ENCYLOPEDIA OF COGNITIVE SCIENCES
Nature Publishing Group (2003)
San Francisco State University, San Francisco, CA, USA
Issues about Meaning
to Cognitive Science
Sentences have meanings, and speakers mean things in using
them. The meaning is of a sentence is determined by the meanings of its
constituents, together with its syntactic structure, but what a speaker means in
using it is often not determined by what it means, since he may mean something
more or something else.
Language is used to express
thoughts and to represent aspects of the world. What thought a sentence
expresses depends on what the sentence means, and how it represents the world
also depends on what it means. Moreover, it is ultimately arbitrary, a matter of
convention, that the words of a language mean what they do. So it might seem
that what they mean is a matter of how they are used. However, they need not be
used in accordance with their literal meanings. One can speak nonliterally, and
convey something other than what the sentence means ('The look on his face
spoke volumes'), or speak indirectly, and convey something more than what the
sentence means ('I wonder if you know the time'). Linguistic communication
requires knowledge of linguistic meaning, on the part of both the speaker and
his audience, but it requires extralinguistic knowledge as well.
Words have meanings, and sentences have meanings. Assuming
a principle of semantic compositionality, according to which the meaning of a
sentence is determined by the meanings of its constituents and its syntactic
structure, the aim of a semantic theory is to give an account of how meanings of
complex expressions are determined by the meanings of their simplest meaningful
constituents. A theory of meaning should explain what meanings are.
It is plausible to suppose, at least as a first
approximation, that what a declarative sentence means is what is asserted by a
speaker using it literally, and that what the speaker thus asserts is the belief
he is thereby expressing. So, for example, if you utter the sentence,
'Giraffes do not use periscopes', you are asserting, and expressing the
belief, that giraffes do not use periscopes. If you are sincere, you actually
believe what you are asserting, and that is the very thing that comprises the
meaning of the sentence you uttered. Call this thing a proposition, in this case
the proposition that giraffes do not use periscopes.
That leaves open what sort of thing propositions are.
Presumably they are abstract entities, both mind-and language-independent, and
whereas some philosophers think of them as structured, composed of the semantic
values of sentence constituents, others think of them as sets of circumstances
or possible worlds with respect to which a given sentence is true (see FORMAL
SEMANTICS AND CATEGORIAL GRAMMAR; POSSIBLE WORLDS SEMANTICS). Some are reluctant to speak of
propositions at all and prefer to speak of the truth conditions rather than the
propositional contents of sentences. To remain neutral on this issue, let us use
'proposition' to mean the truth-conditional content of a (declarative)
sentence, whether this is something which has a truth condition or simply
is the truth condition. A proposition is something that different people can
believe or assert and that different sentences, in the same or different
languages, can mean. The truth or falsity of sentences, beliefs, and assertions
depends on the truth or falsity of their propositional contents. So, in
particular, the truth or falsity of the sentence, 'Giraffes do not use
periscopes', or of the belief expressed and the assertion made in uttering it,
depends on the truth or falsity of the proposition that giraffes do not use
It is widely thought that the meaning of a sentence is
determined by the meanings of its constituents and how they are arranged
syntactically (in linguistic terms, the meaning, or semantic interpretation, of
a sentence is a projection of its syntax at the level of LOGICAL
From this perspective, it is reasonable to identify the meaning of a constituent
of a sentence with the contribution it makes to the propositional contents of
sentences in which it occurs. Different sorts of expressions make different
sorts of contribution. For example, whereas 'giraffes' and 'periscopes'
mean things of certain types, 'use' means a relation between agents and
instruments, and 'not' is a negation operator.
Some words clearly have meanings and yet their meanings
are not clear. With vague words like 'red', 'old' and 'rich', there
is no clear boundary between what they do and do not apply to (see
They appear to have borderline cases, although it has been argued (most notably
by Williamson, 1994) that the boundaries are definite but unknowable. Also,
different words can have the same meaning. For example, in one of their
respective senses, 'correct' and 'right' are synonymous. So are
'teacher' and 'instructor', and 'consume' and 'devour'. And, of
course, a word can have more than one meaning. Typical examples of ambiguous
words are the nouns 'bat', 'club' and 'stroke', the verbs 'cut',
'draw' and 'lie', and the adjectives 'hard', 'high' and
The occurrence of an ambiguous word in a sentence, as in
'George never goes near a golf club', renders the sentence ambiguous. But
sentences can also be structurally ambiguous, as with 'German history teachers
are pedantic'. Its structural ambiguity is clear from the difference between
'[German history] teachers are pedantic' and 'German [history teachers]
are pedantic'. Less apparent is the source of the structural ambiguity in
'The chicken is ready to eat', which can mean that the chicken is ready to
do some eating or that the chicken is ready to be eaten. However, if we posit
the covert presence of empty categories before and after the infinitive 'to
eat', a plausible explanation for the ambiguity is that different empty
categories are tied to 'the chicken', as indicated by the different indexing
in 'The chicken1 is ready e1 to eat e2' and
in 'The chicken1 is ready e2 to eat e1' (Chomsky,
Finally, the references of many
words that are univocal in meaning can vary from use to use. These include
personal pronouns like 'I', 'you', and 'she', temporal terms like
'today', 'tonight', and 'last week' (also tense indicators),
demonstratives like 'this', 'those', 'here', and 'there, and even
relational nouns like 'enemy', neighbor', and 'disciple'. See INDEXICALS
There are two fundamentally different, though not unrelated,
conceptions of semantics in the literature. One conception takes semantics to be
concerned with the linguistic meanings of expressions (words, phrases,
sentences). On this conception, sentence semantics is a component of grammar. It
assigns meanings to sentences as a function of the meanings of their
semantically simple constituents, as supplied by their LEXICAL
and their constituent structure, as provided by their SYNTAX.
