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CAS LX 502 Semantics. 3a. Word meaning 3.1-3.6ish. Lexical semantics. As a first approximation: The meaning (and relations between the meanings) of words. Pat is a bachelor. Pat is a man. Pat has an unpleasant personality. My sister is a bachelor. Tracy fed my dog. My dog ate.

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Cas lx 502 semantics

CAS LX 502Semantics

3a. Word meaning


Lexical semantics
Lexical semantics

  • As a first approximation: The meaning (and relations between the meanings) of words.

    • Pat is a bachelor.

    • Pat is a man.

    • Pat has an unpleasant personality.

    • My sister is a bachelor.

    • Tracy fed my dog.

    • My dog ate.

    • My dog is no longer hungry.

Lexical semantics1
Lexical semantics

  • What is it about bachelor that tells us (necessarily, inescapably) about maleness? What is it about feeding that tells us about eating?

  • Bachelor and male share something in common—to be male…and to be unmarried.

    • (And probably to be otherwise eligible to be married)

Lexical semantics2
Lexical semantics

  • Our knowledge about the words (and morphemes) of language can be thought of as a list, as a “mental dictionary”—a lexicon.

Bachelors and men
Bachelors and men

  • If Pat is a bachelor, and to be a bachelor is to be a man and to be unmarried (and possibly to be eligible), then it follows that Pat is a man, that Pat is unmarried but eligible to be married. So, we have learned something about the meaning of bachelor and its relation to the meaning of man.

  • Pat is a bachelorentailsthatPat is a man.

    • Entailment: X entails Y if there can be no situation in which X is true but Y is not.

Entailment and other reasoning
Entailment and other reasoning

  • Pat is a bachelor.

  • Pat has an unpleasant personality.

  • Pat has an unpleasant personality is not a necessary consequence of Pat is a bachelor. The first does not entail the second.

    • It could be that Pat has joined a priesthood, it could be that Pat has unrealistically high standards, it could be…well, it could be any of a number of things.

Meaning and lexemes lexical items
Meaning and lexemes(lexical items)

  • Lexicon = repository of unpredictable information.

    • Pronunciation

    • Meaning

    • Grammatical category

    • (Linked to) encyclopedic knowledge, register, frequency.

  • We may think of this in terms of lexemes, insofar as kick, kicked, kicks, kickinghave a predictable part and an unpredictable part to their meaning. The dictionary/lexicon need list only (to) kick.

A lexeme is more abstract than a word
A lexeme is more abstract than a “word”

  • And what is a “word” anyway?

  • We can come up with some more or less arbitrary definitions, but they don’t seem to get us much closer to understanding how the lexicon and semantic system is structured.

    • A word has spaces written around it. (isn’t vs. is not?)

    • A word can stand alone (*the, *a)

    • A word is pronounced separately (dyoowannaeet?)

    • A word expresses a concept (again, *the, *although)

What is a word anyway
What is a “word” anyway?

  • Inuktitut: qasuiirsarvigssarsingitluinarnarpuq

    • ‘Someone did not find a completely suitable resting place.’tiredcause.besuitable not someoneqasu-iir-sar-vig-ssar-si-ngit-luinar-nar-puqnotplace.forfind completely 3sg

  • Kick the bucket, get the sack, hit the hay, …

  • Turn in, turn on, hand in, write off, …

  • Bigger vs. more expansive vs. *expansiver.

  • “I’m afraid she’s gone and Michael Jacksoned herself to the point where she doesn’t even appear human anymore”(some random comment on some random blog, referring to California gubernatorial candidate Angelyne. Google “michael jacksoned” if you wish.)

One word several lexemes
One “word” several lexemes

  • bank1 : side of a river.

  • bank2 : financial institution

  • One word, (at least) two senses, two lexemes.

  • The word bank is ambiguous—it could mean ‘bank1’, it could mean ‘bank2’. This is different from vagueness, for example with large, small (Mickey is large, Willy is a small), or student (John, Mary) with respect to gender.

Differentiating ambiguity and vagueness
Differentiating ambiguity and vagueness

  • One way is with verb phrase ellipsis:

    • Tracy ate a sandwich and Pat did too.

      • Tracy ate a sandwich and Pat [ate a sandwich] too.

    • Pat visited a bank and Tracy did too.

      • Pat visited a bank and Tracy [visited a bank] too.

    • John is a student and Mary is too.

    • Mickey is large and Willy is too.

Dimensions of relatedness
Dimensions of relatedness

  • Bank1 (the river-side) and bank2 (the financial institution) are homonyms. Two basically unrelated words that sound the same. And are written the same. And are pronounced the same.

    • Subdivisions are possible: homographsare written the same, homophonesare pronounced the same. They (very well) might vary by dialect (bury, berry, Barry; Mary, merry, marry). They might share a category (wring, ring) or not (knot).


  • Where different senses are judged to be related, we have polysemyrather than homonymy. Sometimes a tough call.

    • Bat1 : implement for striking in certain games

    • Bat2 : furry mammal with membranous wings

    • Sole1 : A sort of flat fish

    • Sole2 : Bottom of a foot or shoe

      • < solea (Latin) via French.


  • A thesaurus provides synonyms—different words that share (nearly) the same meaning.

  • True synonyms may not exist, there is pretty much always a difference in register, attitude, dialect, collocation, or lexical relations.

    • Lawyer, attorney, counsel, …

    • Couch, sofa, futon, …

    • Little sister, small sister, …

    • Police, cop, pig, fuzz, …


  • Antonyms are in opposition, and come in a number of different flavors.

