silence.
Only when explanation in terms of other categories of meaning does not apply do we need to
invoke the special category of collocative meaning: on the other levels, generalizations can be
made, while collocative meaning is simply an idiosyncratic property of individual words.
Languages differ in the collocational ranges of their words. In English, we distinguish between
between wiping our nose, brushing our teeth and polishing our shoes, whereas in German the
term putzen can be used for all these activities (Stork and Widdowson, 1974, quoted in Graddol
et all, 1994:110).
Cliches are born when a word occurs very frequently in a particular collocation. The word may
may then lose some of its semantic force, because we become used to thinking of the phrase as
a single unit. Some examples from everyday English are last but not least and the more the
merrier. Different professions tend to coin their own clichs: estate agents, for example, talk of
a wealth of exposed beams and tastefully decorated throughout.
Habitual collocations often reflect social conventions and social attitudes: the collocations of the
words pretty and handsome, for example, indicate that we categorize good looks for men and
women separately. This is one way that language can perpetuate social divisions. (Graddol et al,
Reflected meaning and collocative meaning, affective meaning and social meaning, all these
have more in common with connotative meaning than with conceptual meaning: they all have
the same open-ended, variable character, and lend themselves to analysis in terms of scales or
ranges. They can all be brought together under the heading ASSOCIATIVE MEANING. We can
contrast them with conceptual meaning because conceptual meaning seems to require the
postulation of intricate mental structures, which are specific to language and the human species.
F) THEMATIC MEANING is the meaning of what is communicated by the way in which a
speaker or writer organizes the message, in terms of ordering, focus and emphasis. It is often
felt, for example, than an active sentence such as

(1) Mrs. Betty Smith donated the first prize

WHAT did Mrs. Smith donate?

has a different meaning from its passive equivalent:

(2) The first prize was donated by Mrs. Betty Smith. WHO was the first prize donated by?
although in conceptual content they seem to be the same.
Certainly these have different communicative values in that they suggest different contexts: the
active sentence seems to answer an implicit question: What?, while the passive sentence
seems to answer an implicit question: Who was the first prize donated by?. This means that (1),
in contrast to (2), suggests that we know who Mrs. B. Smiths is (perhaps through a previous
mention). The same truth-conditions, however, apply to each: it would be impossible to find a
situation in which (1) was an accurate report, while (2) was not, or vice-versa.
Thematic meaning is mainly a matter of choice between alternative grammatical constructions,
as in:
(3) A man is waiting in the hall.
(4) Theres a man waiting in the hall.
(5) They stopped at the end of the corridor
(6) At the end of the corridor, they stopped.
(7) I like Danish cheese.
(8) Danish cheese I like best.
(9) Its Danish cheese that I like best.

Q; Where did they stop?

Q: What did they do at the end of the
What do I like?
Which cheese do I like best?

In other cases, it is the stress or intonation, rather than grammatical construction that highlights
information in one part of a sentence.
(10) I asked the captain Mr. Brown.
(11) John said his girlfriend is a student.
(12) Bill uses an electric razor

vs. Bill uses an electric razor.

The effect is to focus attention on that word which contains the new information, against a
background of what is already assumed to be known (i.e. that Bill uses a razor).

Demarcation problems

As far as the 7 types of meaning are concerned, there are always problems of demarcation and
of separating conceptual meaning from the more peripheral categories. The difficulty in
delimiting conceptual from connotative meaning is parallel in other borderline areas, such as
that between conceptual and socio-stylistic meaning.

(13) He stuck the key in his pocket.
(14) He put the key in his pocket.


We could argue that the two sentences are conceptually synonymous, and that the difference
between the two is a matter of style. On the other hand, we could maintain that the shift in style
is combined with a conceptual difference: that to stick in a context such as (13) has a more
precise denotation than to put in (14), and could be roughly defined as to put carelessly and
quickly. There is support for the second explanation in the slight oddity of the following
(13a) *He stuck the key slowly in his pocket.
(13b) *He stuck the key carefully in his pocket.
As a second illustration of the demarcation problems, we may take as a case on the border
between conceptual and collocative meaning that of the verbs smile and grin. Do these words
have different conceptual meanings, or is it just that the range of expressions with which they
habitually combine is different.
(15) The Queen smiled graciously as she shook hands with her guests.
(16) The gargoyles grinned hideously from the walls of the castle.
Few would hesitate over which of the two words to use in these sentences.
The question is whether such differences in collocation spring from different conceptual and
connotative content: whether, for example, a grin can be defined as a broader, toothier and more
potentially hostile expression than a smile, and is more likely to be found on the face of a
gargoyle than that of a queen. This is a particularly complex case in that the differences between
social and affective meaning are also clearly implicated.
Intended meaning is that which is in the mind of the speaker when he is framing his message,
and the interpreted meaning is that which is conveyed to the mind of the hearer/listener when he
receives the message.
Meaning, in its broader sense, is equated with the communicative effect, and communication
usually means transfer of information from a source (A) to a target (B). On this basis, one might
argue that communication has only taken place if we know that what was in mind (A) has been
transferred to mind (B). It is natural, then, that studies of meaning (particularly in philosophy)
should have devoted much attention to the question of the relation between meaning, intention
and interpretation. In spite of this, a linguist may feel entitled to ignore the difference between

the intention of a message and its effect, because he is interested in studying the communication
system itself. He is interested in studying the semantic aspect of the language, which we may
assume to be common to the minds (A) and (B), and this includes incidentally studying
ambiguities and other aspects of language which can cause miscommunication. But the
important point is that meaning, for semantics, is neutral between speakers meaning and
hearers meaning. And this is surely justifiable, since only through knowing the neutral
potentialities of the medium of communication itself can we investigate differences between
what a person intends to convey and what he actually conveys.

Chapter 5: The componential analysis of meaning

The most significant development in semantic theory based on the isomorphism between
language expression and content is the componential analysis. Componential analysis assumes
that all meanings can be analysed into distinctive semantic features called semes/semantic
components/semantic primitives. This form of analysis was used in particular by anthropologists
seeking to give an account of kinship terminology in various cultures. Given the items:
1. father

5. uncle

2. mother

6. aunt

3. son

7. nephew

4. daughter

8. niece

one can arrive at a number of semantic features (semes) by examining the relations obtainable
among them. Thus, by opposing 1, 3, 5, 7 to 2, 4, 6, 8, the feature of sex will be uncovered: a=
male, -a= female.
Opposing 1,2,3,4 to 5,6,7,8 we will come to another semantic feature, namely the line distinction,
which can be further analysed into b= direct line, -b= indirect line.
By a similar procedure which opposes 1,2,5,6 to 3,4,7,8 one arrives at the generation seme, with
2 possible distinctions: c=older generation, -c=younger generation.
Each element can now be represented as an individual grouping of these 3 semes:
-father: a, b, c

uncle: a,-b, c

-mother: -a, b, c

aunt:-a,-b, c

-son: a, b,-c

nephew: a,-b,-c

-daughter; -a, b, -c

niece: -a, -b, -c.

The analysis of meaning into semes leads therefore to a relatively small number of semantic
features which are to be encountered in a large number of meanings.
The semes are arrived at by comparing various lexical items in the language. Thus, the set of
English words denoting furniture intended for sitting are defined in a dictionary as follows:
stool: made of wood or metal; having 3-4 legs; short or tall; plain or upholstered.
chair: sharing all the descriptive features of stool, but also provided with a back support.
armchair: a chair which in addition to a back support is also provided with a support for arms.
bench: sharing all the descriptive features of chair, but much wider, so as to seat more people.