The other conception takes semantics to be concerned with the truth-conditional
contents of sentences (or, alternatively, of utterances of sentences) and with
the contributions expressions make to the truth-conditional contents of
sentences in which they occur. The intuitive idea underlying this conception is
that the meaning of a sentence, the information it carries, imposes a condition
on what the world must be like in order for the sentence to be true.
Now the linguistic and the truth-conditional conceptions of
semantics would come to the same thing if, in general, the linguistic meanings
of sentences determined their truth conditions, and they all had truth
conditions. Many sentences, however, are imperative or interrogative rather than
declarative. They do not have truth conditions but compliance or answerhood
conditions instead. Even if only declarative sentences are considered, in a
great many cases the linguistic meaning of a sentence does not uniquely
determine a truth condition. One reason for this is ambiguity, lexical or
structural. The sentence may contain one or more ambiguous words, or it may be
structurally ambiguous. Or the sentence may contain indexical elements.
Ambiguity makes it necessary to relativize the truth condition of a declarative
sentence to one of its senses, and indexicality requires relativization to a
context. Moreover, some sentences, such as 'Jack was ready' and 'Jill had
enough', though syntactically well-formed, are semantically incomplete. That
is, the meaning of such a sentence does not fully determine a truth condition,
even after ambiguities are resolved and references are fixed (Bach, 1994;
Sperber & Wilson, 1995). Syntactic completeness does not guarantee semantic
The apparent conflict between these two conceptions of
semantics can be resolved if it is supposed that they have different subject
matters: linguistic semantics targets sentences, whereas truth-conditional
semantics targets utterances of sentences. But it should not be supposed that an
utterance encodes anything that is not encoded by the sentence itself.
Information available in a context of utterance may be tied to constituents of
the sentence as uttered, but it is not encoded. Such information is combined
with the encoded information to produce an interpretation of the utterance.
Also, the speaker may convey additional information when speaking indirectly or
nonliterally. So we need to distinguish information encoded by a sentence,
information tied to its utterance, and information conveyed in uttering it. The
first is the province of linguistic semantics, the second the province of
truth-conditional semantics, and the last the province of PRAGMATICS.
What are Meanings?
A traditional answer to this question, going back to
Plato, is the so-called 'idea' theory. It regards meanings as concepts and
complexes of concepts. The meaning of a word (or a morpheme) is the concept (or
concepts, if it is ambiguous) conventionally associated with it (a full account
of what this involves would be partly philosophical, partly psychological, and
partly sociological). The meaning of a phrase is a complex concept made up of
the simpler concepts associated with the words it contains, and the meaning of a
sentence is the thought made up of the concepts expressed by its constituents,
in accordance with how they are arranged syntactically.
A different answer is given by
the so-called 'thing' theory: meanings are the references of expressions, as
opposed to the concepts they express. 'Things' here include not only
particular objects and events but also properties, relations and other abstract
objects. The proposition expressed by a sentence consists of a structured entity
made up of the referents of its constituent expressions. In the simplest sort of
case, the sentence 'Koko is hungry' expresses the proposition that Koko is
hungry, whose constituents are Koko and the property of being hungry.
The apparent conflict between the idea theory and the thing
theory can be resolved by viewing them as answering two different questions:
what confers meanings on words, and what comprises the meanings of words? This
resolution distinguishes the cognitive contents of words, the ideas or concepts
they express, and their semantic contents, what things (or properties or
relations) they stand for. It respects the fact that words are used to talk
about things, not ideas, and yet are used to express ideas.
