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Linguistics 110 Zhang/Öztürk/Quinn

Class 23 (12/16/02)


(1) Thumbnail definition of semantics:

The study of the relation between linguistic form and meaning.

In fact, the scope of semantics is narrower than that…

(2) So what does semantics deal with?

Central insight of semantics (Gottlob Frege): Meaning is compositional – the meaning of
an expression is calculated on the basis of the meanings of its parts + the meaning
contributed by the combinatory rules.

The girl fixed the fence.

The girl fixed the glork.

If “The girl fixed the glork” is true,

then “The glork was fixed by the girl” must also be true.

If “The girl fixed a blue glork” is true,

then “The girl fixed a glork” must also be true.

• So semantics considers questions like:

➥ Given the meanings of words, how do we compute the meanings of larger units?
Taking into account the contribution of:
—Constituent structure (rules for combining words)
—Functional elements

➥ What aspects of meaning have to be learned, and what do we ‘get for free’ as part of the
Universal Grammar that we’re born with?

(3) How do we study semantics?

• In syntax, we appealed to grammaticality judgments (intuitions about the acceptability of
hypothetical sentences).

• We also have intuitions about truth-value relations between sentences.

Truth value—Whether or not a sentence is true or false.

• Some sentences are necessarily true:

Either there is a book on the table, or there isn’t a book on the table.
Every hedgehog is a hedgehog.
Every six-pointed triangle is a six-pointed triangle.

➥ Truth value doesn’t depend on whether there are hedgehogs or whether triangles are

• ... or necessarily false:

Lois read the book, and Lois didn’t read the book.
No hedgehog is a hedgehog.

• What is semantically true may not be necessarily the same as physically true, morally true,
legally true, etc.

Lois read the book.

Paris is the capital of France.

The moon is made of green cheese. (Could be true in some fairy-tale world.)
Cf. The moon is made of green cheese, and the moon is not made of green cheese.

Nothing travels faster than the speed of light. (Could be false in some science fiction

➥ For most sentences, truth-value depends on the situation or state-of-affairs (possible

world) to which the sentence refers.

• Hmm… if the truth of an expression is determined by a whole network of activities in a

specific possible world, doesn’t the prospect of semantics seem terribly slim, since we
cannot hope to provide an account of all the activities that involve language?

➥ Many of the most important relations that a sentence enters into are purely linguistic.

Beyond the scope of linguistic theory to say whether “I have a yellow pencil” is true.
Not beyond the scope of linguistic theory to account for the fact that if “I have a yellow
pencil” is true, then so is “I have a pencil.”

• We can define a number of relations pertaining to the truth-values of sentences, about which
native speakers have intuitions. We can make use of these relations to investigate how the
meanings of expressions are computed on the basis of the meanings of words.

(4) Entailment
• Sentence S1 entails sentence S2 if and only if whenever S1 is true in a situation, S2 is also
true in that situation. (Or whenever S2 is false in a situation, S1 is also false in that

(S1) Beidao is a Chinese poet entails

(S2) Beidao is a poet

(S1) Beidao killed his wife entails

(S2) Beidao’s wife died

➥ Part of knowing the meaning of a sentence is knowing what the sentence entails.

In some cases, entailment is determined by meaning relations between words: If word X
includes the meaning of word Y, then a sentence containing X will entail a sentence in which
X has been replaced by Y:

(S1) Kangaroos are marsupials entails

(S2) Kangaroos are mammals

• Does S1 entail S2 in the following pairs?

(S1) I have a yellow pencil

(S2) Either 5 is a prime number or 5 is not a prime number

(S1) I have a yellow pencil

(S2) I have a yellow pencil and 5 is an odd number

(S1) Two is an odd number

(S2) I have a yellow pencil

(5) Assertion and presupposition

• Assertion—What the speaker is claiming to be true or false by uttering the sentence.
• Presupposition—What the speaker assumes to be true, as ‘background’ to the sentence
s/he is uttering.

• My brother bought a new stereo.

Presupposition: The speaker has a brother.

Assertion: He bought a new stereo.

• Does a sentence entail its presuppositions?