sofa: upholstered bench.
The semantic features which are encountered in the meanings of all these items can be
represented as follows:
lexical item

for sitting



back with

arm for



more upholstered







The diagram indicates that all items share at least one feature in common (for sitting) and all
differ by at least one feature. In a number of cases, marked by 0, the presence or absence of a
given feature is not relevant.
The isomorphism between expression and content can be carried even further. Just as on the
expression level, an archiphoneme can be identified as the result of neutralization of a distinctive
phonological opposition, on the content level, too, an archilexeme will result from neutralization
of a lexemic opposition. In the case of the term mentioned before, the archilexeme function may
be taken over by the more general of them, namely CHAIR, or it can find an expression in
another lexical item, namely SEAT. Neutralization is a very frequent phenomenon in the field of
lexis. Such terms as man, horse, sheep, etc. can be used for any member of the class of being
they designate, irrespective of the sex distinction, which, however, becomes operant whenever it
is required.
If we take the componential definitions of adult, child and man, these will illustrate that not all
semantic oppositions relevant to a given semantic field need to be operant in a given definition
within that field: child and adult are not specified for [sex], man (with the meaning of human
being) is unspecified both for [sex] and [adulthood], and the adjective female is unspecified for
both [species] and [adulthood]. We could represent this neutralization of oppositions by the
symbol 0. The more fully expressed definitions would then be:
man +HUMAN (0 MALE) (0 ADULT)
adult +HUMAN (0 MALE) (+ ADULT)

child +HUMAN (0 MALE) (- ADULT)
female (0 HUMAN (- MALE) (0 ADULT)
The delimitation of semes can also be profitably pursued by comparing the meaning of what are
considered to be equivalent lexical items in a number of languages. It becomes obvious that
features which are relevant for one language may be irrelevant for another one. A well-known
example was provided by L. Hjelmslev (1961) by comparing the terms for siblings in several

lexical items


older brother


younger brother


older sister


younger sister





English, too, has a term which may be taken to be the equivalent of sudar, namely sibling, but
its status in language is altogether different. Also in some dialects of Romanian there are distinct
terms of address for older brother (nene) and older sister (lele, a), but none for the younger
Provided the analysis is applied to an extensive number of lexical items, and provided it involves
a great number of languages, preferably unrelated, a universal inventory of semantic primitives
could be arrived at. These universal semantic features would then be part of a metalanguage to
be used in the semantic description of all languages.
5.1. The relation between lexical items and semantic components
It is essential to clarify the relation between semantic component and lexical item. The question
we have to ask is: What is the relation between [ADULT] and adult, between [MARRIED] and
married, etc?
It is generally claimed by those linguists who postulate the existence of semantic components
that the components in terms of which lexical meaning is represented are not themselves lexical
items, part of the language being described, but are part if the metalanguage2, the language or the
theoretical vocabulary set up to describe all languages. Components such as [MALE], [ADULT],

Metalanguage= a higher-level language for describing an object of study in this case the object is itself language.

NEVER MARRIED] are therefore universal constructs in terms of which such lexical items as
bachelor in English can be characterised. Items such as adult which happen to correspond to a
single semantic component [ADULT] have a unitary semantic characterisation. Now it is
particularly clear in these cases that if these semantic components are the basis on which lexical
meaning is to be explained, there must be some characterisation of [ADULT] independent of the
lexical item adult, for otherwise we have given no explanation at all. Moreover, it will not
suffice at this point merely to say that to give the meaning of a lexical item is to specify the
contribution which that item makes to the meaning of a sentence in which it occurs.
Therefore, it seems that in addition to the vocabulary of semantic components expressing
generalizations between lexical items, we need to have a principled way of relating these abstract
components to the properties or individuals that they describe.
The idea that word-meanings are composed of primitive universal semantic elements was taken
up and further developed by M. Bierwisch and R. Jackendoff. The latter assumes that the
primitive semantic elements designate some kind of a mental construct or concept. Still, his
theory fails to show how these concepts connect with what we talk about.
Dowty, a generative semanticist) used this kind of decomposition to analyse different aspectual
classes within which predicates in natural languages seem to fall. He classifies verb-phrase into:
states, activities and telic eventualities.
a) States are like snapshots of the world at a given instant; they lack culmination or end-point;
their subject is not perceived as an agent, but as an experiencer.

states typically cannot be used in the progressive: * He is drunk

states are odd in the imperative: *Be drunk!

states are bad in sentences of the form it took NP an hour (minute, year) to VP: *It took him
an hour to be drunk.

b) Activities lack culmination or end-point; they have a subject doing something; they cannot be
viewed as instantaneous snapshots of the world.

they can be used in the progressive: John is drinking.

they can be used in the imperative: Drink more!

c) Telic eventualities have a natural end-point or culmination (John fell asleep). They are of two
types, namely (1) achievements and (2) accomplishments.
-they are generally good in the progressive: John was falling asleep.
-they are generally good in the imperative: Fall asleep!

-they are good in the construction it took NP an hour (minute, year) to VP: It took John an hour
to fall asleep.
What is interesting to notice is that the interaction of a predicate with certain phrase may shift the
aspectual class of that predicate. Thus, walk classifies as an activity, since it does not have an
end-point. But once we attach a culmination point (for instance to school), the activity turns into
a telic event. In other words: activity + culmination point = telic event (walk to school).
The question that arises is how we should account for these changes? Dowty suggested the
introduction of 3 aspectual operators: DO, BECOME and CAUSE. He suggests that verbs are
defined from basic stative predicates in terms of these operators. The semantic properties of such
operators determine the properties of various aspectual classes. If we assume we are endowed
with basic stative predicates and the combinatorial apparatus of logic and the 3 operators,
predicates will form the 3 classes mentioned above (i.e. states, activities and telic events.)
Let us briefly present the three operators.
DO shows a binary relation between individuals and properties. A formula like DO (j, Motion)
translates as John moves. Assumption: MOTION is an abstract property, such that MOTION (x)
means that (x) is not static. Interpretation: something that John does causes him to be non-static.
Thus, DO is a relation between a property and an individual that says that the individual has the
property as a consequence of his doing something.
BECOME is a one-place operator3. A formula like BECOME (ALIVE) translates as to die
(to become not alive).
CAUSE is a two-place operator

Achievements and BECOME

Achievements and accomplishments are both events. An event takes place at a time if one state
(the initial state) is replaced by a second state (the final state). An example of an event would be
the opening of the window: it consists of a change from a state when the window is closed to a
state when the window is open.

Operators are verbs and adjectives that receive arguments in order to form syntactic structures. The operators can
take one, two or three arguments

Any event can be defined as a change of state, where the two states (the initial and the final ones)
are of a particular form one state is the negation of the other. An event is a change from state
p to state q, where p = q.
Dowty hypothesizes that all achievements have a semantic structure consisting of BECOME +
an embedded clause.

realise = to become [to know something which one didnt know earlier]
forget: to come [not to know what one knew earlier]
arrive at: to come[to be at a place]

A sentence like The soup cooled can be translated into the following formula: BECOME [the
soup warm]

Accomplishments and CAUSE

Accomplishments are also events, i.e. changes of states. But they are topic-marked, i.e. an
accomplishment conceptualizes not only the change of state and therefore the attainment of a
certain goal, but also the causing factor, that which produces the change. Accomplishments are
causative predications. Compare the following sentences:
a) The door is closed.


The soup is warm.

b) The door opened.

EVET (achievement)

The soup cooled.

BECOME [the door is closed]

c) John opens the door.

BECOME [the soup is warm]

EVET (accomplishment)

[John DOES something that CAUSES

door to BECOME closed]

Mother cooled the soup.

[Mother DOES something that the

CAUSES the soup to BECOME warm].

The examples show that accomplishments are conceptually more complex than achievements,
involving the operator CAUSE alongside of BECOME (verbs like to open and to cool are
inchoative verbs, i.e. they specify a change of state).
There is some evidence for the bi-sentential nature of CAUSE. The most obvious motivation of
CAUSE as a bi-sentential operator is a semantic one. Accomplishments are characterised as
being semantically bipartite in a way in which activities and achievements are not, i.e. they
involve both the notion of an activity and a change of state which comes into being as a result of
that activity. The sentence John killed Harry entails that John performed some act and Harry
came to be dead as a result of that act.

Further evidence that Dowty brings in support of his decompositional analysis involves data
about the interaction of certain adverbials (again, for the third time) with the meaning of nonstative verbs.

a) John is drunk again implies that John was drunk before.

b) John is drunk for the third time implies that there were at least three
occasions on which John was drunk.


c) John opened the door again could be interpreted in two ways:

-John CAUSED again to become open
-John caused the door to BECOME open again.

This ambiguity is determined by the way in which the adverb again combines with the two
operators that are constituent elements of accomplishments. Dowty suggests that stative
predicates like in sentence (a) above are simple, and hence adverbial modification cannot yield
any ambiguity. On the other hand, telic eventualities are complex, and an adverb can be
interpreted either with the becoming or with the causing of the resulting state or with the
resulting state itself.
All in all, Dowtys analysis of predicates is a refined form of the structural componential
5.2. Criticism and problems of the componential analysis (CA) of meaning
Componential analysis, as a theory of word meaning, is controversial. While many have found it
a useful and revealing technique for demonstrating the relations of meaning between words,
others have criticised it. Let us consider some of the criticisms that have been made.
1. It is often said that CA accounts for only some parts of a languages vocabulary (specifically
those parts which are neatly organised. If we restrict ourselves to too simple a concept of CA,
that is certainly true. But CA can be enriched to deal with a much wider range of vocabulary.
Even so, the principle that CA could deal with the whole vocabulary of a language is felt to be
implausible. To account for the immense open-ended expressive power of language we would
need an infinite number of oppositions. This objection is accepted, but should not throw out CA,
because this analysis can be fitted into a more powerful model of meaning. In this respect,
semantic features need not be regarded as atomic contrastive elements, as Geoffrey Leech
(1990) defines them, because they may have an internal structure of their own, i.e. semantic
features can be derived from configurations of other features. This recursive power of feature

