The way to do so is to suppose that lexical entries specify semanticfeatures of lexical items.

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Jean-marc pizano The way to do so is to suppose that lexical entries specify semanticfeatures of lexical items.

 

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Linguistic discussions of lexical semantics just about invariably confuse two questions we are now in a position to distinguish: Are there semantic features? and Is there a semantic level? It is, however, important to keep

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these questions distinct if you care about the structure of concepts. It’s especially important if what you care about is whether “kill”, “eat”, and the like have definitions; i.e. whether KILL, EAT, and the like are complex concepts orconceptual primitives. To say, in the present context, that there are semantic features is just to say that semantic facts canhave syntactic reflexes: what an expression means (partially) determines the contexts in which it is syntactically well-formed. To say that there is a semantic level is to make a very much stronger claim: viz. that there is a level ofrepresentation at which only the semantic properties of expressions are specified, hence at which synonymous expressions getthe same representations, hence at which the surface integrity of lexical items is not preserved. I am, as no doubt the readerwill have gathered, much inclined to deny both these claims; but never mind that for now. My present concern is just toemphasize the importance of the difference between them.

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For many of the familiar tenets of lexical semantics flow from the stronger claim but not from the weaker one. For example, since everybody thinks that the concepts expressed by phrases are typically complex, and since, by definition,representations at the semantic level abstract from the lexical and syntactic properties that distinguish phrases fromtheir lexical synonyms, it follows that if there is a semantic level, then the concepts expressed by single words are oftencomplex too. However, this conclusion does not follow from the weaker assumption: viz. that lexical entries containsemantic features. Linguistic features can perfectly well attach to a lexical item that is none the less primitive at everylevel of linguistic description.37 And it’s only the weaker assumption that the facts about dative movement and the likesupport, since the most these data show is that the syntactic behaviour of lexical items is determined by their semanticsinter alia; e.g. by their semantic features together with their morphology. So Pinker’s argument for definitions doesn’twork even on the assumption that ‘denotes a prospective possession’ and the like are bona fide semantic representations.

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THE MORAL: AN ARGUMENT FOR LEXICAL SEMANTIC FEATURES IS NOT IPSO FACTOAN ARGUMENT THAT THERE IS LEXICAL SEMANTIC DECOMPOSITION!!! Pardon me if I seem to shout; butpeople do keep getting this wrong, and it does make a litter of the landscape.

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Compare: no doubt, the lexical entry for ‘boy’ includes the syntactic feature +Noun. This is entirely compatible with ‘boy’ being a lexical primitive at every level of linguistic description.Saying that lexical items have features is one thing; saying that lexical items are feature bundles is quite another. Do not conflate these claims.

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Well, but has Pinker made good even the weaker claim? Suppose we believe the semantic bootstrapping story about language learning; and suppose we pretend to understand notions like prospective possession, attribute, and the like; andsuppose we assume that these are, as it were, really semantic properties and not mere shadows of distributional factsabout the words that express them; and suppose we take for granted the child’s capacity for finding such semanticproperties in his input; and suppose that the question we care about is not whether there’s a semantic level, but justwhether the mental lexicon (ever) represents semantic features of lexical items. Supposing all of this, is there at least abootstrapping argument that, for example, part of the lexical entry for ‘eat’ includes the semantic feature ACTION.

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Well, no. Semantic bootstrapping, even if it really is semantic, doesn’t require that lexical entries ever specify semantic properties. For even if the child uses the knowledge that ‘eat’ denotes an action to bootstrap the syntax of ‘snails eatleaves’, it doesn’t follow that “denoting an action” is a property that “eat” has in virtue of what it means. All thatfollows—hence all the child needs to know in order to bootstrap—is that ‘eat’ denotes eating and that eating is a kindof acting. (I’m indebted to Eric Margolis for this point.) Indeed, mere reliability of the connection between eating andacting would do perfectly well for the child’s purposes; “semantic bootstrapping” does not require the child to take theconnection to be semantic or even necessary.Jean-marc pizano

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John showed his etchings to Mary

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Or consider:

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John showed his etchings to Mary/John showed Mary his etchings.