(S1) My brother bought a new stereo

(S2) I have a brother

• Does negating a sentence cancel the assertion? Does it cancel the presuppositions?

My brother didn’t buy a new stereo.

• Does the negation of a sentence entail its presuppositions?

(S1) My brother didn’t buy a new stereo

(S2) I have a brother

• More examples:

(S1) Dolores said that Frank was a spy

(S2) Frank was a spy

(S1) Dolores forgot that Frank was a spy

(S2) Frank was a spy

(S1) Dolores didn’t forget that Frank was a spy

(S2) Frank was a spy

(6) Intersection and meaning composition
(S1) I bought a green sweater entails
(S2) I bought a sweater”

• We can model the contribution of “green” using set theory:

[[ sweater ]] = “the set of all sweaters”

[[ green ]] = “the set of all green things”

“green sweater” refers to anything which is in the intersection of these two sets (Venn

[[ sweater ]] ∩ [[ green ]]

• Modifiers which function like this are called intersective.

• Q: Are all adjectives intersective?

a big planet
a big elephant
a big grasshopper (cf. “tall midget” vs. “short giant”)

• A rule of meaning composition: If AP is intersective, then the constituent

[NP AP NP ] is interpreted as [[ AP ]] ∩ [[ NP ]]

• We can apply this set theory approach to other kinds of meaning composition:

Dolores is a vegetarian = [[ Dolores ]] ⊆ [[ vegetarian ]]

Hindus are vegetarians = [[ Hindu ]] ⊆ [[ vegetarian ]]
Two students are vegetarians = [[ student ]] ∩ [[ vegetarian ]] = 2

(7) Extension and intension

• The set of entities which bear a property X is called the extension of X:
[[ student ]] is the extension of “student”
[[ vegetarian ]] is the extension of “(is a) vegetarian”

• Can two expressions have the same extension but different meanings?

the first person to walk on the moon

Neil Armstrong

Q: Do they pick out the same entity in the world (at least, our possible world)? I.e., do they
have the same extension?

Q: Do they have the same meaning?

(S1) We met the first person to walk on the moon

(S2) We met Neil Armstrong”

(S1) My crazy aunt thought she was the first person to walk on the moon

(S2) My crazy aunt thought she was Neil Armstrong

(S1) Everyone knows Venus is the morning star.

(S2) Everyone knows Venus is Venus.

➥ Frege’s observation: Expressions with identical extensions can produce different truth

➥ To express this difference, semanticists contrast extensions with intensions:

Extension: The set of entities/events/etc. in the world to which an expression refers (its
referents, denotation)
Intension: The ‘inherent sense’ conveyed by an expression.

(8) Modeling the semantics of determiners

• Determiners: Articles and demonstratives: the, this, that, these, those
Quantifiers: some, most, every, each, all, few, two, a dozen…

• What do determiners contribute to the semantics of an expression?

Lois is happy [[ Lois ]] ⊆ [[ happy ]]

How about:
Every student is happy.
Some students are happy.
No student is happy.
Two students are happy.
Fewer than five students are happy.
Most students are happy.

• Determiners specify relations between sets (of individuals) and sets (of properties)

• Can any possible relation between sets be encoded by a determiner?

Let’s invent a hypothetical determiner: nevery

Nevery NP VP = Everything which is not in [[ NP ]] is in [[ VP ]]

Nevery triangle has stripes.

Nevery student in this room wear glasses.

(9) Observation: No language has determiners like nevery

• Conservativity: A determiner is conservative if its meaning can be figured out just on the
basis of the extension of the NP and the intersection of the extension of the NP and the VP.

➥ A test: The quantifier Q is conservative iff “Q NP VP” can be paraphrased as “Q NP

is a NP which VP”

Every student is happy can be paraphrased as
Every student is a student who is happy

No student is a happy can be paraphrased as

No student is a student who is happy

Nevery triangle has stripes cannot be paraphrased as

Nevery triangle is a triangle which has stripes

• The conservativity of determiners appears to be a universal semantic property of human

languages. Even though we could imagine what a non-conservative determiner might be
like, no human language actually has such determiners. Why?