creation is particularly important when considering METAPHOR and other kinds of meaning
2. CA allows us to provide definitions for words in terms of a few components of meaning. Thus,
a boar is [PORCINE], [MALE], [ADULT]. Still, there are gaps in the system, in that there are
not terms to distinguish between the male, female and young with giraffes, elephants or
rhinoceroses. Often the distinction is made by using a term taken from another set in conjugation
with the generic one:
e.g. bull elephant, cow elephant, elephant calf.
3. CA attempts to treat components (as far as possible) in terms of binary opposites, e.g. male
vs. female, animate vs. inanimate. Notationally, there is an advantage in such binary terms in
that we can choose only one as the label and distinguish this in terms of + and -. But this works
well only where there is a clear distinction; often, there is indeterminacy, as with tar or porridge
in relation to [SOLID] vs. [LIQUID].
4. It is often objected that CA suffers from a vicious circle in that it merely explains one set of
symbols (e.g. English words) by another set of symbols (which often turn out to be English
words), e.g..[ADULT] and adult.
5. CA postulates universal features of meaning, and therefore relies upon the strong assumption
that the same semantic features are found in all languages. But as we have seen in the example
provided by Hjelmslev, these semantic features are not operant in all languages.
6. It has also been claimed that CA is unexplanatory in that it does not provide for interpretation
of semantic features in terms of real-world properties and objects they refer to. For example,
[ADULT] remains an abstract, uninterpreted symbol unless we can actually specify what adults
are like, i.e. how we decide when the feature +ADULT refers to something. To expect CA to
provide an interpretation in this sense is to expect it to provide a theory not only of MEANING
but of REFERENCE, or, to put it in other words, not only of conceptual meaning, but also of
connotative meaning as well. But CA cannot have this wider goal; it is meant to explain word
sense, not the encyclopaedic knowledge which must enter into a theory of reference.
7. Words such as colour terms and days of the week cannot be analysed as differing from each
other by the simple presence or absence of a particular semantic feature.

8. It is not necessarily particularly revealing simply to list the semantic components of a word,
and even if it does seem that this can be done, we may need to say how the components are
combined. An example is the word kill, which can be analysed into the components [cause],
[become], [-alive] but for which we need, in addition, to specify that the components are ordered
in a hierarchical relationship: [cause][become] [alive] and to specify the participants (for
example X[cause]YY[become] [-alive]).
9. A further difficulty is that, although it is economical to represent semantic features as being
present or absent, it is not necessarily helpful to give the meaning of a word in terms of what it is
not, rather than in terms of what it is. The meaning of the word girl, has been analysed in terms
of the features [-adult], [-male], which do, indeed, distinguish it from boy [-adul], [+male], but
which do not tell us a great deal about the meaning of girl. (Graddol et al, 1994)
Despite all these shortcomings, CA remains one of the most advanced theories in semantics. It
has been used to bring out the logical relations that are associated with words. Thus, by marling
man as [MALE] and pregnant as [-MALE], we can rule out a phrase such as pregnant man.


Chapter 6: The distributional analysis of meaning

One of the main shortcomings of traditional semantics consists in the fact that individual words
were analysed in almost complete isolation from other items in the lexicon of a given language.
It was believed and taken for granted that words have one or more meanings which remain stable,
representing the contribution they make to any utterance in which they occur. In the case of
polysemantic words, it is the linguistic context which solves the problem of which of the
multiple meanings of the word is used in any given utterance. But traditional semantics could not
account for any relation between a given word and its actual use in different utterances. Its main
concern was to find explanations for the meanings of words, to find their origins or to follow the
changes in their meanings. On the other hand, dictionaries only listed words with as many
meanings as possible.
One of the main developments in modern semantics, the context theory of meaning, focuses on
the close relationship that can be established between the meanings of a given lexical item and
its actual use in speech. But what do we understand by CONTEXT? It is not limited to linguistic
environment alone, but it includes all other non-verbal elements which are also relevant for
In the case of meaning analysis, it is important to make the distinction between CONTEXT,
standing for the entire non-verbal environment which is linguistically relevant, and CO-TEXT,
which stands for the linguistic environment proper, for the items in the text which play a role in
specifying the meaning of a given lexical item. Modern linguistics has paid attention to the
analysis of meaning in co-textual rather than contextual terms.

Context is very important; it has a big influence upon vocabulary. This influence can be
attributed to the fact that each lexical item is characterised by suppleness and original vagueness
which makes it adequate for use in the most various situations. This makes it possible for
language to describe the most refined distinctions of reality. The result is an interplay between
lexical items and context, which is very important in defining meaning.
There are two directions in which CO-TEXT proves useful in the analysis of meaning:
a) the distribution of the same lexical item in structurally differing linguistic co-texts;
b) the distribution of different lexical items in identical or structurally similar co-texts.
We usually discuss only the first dimension, i.e. the interplay between the distribution of a
lexical item in various utterances and the meanings actualised by each of these co-texts.
Consequently, we shall analyse meaning along the syntagmatic axis.
The distributional analysis of meaning (DAM) is based on the assumption that starting from
a grammatical description of language, it is possible to engage in a semantic analysis of
lexical items in terms of their distribution. Our task is to establish some correlations between
these distributional models and the various meaning of the lexical items employed in them.
If we analyse at random some polysemantic lexical items, we will find a biunique
correlation between meaning and distribution which can be stated in the following terms:
while it is difficult to maintain that all semantic distinctions will manifest themselves in
distributional difference, it can be assumed with greater certainty that to each distributional
difference corresponds an essential semantic one.
The meaning of lexical items can be defined in two different ways along the syntagmatic axis:
a) Differences in meaning will be marked by differences in syntactic structure. This rule
applies (in the case of English, a highly analytical language) for clarifying the ambiguity of
the multiple grammatical functions of a given lexical form. The syntactic structure alone will
indicate which meaning of the lexical item HAWK is meant in the following examples:
1) a. The hawk killed the chicken. (N = bird of prey)
b. They hawk haberdashery in the outskirts of the town. (V = to sell goods from house
to house)
The syntactic structure can also disambiguated the meanings of a lexical item when used in
the same grammatical function:

2. a. The objection still stands. (Adv = even to this time)
b. The child stood still. (Adv = quiet, without movement or sound)
c. Her brother is taller still (Adv = yet, even).
b) Differences in meaning will be determined not only by the syntactic structure of the
utterances in which the respective lexical items appear, but also by the semantic markers of
the items they usually collocate with. Consequently, we are dealing with a semantic
differentiation of meaning. Examples of two major word-classes (nouns and adjectives) will
illustrate this process of meaning delimitation by reference to co-occurring elements in the
a) He was the master of the dog
master1 = owner of marked by a group of words designating persons, animals or things that
can be owned, such as slave, dog, house, ship, etc.
b) Master Heathcliff left early in the morning.
master2 = title of respect for boys; associated with proper names designating young
unmarried men.
c) Our class-master was a rather old man.
Master3 = head of; marked by a class of words such as school, station, designating
institutions that imply a collective activity which needs coordination by a head.
HIGH (a polysemantic adjective whose main meanings are differentiated by means of
a) The Tower of London is not very high.
High1 = extended upwards; this meaning is revealed in connection with a group of words
designating objects that are measured vertically, such as tower, tree, building, mountain.
b) One day, a high official came to my place.
High2 = important in rank, position or significance; this meaning is revealed in association
with words such as official, authority, treason, etc.
c) The driver changed into high gear.
Prices are very high nowadays.
Yesterday the wind was high.
High3 = intense, extreme; association with words like speed, gear, wind, temperature, price,
cost, level, favour, opinion, spirits, etc.
d) He drove fast along the highway.

High4 = main; this meaning is revealed in conjugation with such words as way, road, street.
e) She seems to speak in a high tone.
High5 = shrill; this meaning is revealed by a relatively small number of words such as voice,
tone, key.
In order to set up the distributional formulae of various lexical items with a view to analysing
their syntagmatically conditioned meanings, we will make use of the grammatical categories
provided by grammar. In order to account for the combinatory values, nouns have been divided
into structurally defined subclasses. This classification has proved to be useful for the analysis of
the combinatory valences of the English verbs and adjectives.
A (animate)
H (human)

Non-A (inanimate)

Non-H (non-human) C (concrete)

Non-C (abstract)

M (male)

F (female)

Count Non-Count



(it, they)


In what is to come, we shall try to illustrate the correlation between distribution and meaning by
means of members of two lexical classes, i.e. verbs and adjective. The meaning relations existing
between members of these classes on the one hand, and members of the class of nouns of the
other, were known to lexicographers who used them extensively in describing properly the many
shades of meaning characteristic of polysemantic lexical items.