  • An animal might be aliveor dead, but not both. You might pass or fail a test, but not both.

    • Though we can make sense of undead and half-dead in fanciful ways.

  • Reversing the perspective: come/go, ascend/descend, up/down, in/out (reverses for motion, converses for more static relations) above/below, before/after/behind.


  • The opposition can be gradableas well. Something that is not hotis not necessarily cold, but they are still in opposition. Beautiful/ugly, fast/slow, tall/short, large/small.

  • Or, they can be opposed in a non-binary way (taxonomic sisters): red/green/blue, January/September/November/December.


  • Some words are related in an inclusion relation.

    • Couch, furniture.

    • Capybara/mammal/animal.


  • Meronymy: Part-whole relations:

    • Word/sentence/paragraph/page/chapter/book

  • Member-collection: boat/fleet, bird/flock

So where are we
So where are we?

  • The meanings of words (ahem, lexemes) are related to each other in many different ways. Some relations are prominent enough to be classified (synonyms, antonyms, hyponyms, polysems, …).

  • An empirical result of these connections can be seen in our inference patterns.

    • Fido is a dog. Fido is a mammal. Fido is a cat.

What we know about english say
What we know(about English, say)

  • Part of an English-speaker’s knowledge of language is the information in the lexicon: lexemes, their pronunciation, their syntactic category, their relationships to other lexemes, … and whatever is left, that we might call their meaning.

Back to the question of words
Back to the question of “words”

  • We might imagine that we can come up with some kind of “meaning” (definition, say) for tie or wrap.

  • We might observe that the relation between untieto tie rather like the relation between unwrap and wrap. And we might observe that one is simply the other plus un-.

  • Words themselves are composed of morphemes, some of which are meaningful in and of themselves (and would have lexical entries of their own).

Derivational morphemes
Derivational morphemes

  • So, alongside the content words like likely we have derivational morphemes like un-, together combining to form a word (with a predictable meaning) unlikely.

    • Recall:unrefaxeristically.

    • Or:antidisestablishmentarianism(opposition to the disestablishment of the Church of England)

  • These (anti-, dis-, -ment, -ary, -ian, -ism) are lexemes in their own right.

    • Finding the morphemes isn’t trivial (ally, prism, canary, cement, distant), but they do seem to exist.

Inflectional morphemes
Inflectional morphemes

  • Derivational morphemes like iN- (impossible, irregular, incapable, intractable) are often distinguished from inflectional morphemes (walk, walks, walked) in that derivational morphemes carry a heavier semantic load. Inflectional morphemes are agreement (with, e.g., a 3sg subject).

    • Practically, it’s a difficult line to draw precisely, but generally grammatically enforced morphology (agreement, tense/aspect marking) is in the “inflectional” category. Some linguists in fact argue that the distinction isn’t a meaningful one, but that isn’t the consensus view.

Derivational morphology
Derivational morphology

  • Derivational morphology is also capable of changing a word’s category.

    • The road is wide. (adjective)

    • The road widened. (verb)

    • He refaxed the memo. (verb)

    • He is a refaxer. (noun)

    • He acted in a refaxeristic manner. (adjective)

    • He acted refaxeristically. (adverb)

Causatives inchoatives

  • A reasonably large class of verbs seem to be able to alternate between inchoative (change of state) verbs and causative verbs.

    • The door is open. (adjective)

    • The door opened. (verb; inchoative)

    • I opened the door. (verb; causative)

    • I sank the boat, I melted the chocolate.

Kharia austro asiatic binar india nepal
Kharia (Austro-Asiatic, Binar, India, Nepal)

  • nogtem ‘you eat’

  • gilte‘he beats’

  • udtem‘you drink’ (invented)

  • obnogtem‘you feed’

  • obgilte‘he causes to beat’

  • obudtem‘you cause to drink’


  • There are languages that have a causative morpheme that derives feed from eat.

  • English has some too, which come out differently depending on the specific word:

    • We enlarged the photograph.

    • We modernized the house.

    • We opened the door.

Open v open
Open v. open

  • How does openin The door openedrelate to openin I opened the door?

  • Perhaps there’s a “hidden causative” in I opened the door (like the “hidden plural” in I saw two deer). A prefix (or suffix) that has no pronunciation? I Ø-opened the door.

Kill vs die
Kill vs. die

  • Consider too the relation between killand die. What do the semantic components of killseem to be?

  • The surface (pronounced) form of a word may not fully reveal its underlying semantic structure.

Lexical decomposition
“Lexical decomposition”

  • We might think of kill as CAUSE-die, of enter as CAUSE-BE-in, of giveas CAUSE-HAVE.

  • So semantically, Tracy gave Mary a bookmight really be Tracy CAUSE Mary HAVE a book.

Kicking the bucket
Kicking the bucket

  • Sometimes whole phrases (verb phrases) can have an idiomatic meaning: kick the bucket, buy the farm, … They have a meaning that is not derivable from the component parts.

  • Usually, this is tied to both the verb (tap the bucket, rent the farm) and the object (kick the pail, buy the house) together.

Something to ponder
Something to ponder

  • Interestingly, there are some idioms that seems to allow a certain flexibility:

    • Tracy gave Pat the boot.

    • Pat got the boot.

  • But it isn’t unlimited:

    • Tracy gave the boot to Pat.

    • Pat has the boot.

    • Pat took the boot.

    • The boot ruined Pat’s Christmas.

  • We’ll kick off next time with a somewhat involved argument from this that give, get, have (, take), all have HAVE as a “silent component.”

Cas lx 502 semantics

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