Auntie. Try me.
—: It’s (sigh!) keeping (Cf: “What is it that “exist” expresses in both ‘numbers exist’ and ‘chairs exist’?” Reply: “It’s (sigh!) existing”)
In effect, what I’m selling is a disquotationallexicon. Not, however, because I think semantic facts are, somehow, merely pleonastic; but rather because I take semantic facts with full ontological seriousness, and I can’t think of a better way tosay what ‘keep’ means than to say that it means keep. If, as I suppose, the concept KEEP is an atom, it’s hardlysurprising that there’s no better way to say what ‘keep’ means than to say that it means keep.
I know of no reason, empirical or a priori, to suppose that the expressive power of English can be captured in a language whose stock of morphologically primitive expressions is interestingly smaller than the lexicon of English. Tobe sure, if you are committed to ‘keep’ being definable, and to its having the same definition in each semantic field,then you will have to face the task of saying, in words other than ‘keep’, what relation it is that keeping the money andkeeping the crowd happy both instance. But, I would have thought, saying what relation they both instance is preciselywhat the word ‘keep’ is for; why on earth do you suppose that you can say it ‘in other words’? I repeat: assuming that‘keep’
has a definition is what makes the problem about polysemy; take away that assumption and ‘what do keeping the money and keeping the crowd happy share?’ is easy. They’re both keeping.
Auntie. I think that’s silly, frivolous, and shallow! There is no such thing as keeping; there isn’t anything that keeping the money and keeping the crowd happy share. It’s all just made up.13
—: Strictly speaking, that view isn’t available to Aunties who wish also to claim that ‘keep’ has a definition that is satisfied in all of its semantic fields; by definition, such a definition would express something that keeping money andkeeping crowds happy have in common. Still, I do sort of agree that ontology is at the bottom of the pile. I reservecomment till the last two chapters.
There is, as I remarked at the outset, a very substantial linguistic literature on lexical semantics; far more than I have the space or inclination to review. But something needs to be said, before we call it quits, about a sustained attempt thatSteven Pinker has been making (Pinker 1984; 1989) to co-opt the apparatus of lexical semantics for employment in atheory of how children learn aspects of syntax. If this project can be carried through, it might produce the kind ofreasonably unequivocal support for definitional analysis that I claim that the considerations about polysemy fail toprovide.
Pinker offers, in fact, two kinds of ontogenetic arguments for definitions; the one in Pinker 1984 depends on a “semantic bootstrapping” theory of syntax acquisition; the one in Pinker 1989, turns on an analysisof a problem in learnability theory known as “Baker’s Paradox”. Both arguments exploit rather deep assumptionsabout the architecture of theories of language development, and both have been influential; sufficiently so to justifytaking a detailed look at them. Most of the rest of this chapter will be devoted to doing that.
The Bootstrapping Argument
A basic idea of Pinker’s is that some of the child’s knowledge of syntactic structure is “bootstrapped” from knowledge about the semantic properties of lexical items; in particular, from knowledge about the semantic structure of verbs.The details are complicated but the outline is clear enough. In the simplest sorts of sentences (like ‘John runs’, forexample), if you can figure out what syntactic classes the words belong to (that ‘John’ is a noun and ‘runs’ is anintransitive verb) you get the rest of the syntax of the sentence more or less for free: intransitive verbs have to haveNPs as subjects, and ‘John’ is the only candidate around.
This sort of consideration suggests that a significant part of the child’s problem of breaking into sentential syntax is identifying the syntax of lexical items. So far so good. Except that it’s not obvious how properties like being a noun orbeing an intransitive verb might signal their presence in the learner’s input since they aren’t, in general, marked byfeatures of the data that the child can unquestion-beggingly be supposed to pick up.Jean-marc pizano