Lexical item



Distributional formula


H +fail+H



John failed his
They failed to
climb the
Luck failed him
We often
entertain our
She has
entertained the

Not succeed
Abandon, leave
Play host to











idea for weeks

He examined
my eyes
The teacher
examined his
The boy felt the
edge of the
The dog felt the
He felt that it
was his duty to
marry her
The ground is
They struck him
Life seems flat
The fruit is
He is still green

Test knowledge of
Become aware through

Smooth, even, level
To the ground
Not ripe
Not mature, untrained,


The distributional models which are significant for the specification of various meanings of a
lexical item represent the various syntactic constructions in which this item may occur. In
English, for a lexical item belonging to the class of verbs, we have to consider the following
distributional formulae:




However, it is important to make sure that the syntactic constructions we compare are really
different. It would be useless to expect two different meanings from two distributional formulae
of the kind:

He wrote a letter.

N2+be+Past Part.+by+N1

The letter was written by him.

These two sentences are related transformationally. Consequently they will belong to one single
distributional formula in the set provided by grammar for the purpose of the distributional
analysis of the structural meaning of lexical items.

Transformational considerations are also useful to account for more refined shades of meaning
within the general meaning supplied by a certain distributional formula. Moreover, to account for
combinatory valences, sometimes we need a more detailed sub-grouping within a certain
grammatical category. For the specification of some restricted meanings, some semantic criteria
different from the semantic features revealed by the componential analysis have to be used.
The way in which transformational criteria and more refined semantic criteria are introduced into
the distributional analysis of meaning can be illustrated by an attempt to specify the meanings of
a highly polysemantic lexical item: MAKE. The aim of the analysis is to arrive at a set of
relevant distributional formulae which specify the various meanings of the word.
I. As a first distributional formula, we shall postulate N+ MAKE+N, without assigning any
specific meaning of make to it.
The syntactic sub-pattern N+V+N+N will present 2 variants for the verb MAKE:
a) H+MAKE+N1+N2 where N1 and N2 belong to different subclasses of the class of nouns
E.g. Mother made her daughter a dress (N1 is animate, N2 is inanimate)
b) H+MAKE+N1+N2 where N1 and N2 belong to the same class of nouns, i.e. they are both
animate or non-animate.
e.g. John made his son a musician (N1 and N2 are animate)
The burglar made the metal rod a weapon (N1 and N2 are inanimate)
Both constructions are transformationally related to constructions of the type:
N+MAKE+N1+N2 N+MAKE+N2+ Prep+N1
Mother made her daughter a dress Mother made a dress for her daughter.
Father made his son a musician Father made a musician of his son.
The two patterns are identical except for the prepositions. However, a clear-cut distinction will
appear when further transformational relations are investigated (i.e. if we consider the result of
the action).

N1 be N2
N1 have N2

Father made his son a musician His son is a musician.

Father made his son a toy. His son has a toy.

One further distinction appears when deletion is applied:
N+MAKE+N1+N2 N+MAKE+N2 (N1 is deleted)
Father made his son a toy. Father made [ ] a toy.
Father made his son a musician. *Father made [ ] a musician. (unacceptable)
II. A second distributional formula we will consider is N+V+N+Adverbial particle4
e.g. I try to make matters up (compensate)
You must make yourself over (you must change your manner)
It is important to note the following things in connection to this formula:

the presence of the noun in front of the adverbial particle is obligatory

only a limited number of adverbial particles (out, up, over) can appear in this formula

III. A third formula would be N+MAKE+N+Prep+N. In order to assess its significance for the
meaning of the verb MAKE, we shall distinguish 2 variants:
- sequences that allow the transformation N+MAKE+N1+Prep+N2 N+MAKE+N2+N1
e.g. He made a man of you He made you a man
Frost makes ice from water. Frost makes water ice.
- sequences that do not allow the above mentioned transformation:
e.g. He made a speech at the meeting.
The fact that this last sentence belongs to a separate pattern than the sentences above is proved
structurally, in that it allows the following transformation:
N+MAKE+N1+Prep+N2 N+Vn+Prep+N (where Vn is a verb derived from a noun).
He made a speech at the meeting He spoke at the meeting.
Such sequences can be treated as extended +MAKE+, since the additional Prep+N is not
relevant in most of the cases. Consequently, we can conclude that neither variant of
N+MAKE+N+Prep+N can constitute a significant distributional formula relevant to the meaning
of MAKE, since both can be relegated either to the pattern N+MAKE+N1+N2 (N1=N2) or to the
more general pattern N+MAKE+N, which will be discussed in more details later.
IV. The fourth distributional formula we shall consider is N+MAKE+N+ADJ. This resembles in
a way the N+MAKE+N+N pattern, more specifically its variant which allows the N1 be N2
e.g. She made her a lady. She is a lady.
She made him happy. He is happy.

An adverbial particle is an adverbial that can also be used as a preposition.

If we consider sequences of the type N+MAKE+N+ADJ+ (that) +S (He made it clear that he
would fight to the end), we can see that the pre-adjectival N position is filled by the pronoun it
which anticipates the post adjectival subordinate clause. The relation is: it = that+S. On this basis
we can postulate that we are dealing here with a variant of N+MAKE+N+ADJ pattern, and
consequently will have to consider the latter an independent distributional formula for the
meanings of MAKE.
V. The formula N+MAKE+N+V is of particular interest. This syntactic construction cannot be
reduced to the basic N+MAKE+N pattern, because a close interrelationship obtains between
MAKE and the other verb in the sequence.
e.g. He made her cry.
He made my blood run cold.
It follows that this distributional formula (with possible additional sequences after V) should be
considered a separate basic pattern constituting one of the general meanings of the verb MAKE.
VI. N+MAKE+ADV (off, away, in) is another pattern that needs consideration.
e.g. He made away with the money.
The important thing about this pattern is the fact that the sequence is itself self-sufficient for the
specification of the meanings of MAKE. Consequently, it can be considered a basic pattern.
The patterns established so far do not represent simple distributions but rather sets of
distributions within a certain more general type. The meaning each of these patterns reveals is
very general and unspecified. For instance, the only meaning we can specify at this stage for the
first pattern N+MAKE+N is very wide and vague; it is actually related to the general meaning of
the transitivity of verbs. For further specification of meaning within a certain pattern, other
possible grammatical operations have to be applied to the postulated distributional formula.
The basic pattern N+MAKE+N will be discussed now in greater detail. We shall try to arrive at
more specific meaning of the verb MAKE by testing the reaction of the pattern to various
grammatical operations. Let us first consider the transformations that are allowed by it:
a) N1+MAKE+N2 N2+MAKE+N1
e.g. The boy made a mistake A mistake was made by the boy.
b) N1+MAKE+N2 N1+MAKE+(N2) (a transformation that changes the MAKE+N2 sequence
into a verb derived from N2)

e.g. He made an analysis of the situation He analysed the situation.
c) N1+MAKE+N2 N1 +BE+N2 (a transformation that allows the replacement of MAKE by BE)
e.g. She makes a good cook. She is a good cook.
But there is no actual N+MAKE+N sequence which will allow all three transformations. Some
will allow only one (transformation above):
e.g. He will make a good doctor He will be a good doctor.
Others will allow two transformations (transformations (b) and (a) above:
e.g. John made an analysis of the situation John analysed the situation.
An analysis of the situation was made by John.
Still others do not allow any transformation:
e.g. His argument made sense.
As a result, the general pattern N+MAKE+N will be subdivided into several sub-groupings,
according to their reaction to the set of transformations (a, b, c). Each sub-grouping will be
assigned a specific meaning of MAKE. Each f these groups can be further analysed in terms of
various semantic markers of the verb MAKE.
This has been an exemplification of the way one can postulate the relevant distributional
formulae for a specific lexical item. Even if such an analysis were pursued further, it could not
cover all the meanings of MAKE. The possibilities of distributional analysis of meaning are
limited! There are a number of very specific meanings which can be probably solved at a
different level the idiomatic or phraseological level.
The attempt to state meaning in this way is not satisfactory.
First, it does not deal with what is usually meant by meaning. Secondly, it is difficult to see how
such an approach could do more than just indicate sameness and difference of meaning (in terms
of sameness and difference of distribution). It is not at all clear how it could say what meaning is,
except by listing all the environments in which an element occurs.
Thirdly, and most importantly, it is surely obvious that to define meaning in terms of distribution
is very largely to put the cart before the horse: words have different distributional patterns
because they have different meanings.