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but

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John exhibited his etchings to Mary/*John exhibited Mary his etchings.

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Is it that Mary is in metaphorical possession of etchings that are shown to her but not of etchings that are exhibited to her? How is one to tell? More to the point, how is the child to tell? Remember that, according to Pinker’s story, the childfigures out that ‘exhibit’ doesn’t dative-move when hedecides that it doesn’t—even metaphorically—express prospective possession. But how on earth does he decide that?31

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I should emphasize that Pinker is explicitly aware that there are egregious exceptions to his semantic characterization of the constraints on dative movement, nor does he suppose that appeals to “metaphorical possession” and the likecan always be relied on to get him off the hook. At least one of the things that he thinks is going on with the doubleobject construction is a morphological constraint on dative movement: polysyllabic verbs tend to resist it (notice show/*exhibit; tell/*repeat in the examples above). But though Pinker remarks upon the existence of such non-semanticconstraints, he appears not to see how much trouble they make for his view.

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Remember the architecture of Pinker’s argument. What’s on offer is an inference from ontogenetic considerations to the conclusion that there are definitions. What shows that there are definitions is that there is a semantic level oflinguistic representation at which verbs are lexically decomposed. What shows that there are semantic-levelrepresentations is that you need semantic vocabulary to formulate the hypotheses that the child projects in the courseof learning the lexicon; and that’s because, according to Pinker, these hypotheses express correlations between certainsemantic properties of lexical items, on the one hand, and the grammatical structures that the items occur in, on theother. Double-object constructions, as we’ve seen, are supposed to be paradigms.

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But it now appears that the vocabulary required to specify the conditions on such constructions isn’t purely semantic after all; not even according to Pinker. To predict whether a verb permits dative movement, 15you need to know not only whether it expresses (literally or metaphorically) ‘prospective possession’, but also thepertinent facts about its morphology. What account of the representation of lexical structure does this observationimply? The point to notice is that there isn’t, on anybody’s story, any one level of representation that specifies both thesemantic and the morphological features of a lexical item. In particular, it’s a defining property of the (putative)semantic level that it abstracts from the sorts of (morphological, phonological, syntactic, etc.) properties that distinguishbetween synonyms. For example, the semantic level is supposed not to distinguish the representation of (e.g.)“bachelor” from the representation of “unmarried man”, the representation of “kill” from the representation of “causeto die”, and so forth.

Well, if that’s what the semantic level is, and if the facts about morphological constraints on double-object structures are as we (and Pinker) are supposing them to be, then the moral is that there is no level of linguistic representation atwhich the constraints on dative movement can be expressed: not the morphological level because (assuming thatPinker’s story about “prospective possession” is true) morphological representation abstracts from the semanticproperties on which dative movement is contingent. And, precisely analogously, not the semantic level because semanticlevel representation abstracts from the morphological properties of lexical items on which dative movement is alsocontingent.

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Time to pull this all together and see where the argument has gotten. Since heaven only knows what “prospective possession” is, there’s no seriously evaluating the claim that dative movement turns on whether a verb expresses it.What does seem clear, however, is that even if there are semantic constraints on the syntactic behaviour of doubleobject verbs, there are also morphological constraints on their syntactic behaviour. So to state such generalizations at asingle linguistic level, you would need to postulate not semantic representations but morphosemantic representations. It is,however, common ground that there is no level of representation in whose vocabulary morphological and semanticconstraints can be simultaneously imposed.

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This isn’t a paradox; it is perfectly possible to formulate conditions that depend, simultaneously, on semantic and morphological properties of lexical items without assuming that there is a semantic level (and, for that matter, withoutassuming that there is a morphological level either).Jean-marc pizano

Auntie. Try me.

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Auntie. Try me.

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—: It’s (sigh!) keeping (Cf: “What is it that “exist” expresses in both ‘numbers exist’ and ‘chairs exist’?” Reply: “It’s (sigh!) existing”)

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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’

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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.

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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

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—: 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.

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Pinker

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.

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The Bootstrapping Argument

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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.

