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Semantics, part 2. December 6, 2010. The Last Details. For starters: a word association Quick Write. Semantics/pragmatics homework is due on Wednesday. any questions? Future plans: Wednesday - wrap up semantics + some comments on language preservation also: in-class USRIs

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semantics part 2
Semantics, part 2

December 6, 2010

the last details
The Last Details
  • For starters: a word association Quick Write.
  • Semantics/pragmatics homework is due on Wednesday.
    • any questions?
  • Future plans:
  • Wednesday - wrap up semantics
    • + some comments on language preservation
    • also: in-class USRIs
  • Friday - review session (for whoever wants one)
  • We will attempt to grade the semantics homeworks between Wednesday and Friday.
moving on
Moving On
  • There are several different ways to study meaning in language:
  • Pragmatics
    • The meaningful use of linguistic expressions in conversation and discourse.
  • Compositional Semantics

How the meaning of phrases and sentences is built up from the meanings of individual words.

  • Lexical Semantics

The meaning of individual words, and how they’re related to one another.

lexical semantics
Lexical Semantics
  • Here are two basic meaning relationships that words can have with one another:
  • Synonymy
    • Two words have the same meaning
    • couch/sofa, groundhog/woodchuck, hide/conceal
    • = real-world extensions are identical
  • Hyponymy
    • one word’s extension is a subset of another word’s extension
    • poodle/dog, laptop/computer, gas giants/planets
Synonym Schematic

Fido Marmaduke Garfield


Spot Snoopy

Fifi Mr. Meowser


Scooby The Death Star

canines and dogs are synonyms

is a dog

is a canine

Hyponym Schematic

Fido Marmaduke Garfield


Spot Snoopy

Fifi Mr. Meowser


Tinkerbell The Death Star

poodle is a hyponym (subset) of dog

is a dog

is a poodle

another one
Another One
  • Antonymy: when words that mean the “opposite” of each other
  • Complementary antonyms:
    • Everything in the world is one or the other
    • unmarried/married, present/absent, visible/invisible
  • Relational antonyms:
    • Reflect a symmetrical connection between each other
    • give/receive, buy/sell, teacher/pupil
    • employer/employee, adviser/advisee
  • Scalar antonyms: words form two ends of a scale
    • hot/cold, happy/sad, big/small, fast/slow
homonyms homophones
  • Homonyms/Homophones are words with:
    • same pronunciation
    • unrelated meanings
    • from Greek: /homo-/ “same” + /onyma/ “name”
  • Examples:
    • trunk (of an elephant), trunk (chest), trunk (of a tree)
    • also: bear, bare
  • Homonyms can create ambiguity:
    • We saw her duck.
  • Polysemy is when one word has several different, but related meanings.
    • From Greek: /poly-/ “many” + /sema/ “signal”
  • Examples:
    • Mouth of a river ~ mouth of an animal
    • A baseball diamond ~ a geometric diamond ~ a diamond stone
  • Compositional semantics, continued...
    • We have discussed how the referents of nouns and the extensions of predicates get put together to form a meaningful proposition.
  • Now let’s consider adjectives and nouns in noun phrases.
  • Simplest case: pure intersection
  • black dogs =
    • the set of all dogs
      • intersected with
    • the set of all black things
Pure Intersection Schematic