Chapter 7: Ambiguity and vagueness
It may seem that we have little to say about ambiguity, thinking that it is a clear-cut phenomenon.
But it is astonishing how ambiguous most words and sentences are. Most common words are
ambiguous; if you look in a good dictionary, for any common word you will usually find two or
three meanings, or maybe twenty or thirty, if it is really common. If combined together in a
sentence, these ambiguities multiply together to make things worse. Even the syntactic structures
are themselves ambiguous, as in:
(1) A small girls school.
(2) The chicken is ready to eat.
Without looking at the ambiguities of words themselves, the first example may be either [a small
school for girls] or [a school for small girls], while the second is likely to mean [the chicken is
ready for someone to eat], but it could also mean [the chicken is ready to eat something]. It is
probably the first because we normally eat chicken and not the reverse, and anyway chicken are
always ready to eat, so the second reading is pointless. If we change chicken for alligator,
however, the other is more likely, so it is not just the structure of the sentence that makes one or
another more reasonable.
One of the goals of a semantic theory is to describe and explain ambiguities in words and
sentences. The semantic rules the linguist sets up must state correctly for each language which
words and sentences have more than one meaning. But there is a problem, namely to decide what
counts as ambiguity. While there are some clear cases (as in We saw her duck), there are many
cases where it is not at all clear whether the word, phrase or sentence in question is ambiguous or
not. If we take a word like GOOD, opinions about its ambiguity are different. Some may think
that it is not ambiguous. But if we consider the sentence:
(3) She has good legs,
we shall come to several interpretations:
a) she has healthy legs (no varicous veins, no broken or badly mended bones, no weak
b) she has beautiful legs;
c) she has legs which function well (as an athletes or a gymnasts, or if the object referred
to is a horse, her legs may be understood to function well from the point of view of
So we have to grant that the word GOOD may be used in sentences with different interpretations,
where the difference lies solely in the basis of evaluation the word GOOD has been used to make.

The question remains: do we wish to say that the meaning of the word GOOD differs as the basis
of evaluation differs, or do we say that this word corresponds to one single lexical item, whose
meaning is common to all these different bases of evaluation? If we think of the word in isolation,
there might be a tendency to consider it as a single lexical item with a single interpretation,
however hard that interpretation may be to state. But if we think of sentences containing GOOD,
then there is a conflicting tendency to see sentences as ambiguous.
The problem is compounded when we look at other phrases containing GOOD. A good student
describes either someone who behaves well, or someone who works well, or even someone who
works haphazardly but shows a high level of ability. A good film is either one which gives
enjoyment or one which is thought to be of lasting value. What has to be decided is whether the
meaning of GOOD is homogenous and neutral between all these different specifications, or
whether GOOD has different meaning according to its use in describing different things. In more
general terms, this presents an example of the difficulty of distinguishing ambiguity from
7.1. Ambiguity
A word or a sentence is ambiguous when it has more than one sense. We can crudely classify the
sorts of ambiguity found in sentences as follows:
1. Pure syntactic ambiguity is the ambiguity in which the variant readings of a sentence
involve identical lexical units; the ambiguity is thus necessarily a matter of the way elements are
grouped together.
(4) Old men and women - can be interpreted either as [[old men] and women] or as [old [men
and women]].
2. Quasi-syntactic ambiguity requires careful consideration because there may be a temptation to
diagnose it as cases of lexical ambiguity. This is because there is no straightforward syntactic
explanation of the ambiguity. Not only are the lexical units identical for the two interpretations,
but they are identically grouped, too. Consider the following examples:
(5) The astronaut entered the atmosphere again. The sentence can have two readings:
i) The astronaut entered the atmosphere for (at least) the second time.
ii) The astronaut returned to the atmosphere after what could have been his first trip into the
outer space.

This ambiguity can be accounted for without the need either for 2 different elements ENTER, or
2 different elements AGAIN, if we regard the meaning of ENTER as being constituted out of
more elementary semantic entities which are related quasi-syntactically:
Enter= [come to be] [in]
The two readings can be represented as follows:

[(come to be) (in)] [again]


[come to be] [(in) (again)].

Consider now another example:

(6) A red pencil. This may read as a pencil painted red or a pencil writing red.
3. Lexico-syntactic ambiguity is the ambiguity determined both by the syntactic structure of the
sentence as well as by the multiple meanings of the words contained in them.
(7) We saw her duck. This can be paraphrased as [we saw her lower her head] or [we saw the
duck belonging to her]
(8) I saw the door open.
4. Pure lexical ambiguity is determined by the multiple meanings of words.
(9) He reached the bank (either the institution where you deposit your money or the margin of a
(10) What is his position? This can be interpreted either as someones location or someones
A more complex definition of an ambiguous sentence says that a sentence is ambiguous if it has
two (or more) paraphrases that are not themselves paraphrases of each other. If we consider the
lexico-syntactic ambiguous sentence (7) above, we realize that its two readings are not
paraphrases of each other. In the case of words and phrases, we say that they are ambiguous if
they have two or more synonyms that are not themselves synonymous of each other. For
example, COACH is synonymous with trainer and with bus, but these two are not synonymous
of each other, so COACH can trigger ambiguity.
In the case of ambiguous words, a distinction is sometimes made between polysemy and
homonymy. This distinction has basically to do with the closeness, or relatedness of the senses of
the words. A case of homonymy is one of an ambiguous word whose different senses are far
apart from each other and not obviously related to each other in any way. Cases of homonymy
seem very definitely to be matters of mere accident or coincidence. Thus, the word MUG means

both a drinking vessel and a gullible person, but there is no conceptual connection between its
two meanings.
A case of polysemy is one where a word has several very closely related senses. Thus, MOUTH
may be used in connection with a river and an animal. The two senses are clearly related by the
concepts of an opening from the interior of some solid mass to the outside, and of a place of
issue at the end of some long narrow channel.
In practice it is impossible to draw a clear line between polysemy and homonymy.
It is not always possible to find an exactly synonymous phrase for a given word. Where exact
synonyms are not available, it is possible to indicate different senses of a word by giving
different environments in which the word may be used. The word GRASS has two senses which
are indicated by the following environments:
11) Please keep off the grass.
12) The informer grassed on his partners-in-crime
In many cases a word used in one sense belongs to one part of speech, and used in another sense
it belongs to a different part of speech. Thus, LONG in the sense of yearn is a verb, and in the
sense of not short is an adjective.
Ambiguity is a major problem for semantics; how can a person understand the one an only one
and almost invariably the correct meaning that a sentence has in a given context? It clearly
involves the CONTEXT and the KNWLEDGE of the listener, but how it happens is not yet
known for sure. It must be a fairly simple process, because we do it so swiftly that we are usually
completely unaware of any other possible way to understand a sentence, and we do it so
accurately that we seldom ever make a mistake in understanding.
We also have to mention anther situation that must not be confused with ambiguity, namely
referential versatility. We say that a phrase is referentially versatile if it can be used to refer to a
wide range of different things or persons. Thus, the pronoun SHE can be used to refer to any
female person. On a given occasion SHE might be used to refer to Mary, on another occasion to
Lucy, but this does not mean that SHE is ambiguous, because although it is used to refer to
different people. This is not a matter of difference in sense.

In order to see the extent of the problem of distinguishing ambiguity from vagueness, let us
consider the different types of vagueness which languages present us with. Broadly speaking,
there are 4 types of vagueness, though they are related to each other.
1) Referential vagueness appears when the meaning of a lexical item is, in principle, clear
enough, but it may be hard to decide whether or not the item can be applied to certain objects.
Let us take for example the lexical items CITY and TOWN. Presumably we can roughly agree
that a city is a place where a large collection of people live, and it is made up of a large number
of houses, whereas a town is simply any place where a collection of people live, made up of a
certain number of houses. Towns may be small or large, but cities are big by definition (just as
villages are small by definition). Now, even if we can agree that the meanings of the items need
to have a specification along these lines, we shall certainly find difficulty in individual cases in
deciding whether or not some place is a city or a town. It will not do to specify as part of the
meaning of the item that a city must contain a minimum number of inhabitants, for we can talk
of Roman cities where the number might scarcely exceed that of a present-day village. There are
many examples of this kind of vagueness. When is a mountain not a mountain but merely a hill?
When is a forest not a forest but a wood? What crucially distinguishes a house from a cottage?
2) Indeterminacy of the meaning of a lexical item or phrase. In this situation, the interpretation
seems itself quite intangible and indeterminate. Perhaps the most extreme example of this in
English is the possessive construction. Thus, Johns book can be used to describe:
- the book that John wrote;
-the book that John owns;
-the book that he has been reading;
-the book that he was carrying when he came into the room, etc.
A phrase like Johns train can describe:
-the train he normally goes to work on;
-the train he is going to catch;
-the train he drives;
-the train he is a guardsman of;
-the train he designed, etc.

