LINGUIST List 14.2138

Tue Aug 12 2003

Review: Semantics: Saeed (2003)

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  • C A Ankerstein, Saeed (2003), Semantics

    Message 1: Saeed (2003), Semantics

    Date: Mon, 11 Aug 2003 16:33:21 +0100
    From: C A Ankerstein <>
    Subject: Saeed (2003), Semantics

    Saeed, J.I. (2003). Semantics. 2nd Ed. Blackwell, paperback ISBN: 0-631-22693-1, 413pp.

    Carrie Ankerstein, Department of Human Communication Sciences, University of Sheffield, England.

    John I. Saeed's Semantics (now in its second edition) is an introductory text book. It is a general and broad introduction to some of the central ideas of semantics and also some of the most important semanticists. It assumes no knowledge of semantics, but a general idea of linguistics and its subdisciplines, e.g. syntax, morphology, phonology, etc. is helpful.

    The eleven chapters are organized into three sections: Preliminaries (chapters 1-2), Semantic Description (chapters 3-8) and Theoretical Approaches (chapters 9-11). New concepts are often illustrated with English and foreign language examples and new terms are always printed in bold in the first mention and fully described. Though unfortunately there is no glossary of terms, there is an index in which terminology can be looked up. At the end of each chapter there is a set of exercises in which the reader can explore the questions raised in the preceding chapter. There are no answer keys, but this shouldn't pose too much of a problem. Also concluding each chapter is a list of further reading for more information about the topics covered in that chapter.

    Part I: Preliminaries Chapter 1: Semantics in Linguistics introduces the broad area of semantics. As a subdiscipline of linguistics, semantics is described as the study of the meanings of words and sentences. Several key concepts are introduced including de Saussure's differentiation of the signifier and the signified, which reflects the relationship between the sign and what the sign represents. Saeed also discusses some common problems to semantic theory, how semantics fits into a modal of grammar or language, the difference between semantics and pragmatics and the issues of productivity and compositionality which are prevalent in linguistic theory.

    Chapter 2: Meaning, Thought and Reality explores how we used language to convey information about the world. Key issues here are reference, denotation and extension. There is also a brief introduction to a theory of concepts, or word meaning. The language of thought or ''mentalese'' is also discussed.

    Part II: Semantic Description

    Chapter 3: Word Meaning is an introduction to lexical semantics, the meaning of words. Concepts such as lexeme and lemma are discussed as is context effects such as vagueness and ambiguity. Word relations like hyponymy, synonymy and meronymy are also covered. These are all discussed as central issues that a theory of semantics must take into account.

    Chapter 4: Sentence Relations and Truth discusses the meaning of sentences and introduces the concepts of synonymy, entailment, contradiction, presupposition and tautology. The chapter then moves on to describe the meaning of sentences in terms of logic. The chapter ends with some problems for a purely semantic approach and there is a short discussion of the pragmatic approach to presupposition, which describes presupposition in terms of what the speaker thinks his/her audience knows.

    Chapter 5: Sentence Semantics 1: Situations focuses again on words in sentences, but more specifically the marking of time in sentences, or tense, which is generally encoded in the verb phrase. Concepts revolving around the marking of time include not only tense, but aspect, mood and evidentiality. Different types of verbs are also discussed, e.g. stative and dynamic verbs.

    Chapter 6: Sentence Semantics: Participants examines the notion of thematic roles, i.e. the entities that act or are acted upon, etc. The grammatical concept voice is introduced as an indicator of thematic roles.

    Chapter 7: Context and Inference discusses the importance of context in constructing and interpreting a speaker's utterance is discussed. Part of context is general background knowledge about the world. Background knowledge and context aid in interpreting context specific utterances, especially those with deictic terms, which require a reference point for interpretation, e.g. ''there''. In this chapter, Grice's maxims and conversational implicature are also discussed.

    Chapter 8: Functions of Language: Speech as Action presents the very influential and once popular theory of speech as action or Austin & Searle's ''speech act theory''. The theory is presented fully and clearly, though none of its weaknesses are pointed out, e.g. that it is often difficult to categorize utterances into ''actions''.

    Part III: Theoretical Approaches.

    Chapter 9: Meaning Components returns to the problem of word meaning discussed earlier. Some theories of word meaning state that meaning is represented by features, e.g. for bachelor: male, unmarried, where ''male'' and ''unmarried'' are features that make up the meaning of ''bachelor''. Chapter 9 discusses the idea of semantic components or primitives and this kind of analysis, componential analysis not only for nouns, but also for some syntactic constructs, e.g. causative and motion verbs. Theories such as Jackendoff's Conceptual Structure and Pustejovsky's Generative Lexicon are presented. Problems with these types of analyses are also discussed.

    Chapter 10: Formal Semantics. The label ''formal semantics, '' as Saeed points out, may also be called: truth-conditional semantics, model-theoretic semantics, Montague Grammar and possible logical semantics. These approaches are based on predicate logic translations. In addition to an introduction to predicate logic, various applications are also discussed, e.g. modality, tense and aspect and anaphora.

    Chapter 11: Cognitive Semantics. The final chapter introduces the approach known as cognitive semantics. One defining characteristic of this approach is to form an experientialist basis for meaning, i.e. that the human experience of existing in a society creates the basic conceptual structures which make meaning in language possible. Key topics here are metaphor, viewpoint, profiling, scanning and mental models.

    In general, Semantics is a fantastic introductory or reference book for students new to the area. It covers a range of topics that are central to semantics, which should be found on most university syllabi. The various theories, concepts and issues are clearly and fully presented in an objective fashion, though generally no critical evaluation of these theories, etc. is made.


    Carrie Ankerstein is a PhD student in the department of Human Communication Sciences at the University of Sheffield, England. She has a Masters in Applied Linguistics from the University of Cambridge, England and a Bachelor's degree in German Linguistics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA / University of Freiburg, Germany. Her research interests include the organization and representation of concepts in semantic memory. She is currently a teaching assistant for Linguistics in the Departments of Human Communication Sciences and English Language and Linguistics for undergraduate and postgraduate students.