The most influential implementation of a two-tiered approach
has been Frege's (1892). He distinguished the sense of an expression from its
reference. The sense is the expression's 'cognitive value', but it also
determines the expression's reference, if any. The sense of an expression
imposes a condition that the reference must satisfy and does not depend on
whether or not there is a reference (see SENSE AND REFERENCE). As Frege explains, 'the
thought remains the same whether "Odysseus" has reference or not'. The
sense of an expression is its contribution to the thought expressed by a
sentence in which it occurs. But words are used to refer to objects of thoughts,
not ideas of those objects. Even so, since the same object can be thought of in
different ways, under different 'modes of presentation', how the object is
thought of, hence the sense of the expression used to refer to it, enters into
the thought expressed. This explains, suggests Frege, how it is possible to
think or say that Elton John is a singer and yet sincerely deny that Reginald
Dwight is a singer, even though Elton John is Reginald Dwight.
By supposing that expressions have both sense and reference,
Frege could explain how expressions that are distinct in meaning can have the
same reference and how referring expressions without reference, like
'Odysseus', can still be meaningful. Nevertheless, one might ask whether
what determines the reference of a referring expression, such as a proper name,
an indexical or a demonstrative, is part of the semantic content of sentences in
which the expression occurs. According to the doctrine of direct reference
(Kaplan, 1989), such expressions refer directly to particular individuals. This
is not to deny that there are conditions that something must meet to be the
referent but only that such conditions are not part of semantic content. So, for
example, if someone says 'I love you', he is using 'I' to refer to
himself and 'you' to refer to his listener. However, the fact that he is the
speaker and the fact that the other party is the listener do not enter into what
the speaker says (see REFERENCE,
THEORY OF; DIRECT REFERENCE).
It seems that some sentences are true (or false) solely in
virtue of their meanings. For example, to understand the sentence 'All sofas
are couches' is to know that it is true. In contrast, one can understand
'All snails are slow' without knowing it to be true (its truth depends on an
empirical fact about snails). The first sentence is evidently analytic, the
second synthetic. However, despite the glaring intuitive difference between the
two, the analytic-synthetic distinction was vigorously attacked by Quine (1951)
and others. Quine argued that this distinction cannot be explained in an
illuminating way (i.e., without appeal to equally 'obscure' notions like
synonymy, translation and, indeed, meaning itself), and he suggested that it is,
at best, a matter of degree. Grice and Strawson (1956) appealed to the obvious
intuitive difference between, e.g., the two sentences mentioned above to
maintain that the analytic-synthetic distinction, whatever it is, is genuine.
Even if Grice and Strawson are right about this, it
doesn't follow that analytic truths are true by definition. For it is arguable
that words, most words anyway, do not have definitions, at least of the sort
that provide singly necessary and jointly sufficient conditions for their
application. Wittgenstein challenged the Platonic
assumption that all the items to which an unambiguous word applies must have
something in common. In the aptly titled, 'Against Definition', Fodor et al.
(1980) marshal a variety of examples and considerations to show that
Wittgenstein's famous example of 'game' (1953, ß66) is not a special
case. This raises the question of what word meaning (and knowledge of it) does
consist in. On that see LEXICAL
The notion of analyticity, or of synonymy, is no more
puzzling than the notion of meaning itself. If a sentence has a certain semantic
content, there is no reason why another sentence cannot have the same semantic
content and thereby be synonymous with it. Quine's attack on analyticity is
ultimately a form of meaning skepticism. Wittgenstein (1953) and Kripke (1982), developing Wittgenstein's ideas,
have offered other reasons for such skepticism (the complex debates they have
generated are reviewed in Hale and Wright, 1997, chs. 8 and 14-17), arguing that
meaning cannot be fixed by facts about individual speakers. They appeal
to social facts to explain how meaning can be determinate, but it seems that the
same skeptical reasons, if valid at all, apply to this social explanation.
Are Meanings in the Head?
Putnam (1975) used an ingenious thought experiment to
argue that at least some linguistic meanings are not 'in the head' (and do
not supervene on what is therein). Imagine a distant planet, Twin Earth, where
everything is just like it is here, except that there the clear, tasteless
liquid that falls from the skies, fills the seas and quenches thirst is composed
not of H2O but of some other stuff XYZ. It is 1750 and people on both
planets could not, were they given the opportunity, tell the difference between
H2O and XYZ. There is no psychological difference between the two
populations with respect to the word 'water'. Nevertheless, claims Putnam,
'water' means something different on each planet. Accordingly, an Earthling
suddenly transported to Twin Earth would incorrectly apply the word 'water'
to the common liquid he sees there (relative to what it means on Earth), which
is not water but what we (being in the know) might call 'twin water'.