In the face of this variety, it seems clear that we can say little about the meaning of possessive
constructions other than that there must be some relation of association between the possessor
and the possessed. The meaning is otherwise quite indeterminate. We could introduce the word
GOOD into this class, since its meaning seems to be variable.
3. Lack of specification in the meaning of a lexical item is the situation in which the meaning,
though in principle quite clear, is very general. The simplest example of lack o specification is an
item like NEIGHBOUR which is unspecified for sex, race, age, etc. Perhaps less obvious
examples are verbs such as GO and DO which both have clearly specifiable meaning and yet
cover a wide variety of actions, since this meaning is so general. The sentence He went to the
station can be used to describe actions as dissimilar as walking, running, going on a bicycle,
going on a motorbike or in a car, to mention but a few, for GO is quite unspecified as to the kind
of the action. It simply has the meaning of directional motion.
Ive done the sitting-room can be used to imply that she/he has dusted, cleaned, painted, laid the
floor in the room, depending on whether the speaker is a cleaner, a painter, a floor-layer, etc.
Despite this, the meaning of the item DO is not itself indeterminate. The expression to do some
object (as in to do the dishes, to do the cupboard) means to carry out some action involving that
object. But what the action is, is quite unspecified.
4. Disjunction in the specification of meaning is a type of vagueness that involves a rather
different kind of lack of specification: the cases where the meaning of an item involves the
disjunction of different interpretations. It may seem that the distinction between disjunct
specification within a single lexical item and cases of ambiguity characterised by discrete lexical
items remains quite unclear. Let us take as an example the verb RUN which is a word with
multiple interpretations:
13) He ran onto the field.

The referents of the subjects are animate and have

14) He ran the race for Hampshire.

good legs.

15) The ball ran onto the field. implication of fast directional motion.
16) The car is running well. motion
17) The road runs from Manchester to Birmingham. direction
18) He ran the motor show. motion is generalized and transferred to an event in time.
Each of them provides a potentially distinct lexical item. If we say that RUN in these sentences
is the same lexical item, then our lexical entry for RUN will have to characterise the verb as

having a disjunct specification of meaning: either it has a meaning corresponding to its use in 13
and 14 above (where the referent is animate and has legs), or it has the meaning corresponding to
its use in 15, where presumably the implication of fast directional movement is retained, but not
any of the precise physical characteristics of running, or it has the meaning corresponding to its
use in 16 where only the implication of motion is retained, and so on. We thus have a 5-part
disjunction to characterise the meaning of RUN.
If on the other hand we take the alternative of specifying RUN as five-way ambiguous, we shall
have distinct lexical items, each with a distinct semantic representation. Characterised in this
informal way, it might seem that despite the conflict in claims as to what constitutes a lexical
item, there is little to choose between these alternatives, since both allow the word RUN to have
more than one interpretation. However, they lead to rather different predictions about sentence
Disjunction within a single lexical item leads to a prediction that where more than one of these
disjunctions can be interpreted, then such interpretations should be possible simultaneously.
This is not so for most cases of multiple meaning. However, there are a few cases of lexical
items which have this property. To see the validity of this kind of characterisation, consider what
is perhaps the central example, i.e. OR.
19) The applicants for the job either had a first-class degree or some teaching experience
20) All competitors must either be male or wear a one-piece swimming costume.
In each degree of these cases, the implication that OR contributes to the sentence as a whole is
that one of the two conjuncts is true. In (19) the applicants are implied to have had either a firsclass degree but no teaching experience, or teaching experience but not a first-class degree, or
possibly both, i.e. there is an interpretation in which both implications can hold simultaneously.
In (20) the implication is similar. The utterer of such a sentence would certainly not be excluding
the possibility of both conjuncts being true, for this would imply that a male competitor had
either to wear nothing or a two-piece costume! On the contrary, the sentence allows the
following types of competitors: male competitors (whether wearing a one-piece costume or not)
and non-male competitors wearing a one-piece costume.
An ambiguity test
In order to be certain of separating cases of vagueness from cases of ambiguity, we need a test
which distinguishes clear cases of vagueness and ambiguity, and which will give us some basis

for deciding on the less clear cases. Let us look first at the preliminary definition of ambiguity: a
sentence is ambiguous if it can be true in quite different circumstances. But this would predict
that in all cases where the meaning is unspecified, the sentence in question would be in as many
ways ambiguous as the contrasting circumstances which that unspecified meaning allowed the
sentence to be true in. There is an alternative, equivalent formulation of this definition: that a
sentence is ambiguous if it can be simultaneously true and false, relative to the same state of
affairs. But this alternative characterisation is no more helpful in unclear cases. For, suppose we
are uncertain whether a given sentence is ambiguous with respect to some contrast, or merely
unspecified as to that contrast.
Let us take, for example, the following sentence:
21) John killed Bill.
The question is: is this sentence ambiguous, one interpretation being that John killed Bill by
accident, the other interpretation being that John killed Bill intentionally? Or is the sentence
merely unspecified as to whether the action is intentional or not. The sentence can be used to
describe these two rather different kinds of events. In other words, it can be true in these two
different sets of circumstances. In fact, we distinguish lexically between MURDER and
MANSLAUGHTER which are specified as to intentionality on the part of the agent. Suppose
one linguist claims that sentence (21) has no specification in its meaning as to whether the action
implied is intentional or not. He would anticipate that the sentence would be true both in
circumstances in which the action was unintentional and in circumstances in which the action
was intentional. He would agree that the question of intentionality is simply not relevant to the
assessment of the truth of the sentence. But suppose also that some other linguist disagrees,
claiming that the sentence is ambiguous between an intentional interpretation and an
unintentional one. This linguist will say that in circumstances where the action was unintentional,
the sentence is true on the unintentional interpretation, and simultaneously, false on the
intentional interpretation. In circumstances where the action was intentional, the same linguist
would say, conversely, that the sentence is true on the intentional interpretation, and false on the
unintentional interpretation. Since, he would argue, this sentence meets the requirement that a
sentence be ambiguous if it is simultaneously true and false relative to the same state of affairs, it
must be ambiguous. Now these linguists have reached an impasse. The characterisation of
ambiguity as the simultaneous assignment to a sentence of the values TRUE and FALSE has not
provided a criterion for deciding unclear cases; it merely accentuates the point of disagreement.

For a more helpful way of distinguishing sentences which are ambiguous from those which are
not, we have to turn to anaphoric processes, processes which refer back to an earlier part of the
sentence. One example of this is the expression to do so, too. This is used where the action
described has already been specified and is being referred to again. Consider the following
22) John hit Bill and Jason did so, too.
This implies that both John and Jason hit Bill. In more linguistic terms, the use of the expression
to do so, too demands identity of meaning of the two verb phrases in question. Now, this
provides us with a test for ambiguity. If some verb phrase is two-ways ambiguous, then we can
predict that when it is conjoined to a do so or other verb-phrase pro-form expressions (so did X,
X did/has/will/is, too), the entire sentence will be two-ways ambiguous. Whichever
interpretation is implied the do so expression must be identical to that interpretation. More
formally, a sentence which is two-ways ambiguous must be given two semantic representations
to characterise its two meanings. Since a do so expression or any other verb phrase pro-form
demands identity of meaning, a two-ways ambiguous sentence together with such an expression
can only be two-ways ambiguous. For example, we predict that the sentence:
23) John saw her duck and Will did so, too
is only two ways ambiguous. Either it means that John saw the duck which belonged to her and
Will also saw the duck which belonged to her, or it means that John saw her quickly lower her
head and Will also saw her lower her head. What we predict that it cannot mean is that John saw
the duck which belonged to her, and Will saw her quickly lower her head, because in such a case
the meaning of the two verb-phrases would not be identical. And so it is. Except as a pun (a pun
depends for its effect, at least in part, on breaking the convention that where a sentence or a word
is ambiguous, only one interpretation may be conveyed at any one time), there is no possibility
of such crossed interpretations when the verb-phrase do so is added to be ambiguous.
In the case of an unspecified or vague verb-phrase, we have a contrary prediction. Do so
expressions require identity of meaning, and where the meaning in question is unspecified with
respect to some contrast, there is no reason to expect that non-identical interpretations are
excluded. Consider the following example:
24) John is my neighbour and Sue is too.

The sentence does not imply that because Sue is also my neighbour she must have all the
properties that John has being, say, a six-foot West Indian male. Or to take our previous
example of do the room (The painter has done the sitting room and the carpet man has too), this
does not imply that the carpet-man must also have painted the sitting room. On the contrary, the
natural interpretation is that different actions have been carried out.
If the expression to do so the sitting-room were said to be ambiguous as the actions it described
differed, we could predict that such different interpretations of the expression could not be
conveyed in the example above. But they can; and they can because the expression to do so the
sitting-room is not ambiguous, but merely unspecified.
To conclude, AMBIGUITY is a property of sentences: it is a ONE - MANY relation between
syntax and sense. It results from diversity of specific rules. VAGUE:ESS results when general
rules invite the reading-in of indefinitely variable specific information.

o. 1
1. This exercise is a class activity. Read the following paragraph:
The hunter crept through the leaves. The leaves had fallen. The leaves were dry. The
hunter was tired. The hunter had a gun. The gun was new. The hunter saw a deer. The
deer had antlers. A tree partly hid the antlers. The deer was beautiful. The hunter shot at
the deer. The hunter missed. The shot frightened the deer. The deer bounded away.
Without changing important words or the meaning, rewrite the paragraph so as to avoid the
many short, choppy sentences. Then compare the re-written versions prepared by the different
members of the class. Are the paragraphs alike? If not, describe the differences and account for
the fact that passages that appear in such varying forms have the same meaning.
2. Assume you are a native speaker of English. As such, you have an internalized knowledge of
the language - call it a 'native-speaker intuition' if you will. For example, you can recognize a
grammatical English sentence, you can interpret a sentence, you can perceive ambiguity, and you
can determine when strings are synonymous. Examine the following groups of sentences. What
can you tell about each group?
a. 1. The bus station is near the bank.
2. The soldiers were told to stop marching on the parade ground.