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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

To insist on taking it this way isn’t, Ithink, merely persnickety on my part. Unless definitions express semantic equivalences, they can’t do the jobs that theyare supposed to do in, for example, theories

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Jean-marc pizano To insist on taking it this way isn’t, Ithink, merely persnickety on my part. Unless definitions express semantic equivalences, they can’t do the jobs that theyare supposed to do in, for example, theories

 

of lexical meaning and theories of concept acquisition. The idea is that its definition is what you acquire when you acquire a concept, and that its definition is what the word corresponding to the concept expresses. But how could“bachelor” and “unmarried male” express the same concept—viz. UNMARRIED MALE—if it‘s not even true that“bachelor” and “unmarried male” apply to the same things? And how could acquiring the concept BACHELOR bethe same process as acquiring the concept UNMARRIED MALE if there are semantic properties that the twoconcepts don’t share? It’s supposed to be the main virtue of definitions that, in all sorts of cases, they reduce problemsabout the defined concept to corresponding problems about its primitive parts. But that won’t happen unless eachdefinition has the very same content as the concept that it defines.

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I propose now to consider some of the linguistic arguments that are supposed to show that many English words have definitions, where, however, “definitions” means definitions. I think that, when so constrained, none of these argumentsis any good at all. The lexical semantics literature is, however, enormous and I can‘t prove this by enumeration. WhatI’ll do instead is to have a close look at some typical (and influential) examples. (For discussions of some other kinds of‘linguistic’ arguments for definitions, see Fodor 1970; Fodor and Lepore, forthcoming a; Fodor and Lepore,forthcoming b.)

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Jackendoff

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Here’s a passage from Jackendoff 1992. (For simplification, I have omitted from the quotation what Jackendoff takes to be some parallel examples; and I’ve correspondingly renumbered the cited formulas.)

The basic insight… is that the formalism for encoding concepts of spatial location and motion, suitably abstracted, can be generalized to many verbs and prepositions in two or more semantic fields, forming intuitively relatedparadigms. [J1 —J4] illustrates [a] basic case

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[J1 Semantic field:] [J2 Semantic field:]J3 Semantic field:]

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Spatial location and motion: ‘Harry kept the bird in the cage.’ Possession: ‘Susan kept the money.’

Ascription of properties [sic]:29 ‘Sam kept the crowd happy.’

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Wherein does this semantic field differ from any other? If I say that Harry kept the bird in the cage, don’t I thereby ascribe a property—viz. the property of keeping the bird in the cage—to Harry? Jackendoff has a lot of trouble deciding what to call his semantic fields. This might well be because they’re gerrymandered.

[J4 Semantic field:] Scheduling of activities: ‘Let’s keep the trip on Saturday.’ . . .

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The claim is that the different concepts expressed by ‘keep’. . . are not unrelated: they share the same functional

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structure and differ only in the semantic field feature. (1992: 37—9).

I think the argument Jackendoff has in mind must be something like this: ‘Keep’ is “polysemous”. On the one hand, there’s the intuition that the very same word occurs in J1—J4; ‘keep’ isn’t ambiguous like ‘bank’. On the other hand,there’s the intuition that the sense of ‘keep’ does somehow differ in the four cases. The relation between Susan and themoney in J2 doesn’t seem to be quite the same as the relation between John and the crowd in J3. How to reconcilethese intuitions?

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Well, suppose that ‘keep’ sentences “all denote the causation of a state that endures over a period of time” (37).30 That would account for our feeling that ‘keep’ is univocal. The intuition that there’s something different, all the same,between keeping the money and keeping the crowd happy can now also be accommodated by reference to thedifferences among the semantic fields, each of which “has its own particular inferential patterns” (39). So Jackendoff“accounts for [the univocality of ‘keep’ in J1—J4] by claiming that they are each realizations of the basic conceptualfunctions” (specified by the putative definition) (37). What accounts for the differences among them is “a semanticfield feature that designates the field in which the Event [to which the analysis of ‘keep’ refers] … is defined” (38). So ifwe assume that ‘keep’ has a definition, and that its definition is displayed at some level of linguistic/cognitiverepresentation, then we can see how it can be true both that ‘keep’ means what it does and that what it means dependson the semantic field in which it is applied.31

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