Odie Charcoal

Lassie Spot

Rex Darth Vader




black dogs

black things

semantic features
Semantic Features
  • Idea: the meaning of a word can be precisely determined by the pure intersection of predicates of which it is a hyponym (subset).
  • Example: “square”
  • Example: “bachelor”
  • The predicate sets form a word’s semantic features
    • “hen” and “mare” share the feature [FEMALE]
    • “bachelor” and “woman” share the feature [HUMAN]
verb features
Verb Features
  • The same semantic feature can be expressed by a variety of different verbs.
  • Example: the feature [GO]
    • reflects a change in position
    • fly, walk, roll, stumble, run, crawl, etc.
  • More subtle examples of [GO]:
    • give: “John gave Mary an engagement ring.”
    • John Mary
    • ring
    • “The boy threw the ball over the fence.”
a syntax flashback
A Syntax Flashback
  • Remember that, in syntax, we learned that different verbs require specific complement structures.
  • For instance, transitive verbs require an object NP in their verb phrases.
    • I devoured the sandwich.
    • I met the Professor.
  • Similarly, ditransitive verbs can take two objects in their verb phrases.
    • The dog trainer sold me a chew toy.
    • Larry gave Shelly the textbook.
syntax semantics
  • There are sub-features of [GO], which are reflected in constraints on verb complements in English.
  • [BALLISTIC]: a one-time [GO] V’  V NP NP
  • [SUSTAINED]: a continuous [GO] *V’  V NP NP
  • Ballistic Verbs Sustained Verbs
  • throw the boy a ball *push the boy a ball
  • toss the boy a ball *pull the boy a ball
  • kick the boy a ball *lift the boy a ball
  • fling the boy a ball *drag the boy a ball
role playing
  • The objects of ditransitive verbs can be expressed in two different syntactic ways:
    • Larry gave Shelly the textbook. (NP NP)
    • Larry gave the textbook to Shelly. (NP PP)
  • Despite the syntactic differences, each noun plays the same role in both sentences:
    • Larry: Agent (the entity performing the action)
    • Textbook: Theme (thing being acted upon)
    • Shelly: Recipient (being coming into possession of something)
thematic roles
Thematic Roles
  • Verbs have semantic requirements.
  • For a sentence to make sense, it has to include nouns which can play the roles required by the verb.
  • give: Agent; Theme; Recipient
  • Larry gave Shelly the textbook.
  • Larry gave the textbook to Shelly.
  • Shelly was given the textbook by Larry.
  • !Anger gave Shelly the textbook.
other thematic roles
Other Thematic Roles
  • Experiencer
    • = animate being that has a perceptual or mental experience.
    • Ex: Susan heard the music.
  • Source
    • = the origin of a change.
    • Ex: Jan arrived from Detroit.
  • Instrument
    • = the means used to accomplish an action (not agent)
    • Ex: The hammer cracked the window.
other thematic roles20
Other Thematic Roles
  • Goal
    • = the end point of a change in location or possession.
    • Ex: Chris hitchhiked to Alaska.
  • Location
    • = the place where an action occurs.
    • Ex: Neil Young played a show in Winnipeg.
cross language data
Cross-language Data
  • Consider the sentence: I like the book.
    • “I” is the (thematic) experiencer in this sentence.
    • It is also the (syntactic) subject of the sentence.
  • Other languages express this notion with different syntax:
    • German: Das Buch gefällt mir.
    • French: Le livre me plaît.
    • Spanish: Me gusta el libro.
  • In all of these languages, the speaker is the semantic experiencer of “liking” the book...
    • But is the syntactic object of the sentence.
by the way
By the way
  • Particular verbs can have highly specific thematic restrictions.
  • E.g.: the Experiencer of “sleep” has to be animate.
    • !Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.
  • The object of “frighten” has to have a mind.
    • Sincerity may frighten the boy.
    • !The boy may frighten sincerity.
  • Other examples:
    • Time elapsed. !John elapsed.
    • It is snowing. !The dog is snowing.
verb features23
Verb Features
  • Another verb feature: [CAUSE]
    • Contrast:
    • The water boiled. Laura boiled the water.
    • The door opened. The wind opened the door.
    • The window broke. Larry broke the window.
  • When these verbs are transitive, they have this semantic structure:
    • X CAUSED Y to Z
    • Laura CAUSED the water to boil.
  • In some languages, the [CAUSE] feature is realized morphologically.
  • Songhay (spoken in Burkina Faso):
  • Feneter di ba.
  • window the broke
  • “The window broke.”
  • Ali ba ndi feneter di.
  • Ali broke [CAUSE] window the
  • “Ali broke the window.”
other language differences
Other Language Differences
  • Every language has nouns, but different languages can develop different types of nouns
  • English: count and mass nouns
  • Count nouns can be enumerated or pluralized
    • two potatoes, many potatoes, *much potato
    • three chairs, many chairs, *much chair
  • Mass nouns cannot be enumerated or pluralized
    • *two rices, *many rice, much rice
    • *three furnitures, *many furniture, much furniture
  • shoes vs. footwear; coins vs. change
  • Some mass nouns in English are count nouns in Italian.
  • Ivano ha mangiato molti spaghetti ieri sera.
    • “Ivano ate many spaghettis last evening.”
  • Piero ha comprato un mobile.
    • “Piero bought a furniture.”
  • Luisella ha pettinato i suoi capelli.
    • “Luisella combed her hairs.”
collective nouns
Collective Nouns
  • American English:
    • The Minnesota Vikings are winning the game.
    • Minnesota is winning the game.
  • British English:
    • Manchester United are winning the game.
  • Windows is shutting down.
women fire and dangerous things
Women, Fire and Dangerous Things
  • Dyirbal (Australia) has four types of nouns
    • Each noun must be preceded by a word marker
  • /baji/: human males; animals
  • /balan/: human females; water; fire; dangerous things
  • /balam/: nonflesh food (fruit, vegetables, honey, wine)
  • /bala/: everything else
  • This system applied to new items, too:
    • Matches became a member of category 2
    • Cigarettes became a member of category 3
compositional rehash
Compositional Rehash
  • Last time, I introduced the correspondence theory of truth:
  • Propositions can be true or false.
  • Truth is the correspondence of propositions to facts.
  • A valid objection: subjective vs. objective truth.
  • Subjective: “It’s chilly outside.”
  • Objective “fact”: “The Black Hawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010.”
  • Possible fix: subjective truths may be true from only one person’s perspective;
    • Objective truths are true from all possible perspectives.
sapir whorf hypothesis
Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
  • In the early twentieth century, the linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf proposed the following (controversial) hypothesis:
    • A person’s conception of reality is dependent upon the language they speak.
  • Edward Sapir (1929):
  • “Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society…we see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.”
sapir whorf hypothesis31
Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
  • Benjamin Whorf (1956):
  • “The background linguistic system (in other words, the grammar) of each language is not merely the reproducing instrument for voicing ideas but rather is itself the shaper of ideas, the program and guide for the individual’s mental activity, for his analysis of impressions, for his synthesis of his mental stock in trade…We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages.”
  • Intriguing thoughts, but…
    • Hard to prove in reality.
  • One interesting piece of evidence:
    • Differences in the way that languages organize the color spectrum.
reference basic color terms
Reference: Basic Color Terms