3. The chicken is ready to eat.
b. 1. That student continually sleeps in class.
2. Student in class continually that sleeps.
3. In class that student continually sleeps.
c. 1. The Toronto Blue Jays beat the Atlanta Braves in the World Series.
2. The ones that the Toronto Blue Jays beat in the World Series were the Atlanta
3. The Atlanta Braves were beaten by the Toronto Blue Jays in the World Series.
d. 1. Sam asked the students to build a display.
2. Sam promised the students to build a display.
3. Sam told the students to build a display.
Present your conclusions.
3. The semantic differential was developed originally by psychologists as a method for semantic
differentiation and determination of the connotations of words, and was made well known,
especially by Charles Osgood. Joseph S. Kess suggests marking your 'impressions of a word on
the following seven-point scale according to whether you view it as being, for example,
extremely good, very good, good, neutral, bad, very bad, or extremely bad. Thus, if you had no
feeling one way or the other about a word, you would mark the middle slot, indicating neutrality.
Take for example, the word mother, and mark it according to the way in which the word strikes
you as being meaningful on the following sample 'semantic differential'
good ------ ;--------;-------; -------; -------; --------;-------; bad
kind -------; -------; -------; -------; -------; -------; -------; cruel
weak-------; -------; -------; -------; -------; -------; -------; strong
beautiful -------; -------; -------; -------; -------; -------; -------; ugly
nice -------; -------; -------; -------; -------; -------; -------; awful
active -------; -------; -------; -------; -------; -------; -------; passive
positive -------; -------; -------; -------; -------; -------; -------; negative
heavenly -------; -------; -------; --------; -------; -------; -------; hellish
reputable-------; -------; -------; -------; -------; --------; -------; disreputable
large -------; --------; -------; -------; -------; --------; -------; small
Different informants will inevitably use different intuitive criteria when making judgments about
the same words. It follows, therefore, that a high degree of subjectivity is inherent in the
semantic differential, which, paradoxically, is both its principal strength and its major limitation.
Select two words, and ask two people to fill out a rating scale similar to Kess's. After tabulating
the results, see what conclusions you can draw. For example, you could compare reactions to the
words sick and ill, or woman and lady. If this exercise is done as a class project, then class
members themselves should fill out rating scales. After the results are tabulated, discuss the
results and draw conclusions about the meanings of the words that were evaluated.


The lexicon of a language presents items which differ in the degree to which their meaning can
be said to be motivated: while some are opaque, i.e. their sounds give no indication of their
meaning, others are more or less transparent, in the sense that one can arrive at some idea of
their meaning by recourse to their phonetic shape or derivational structure or to some semantic
relations which can be established with other words in the language.

1) Relying on your "basic" knowledge of Latin, try to analyze the extent to which the meaning
on the following words is motivated (the first word is analyzed for you):
Common meaning
Common meaning
'take, seize'
2) What is the meaning of the prefixes in the following words (relative motivation by
3) Idioms are word combinations that vary structurally and semantically.
- free
Structurally, idioms are classified into:
- semi-free/ semi-fixed categories
- fixed categories
A) Analyze the following groups of idiomatic phrases and state the structural category they
belong to. Motivate your choice.

To cut
to make

to come of




b) to show the white feather

to kick the bucket
c) to smoke
to have
to buy
to borrow
a lot of
to fill
to light
to re-light
to puff away
to put away
Idioms are free to vary within certain limits. The degree of limitation of such a variation is given
by the quantum of extensionality (QE). The QE shows the number of lexical items which

introduced in the idiom in the place of its elements will generate an equal number of idioms, in
which the elements which have both been substituted retain their basic lexical meaning.
Example: for the idiom under a) above, the QE is 2x1x3x1=6.
B) Determine the QE for the other idioms above (b, and c)
Semantically, idioms are classified into opaque and transparent.
C) Look at the following table!
1) full structural integrity (no
insertion & no substitution)
2) QE= 0
1) some degree of structural
integrity (limited substitution and
2) QE= very low
1) no structural integrity (any
substitution and any insertion is
2) QE= extremely high
Give examples of idiomatic phrases for each of the above cases (A, B, C, D, E).
4) Give synonyms to the following idioms. Which have a transparent and which an opaque
a. kick the bucket=
b. out of the blue=
c. get butterflies in ones stomach=
d. show the white feather=
e. make a fool of oneself=
f. change horses while crossing the stream=
g. die in ones boots=
5) Compound words
What can you say with respect to the motivation of meaning of the following compounds?
Bluebottle, blackbird, greenfingers, snow-white, blackleg, green belt, catgut, dead slow, hardboiled, open-handed, cool-headed, straight-laced.
6) Here are some English onomatopoeic words. What or who does the following:


Linguistics as a supraordinate science studies the communication system. But communication
implies interest in form and meaning. Everything in the world has form and meaning. Any
change in form entails a change in meaning, analyzed at various levels.

Find examples of your own in which:
a) a vowel change brings about a change in the meaning of words;
b) a consonant change brings about a change in meaning;
c) the change of a cluster of consonants determines a change in meaning (of larger constructions
than a word):
d) the change of stress determines a change in the meaning of the words;
e) the change of stress and intonation ..........................
Find connotations for the following words:
Cigarettes, baby, president, teacher,
Analyze the following excerpts and state the approximate time when they were written and the
register (province) they belong to:
'I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong,
neither yet the bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of
skill; but time and chance happeneth to all'
'Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or
failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity,
but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account'
Give examples of words that used to have a 'neutral' meaning and that nowadays are sexually
State the difference in meaning between:
1. a) Bill is addicted to morphine
b) It is morphine that Bill is addicted to.
2. a) I like Danish cheese best.
b) Danish cheese I like best
c) It's Danish cheese that I like best.
3. a) They stopped at the end of the corridor.
b) At the end of the corridor, they stopped.
Do the same thing for the following examples in which the capitalized words represent the
stressed words.
4. a) Harriet tickled Mavis in the CONSERVATORY.
b) Harriet tickled MAVIS in the conservatory.
c) Harriet TICKLED Mavis in the conservatory.
d) HARRIET tickled Mavis in the conservatory.
Many intensifying adverbs and adjectives go together, e.g. absolutely fascinating, totally
destroyed. It is not easy to know which can go together.
a) Sometimes there is a logical link between the adverb and the adjective. Match an adverb in
column A with an adjective in column B:


b) Certain intensifying adverbs can only be used with gradable adjectives. Which of the adverbs
in column
A and the adjectives in column B go together?
c) Certain adjectives (called limit adjectives) already have very strong meanings. For example,
exhausted means very tired. To intensify a limit adjective we need an extreme adverb. This is
why we cannot say *very exhausted. Which of the adverbs in column A and the adjectives in
column B go together? Sometimes more than one adverb is possible.
1) Make a componential analysis of the following words which belong to the semantic field of
human race:
2) According to the componential formulae, which is the antonym of woman?
3) Make a componential analysis of the word man in the following sentences:
a) Man is mortal.
b) A man hit me.
What is the semantic relationship between the two meanings?
4) Make a componential analysis of the following sets of words and discuss the semantic
relationship among the items:

a) horse
b) sheep

c) dog
d) cock


Write the distributional formulae and the meanings of the lexical items in the following
examples (Hornby Disctionary):
Lexical item Lex. category

Distrib. formula

They fostered the child
The lady has always fostered the
He fosters high hopes.
The nephew fostered revenge.


He framed the theory.

They framed him.
He framed his picture.


He fired the workers.

She fired the servant.
They fired the building.


He graduated at Cambridge.
The school graduates 100 students
each year.
They graduated him with honours.
He graduated the stick.


He grasped my hand.
He grasped the idea.


He greeted us joyfully.
The newcomers greeted them.
The sound greeted us from afar.


They hung their coats.

They are going to hang him.


The situation is grave.

The patients illness is grave.
He is a grave man.

Her grave was under a willow tree.

The boy felt the edge of the blade.

The dog felt the burglars.
He felt it was his duty to marry her.

1. Say what is wrong with the following sentences and rewrite them so that the intended meaning
is clear:

Wearing a striped T-shirt, we thought he was rather casually dressed for an interview.
Having been designed as a racing bike, I found it very smooth and easy to handle.
Not looking where he was going, the car almost hit him as he was crossing the road.
The letter presented no particular problems to translate, having learned German at school.
Not being starving hungry, the huge helping of paella was more than I could manage.

2. Identify the types of ambiguity encountered in the following sentences:

a) This is a good tool
b) They are good students.
c) The soup is good.
d) Jane has never seen a triangle.
e) That is a new plane.
f) The American history teacher is quite nice.
g) Mrs. Powel cant bear children.
h) Old men and women enjoy going to the theatre.
i) Visiting professors can be boring.
3. Ambiguity in jokes.
a) Artillery commander: Fire at will!
Recruit: Wheres Will?
b) Airhostess: Youll have to change twice, in Frankfurt and in New York before you go to Los
Nick (a cowboy): Goodness me! And Ive only got the clothes I am standing up in.
c) Hungarian customer: Waiter, have you got frogs legs?
Waiter: No sir, I always walk like this.
d) An old lady has just bought a postage stamp. Must I stick it on myself?, she asked.
Definitely not, madam, replied the postal clerk. It will accomplish more if you stick it on the
e) Three cars were reported stolen by the London police.


Chitoran, D. (1973). Elements of English Structural Semantics. Ed. didactica si pedagogica,
2. Cruse, D.A. (1986). Lexical Semantics. CUP
3. Gamut, L.T.F. (1991). Logic, Language and Meaning. Chigaco University Press
4. Hjelmslev, L. (1961), Some Reflections on Practice and Theory in Structural Semantics,
5. Hurford, J.R and Heasley, B. (1983). Semantics . A Coursebook. CUP
6. Jesperson, O. (1920) Language, London
7. Kempson, R, (1992). Semantic Theory. CUP
8. Leech, G. (1990). Semantics. Penguin Books
9. Lyons, J. (1977). Semantics. CUP
10. Ogden, C.K. & Richards, I.A. (1923), The Meaning of Meaning, London: Kegan Paul
11. Palmer, F.R. (1976). Semantics. A ew Outline. CUP
12. Ullmann, S. (1962), Semantics: An Introduction to the Science of meaning, Oxford; Basil

Key to exercises:
1) (One possibility) A tired hunter crept through fallen, dry leaves. He had a new gun. He saw a
beautiful deer whose antlers were partly hidden by a tree. The hunter shot at the deer, but missed
it. Frightened by the shot, the deer bounded away.
By comparing your own versions of the text with those of your group-mates, you will see that each of
you used different ways of linking clauses together, by focusing on different aspects.

2) a. Sentences in this group are all ambiguous.

b. A change in word-order brings about ungrammatical sentences.
c. A change in word-order highlights a certain aspect of meaning (thematic meaning: see unit
d. A change of lexical items in the same paradigm brings about different meanings of the same
3) The semantic differential: this exercise should be done on your own and the results will be
discussed at the tutorial.
aduncomplicated unconreduplication redu2)
im-possible =
inter-mittent =
de-tain =
mis-pronounce =
trans-mutable =
in-disposed =
over-sufficient =

Common meaning
to, towards
together with


Common meaning
'take, seize'
bear, carry





away from
too much

3) Idioms
a) Semi-fixed idioms
b) Fixed category (no substitution and no extension are possible)
c) Free category (substitution and extension are possible)
B) Determine the QE for the other idioms above (b, and c)
b) QE= 1; c) QE= 9x4x4=144)



To show the
white feather
(swap) horses
crossing the

To take little
To make (deliver)
a speech

1) full structural integrity (no

insertion & no substitution)
2) QE= 0
1) some degree of structural
integrity (limited substitution and
2) QE= very low

1) no structural integrity (any

To drink coffee substitution and any insertion is
/tea/ milk
2) QE= extremely high

a. kick the bucket = to die (opaque)
b. out of the blue = unexpectedly (opaque)
c. get butterflies in ones stomach = to be nervous (transparent)
d. show the white feather = to be a coward (opaque)
e. make a fool of oneself = to make yourself seem stupid by behaving in a silly or embarrassing
way (transparent)
f. change horses while crossing the stream = to make changes at the worst possible time)
g. die in ones boots = to die young (opaque)
5) Compound words
Bluebottle not motivated;
Blackbird - not motivated;
Greenfingers - motivated,
Snow-white - motivated,
Blackleg not motivated;
Cool-headed - motivated

green belt - motivated

catgut not motivated
dead slow - motivated
hard-boiled not motivated
open-handed - motivated
straight-laced not motivated

6) Onomatopoeia
- you bang a drum/hammer;
- a radio blares
- bells chime
- click of fingers/camera
- you groan if you are in pain
- plop of stone in a deep pond
- children shriek with excitement
- squelch of shoes in deep mud;

- fire crackles
- doors/floorboard creak
- crunch of footsteps on gravel/snow
- you gasp with amazement/shock
- a wolf howls
- roar of a lion
- mice squeak
- thump of feet.


a) a vowel change brings about a change in the meaning of words: tip top;

b) a consonant change brings about a change in meaning: top pop;
c) the change of a cluster of consonants determines a change in meaning (of larger constructions
than a word): our dear old queen vs. our queer old dean
d) the change of stress determines a change in the meaning of the words; I hate mankind
(humanity); I hate mankind (men)
e) the change of stress and intonation (But) . That is your car, isnt it? (near certainty) vs.
(Oh, so) that is your car, isnt it? (need for confirmation).
Cigarettes harmful, expensive, staining your fingers and teeth.
Baby small, innocent, sweet-smelling, plump
President incompetent/competent, honest/dihonest, etc.
Teacher strict/permissive, fair/corrupted, etc
First text: Ecclesiastes (approximately 17th/18th century)
Second text: G. Orwell Politics in the English Language (20th century)
Language of the bible
Language of journals.
Give examples of words that used to have a 'neutral' meaning and that nowadays are sexually
Cock (bird), rubber (material/eraser), ejaculation (utterance)
1. a) Bill is addicted to morphine
b) It is morphine that Bill is addicted to. the speaker is presupposing that Bill is addicted to
something and asserting that that something is morphine (SPEAKER PRESUPPOSITION VS.
ASSERTION) The meaning of a sentence is said to be divided between the part that a speaker
asserts and the part that he presupposes, or assumes to be true.
2. a) I like Danish cheese best.
(They answer different questions): a. What do I like?
b) Danish cheese I like best
b. Which cheese?
c) It's Danish cheese that I like best.
3. a) They stopped at the end of the corridor.
b) At the end of the corridor, they stopped.

Where did they stop?

What did they do at the end?

a) bitterly disappointed; deeply moved; perfectly simple; deeply disturbed; fully informed;
deeply offended.
b) greatly relieved, terribly important, terribly simple, greatly/terribly annoyed; greatly/terribly
impressed; greatly/terribly offended; terribly disappointed.
c) absolutely delighted; absolutely/utterly/quite disgusted; absolutely/ totally/ quite/utterly
convinced; utterly appalled; absolutely/ totally/ quite obvious; absolutely/ quite/utterly
determined; absolutely/utterly amazed; totally/quite untrue; absolutely/utterly thrilled.
NB. Absolutely can go with nearly all limit adjectives. Other collocations have to be learned.

man = [+ Animate], [+Human], [+Male], [+Adult]
woman =[+ Animate], [+Human], [-Male], [+Adult]
boy =[+ Animate], [+Human], [+Male], [-Adult]
girl =[+ Animate], [+Human], [-Male], [-Adult]
child =[+ Animate], [+Human], [+/-Male], [-Adult]
2) Woman (and boy)
3) Make a componential analysis of the word man in the following sentences:
a. Man is mortal. [+ Animate], [+Human], [+/-Male], [+/-Adult]
b. A man hit me. [+ Animate], [+Human], [+Male], [+Adult]
The semantic relation between the two meanings of man is hyponymy (meaning inclusion): the
meaning of man (human being) is included in the meaning of man (adult male human being).
Lexical item Lex. category Distrib. formula

They fostered the child
The lady has always fostered the
He fosters high hopes.
The nephew fostered revenge.




He framed the theory.

They framed him.
He framed his picture.





grave +Be + loc.adv.

The situation is grave.

The patients illness is grave.
He is a grave man.
Her grave was under a willow tree.

2. Identify the types of ambiguity encountered in the following sentences:
a) This is a good tool
b) They are good students.
Referential versatility
c) The soup is good.
d) Jane has never seen a triangle (lexical).
e) That is a new plane (lexical).
f) The American history teacher is quite nice (syntactic).
g) Mrs. Powel cant bear children (lexical).
h) Old men and women enjoy going to the theatre.(syntactic)
i) Visiting professors can be boring (lexico-syntactic).