purple blue green yellow orange red

Color names for the spectrum of light in English


Hungarian distinguishes between piros “light red” and voros “dark red“

Russian distinguishes between sinij “dark blue” and goluboj “light blue”

reference color terms
Reference: Color Terms

cipswuka citema cicena cipswuka

Color names for the spectrum of light in Shona

(spoken in Zimbabwe)

Note: cipswuka applies to “orange”, “red” and “purple”

reference color terms34
Reference: Color Terms

hui ziza

Color names for the spectrum of light in Bassa

(spoken in the Ivory Coast)

patterns of color terms
Patterns of Color Terms
  • Brent Berlin and Paul Kay (1969) catalogued the color terms of 98 different languages.
  • They presented speakers of different languages with an array of 329 color chips.
  • Task:
    • for each color word in the speaker’s language, circle all the chips that it applies to
    • Also: circle the chip that is the best example of that color
color matching results
Color Matching Results
  • Every language has at least two basic color terms
    • basically: dark (“black”) and light (“white”)
    • Bassa is a two-color language
  • Languages with three color terms add red
  • Languages with four color terms add green or yellow
  • Fifth color term: either green or yellow
  • Sixth color term: blue
  • Seventh color term: brown
  • The rest: purple, pink, orange or gray
big picture
Big Picture
  • Different languages divvy up the color spectrum in different ways;
    • but there are still language-universal patterns in the types of color schemes available to languages.
  • As linguists, we want to know what competent speakers of a language need to know in order to produce meaningful utterances in that language.
    • = the semantic features of a language
  • There are language-specific and language-universal semantic features.
  • As in syntax, whatever is language-universal may be attributed to our innate mental endowment for both language and thought.