Similarly, a Twin Earthling moved to Earth would wrongly apply the word
'water', as used on Twin Earth, to the common liquid he sees here, which is
not twin water but water (H2O). So, Putnam concludes, the reference
of 'water' depends on the underlying nature of the clear, plentiful liquid
around us and not just on being how we think of it.
In another thought experiment (Burge, 1979), an arthritic
patient called Art complains to his doctor, 'My arthritis has spread to my
thigh'. Nothing in his acquisition of the term 'arthritis' has kept him
from supposing that this inflammatory disease can occur in the limbs as well as
the joints. Meanwhile, his Twin Earth counterpart Bart registers a similar
complaint. There, however, the term 'arthritis' is used to refer to
an inflammatory disease of either the joints or the limbs. Bart's exposure to
the term 'arthritis' is the same as Art's, but, given how it is used on
Twin Earth, he understands it correctly. Now, observes Burge, when Art says that
his arthritis spread to his thigh he is speaking falsely, but when Bart says
that, using 'arthritis' as it is used on Twin Earth, he is speaking truly.
Therefore, what they are saying about themselves is different, even though there
is no subjective difference between them. What they mean by 'arthritis' is
partly an social matter.
These thought experiments have met with considerable
enthusiasm but also with neglected criticism, e.g. by Unger (1983) and Bach
(1987, ch. 13). For one thing, Putnam does not explain why the term 'water'
should be (and was in 1750) relevantly different from such terms as 'earth',
'air' and 'fire'. These terms do not denote natural kinds: there is no
chemical restriction on the sort of soil to which 'earth' can apply,
'air' is not restricted to particular mixtures of nitrogen, oxygen, and
carbon dioxide found in Earth's atmosphere, and 'fire' does not apply only
to flame-producing chemical reactions that involve oxidation. As for
'water', although it applies (on Earth) to H2O but not to XYZ, is
this because of what 'water' means or because, as a consequence of what we
have learned from modern chemistry, we count as water only stuff that is
chemically like these samples? It was a discovery that this stuff, unlike earth,
air, and fire, is a chemical natural kind. It is not evident why this should
show that the term 'water' has a different sort of meaning, with its
reference determined in a different way, than 'earth', 'air' and
The arthritis argument depends essentially on the
supposition that one can have beliefs with meanings one 'incompletely
understands'. It assumes, for example, that Art not only misunderstands the
word 'arthritis' but operates with the concept arthritis rather than with
some broader concept ('tharthritis') that he mistakenly associates with the
word. So, it might be objected, Art understands the term 'arthritis' in
precisely the same way as Bart does, and has the very same belief, namely that
his tharthritis has spread to his thigh. Whatever evidence there is that he also
believes that his arthritis has spread to his thigh is overridden by his
idiosyncratic grasp of the term 'arthritis'. We are not tempted to say that
he believes that he has inflammation of the joints in his thigh, and this should
disincline us to suppose that he means that his arthritis has spread to his
thigh. Because of how he misuses the term 'arthritis', he means what Bart
means by it.
The distinction between speaker's and
linguistic meaning is needed to accommodate the fact that what a speaker means
in uttering a sentence can, and often does, diverge from what is meant by the
sentence he utters (even if it is neither vague nor ambiguous). A speaker can
mean something other than what the sentence means, as in using 'Nature abhors
a vacuum' nonliterally, or something more, as in using 'It's getting cold
in here' indirectly to ask someone to close the window. In general, utterances
can be literal, nonliteral, or indirect (Bach & Harnish 1979, ch. 4),
depending on the relationship between the what the sentence means and what the
speaker means in uttering it. Insofar as the two diverge, which is most of the
time, successful communication requires the listener to fill in the gap
Speaker's Meaning vs. Linguistic
Grice had two further reasons for invoking the
distinction between speaker's and linguistic meaning. First, he thought that
linguistic meaning could be reduced to speaker's meaning. This reductive view
has not gained wide acceptance, partly because of the extreme complexity of its
detailed formulation (for example, see Grice, 1989, ch. 6, and Schiffer, 1972)
and also because it requires the controversial assumption that language is
essentially a vehicle for communicating thoughts and not a medium of thought
itself. Still, many philosophers would concede that mental content is more
fundamental than linguistic meaning, and perhaps even that semantics reduces to
the theory of mental content.
Grice invoked the distinction between
speaker's and linguistic meaning also to combat extravagant claims, made by
so-called 'ordinary language' philosophers, about various important
philosophical terms, such as 'believes' and 'looks'. For example, it was
suggested that believing implies not knowing, because to say, e.g., 'I believe
that dolphins communicate' is to imply that one does not know this, or to say
'Jenny's eyes look blue' is to imply that Jenny's eyes might not
actually be blue. However, as Grice (1989, ch. 2) pointed out, what carries such
implications is not what one is saying but that one is saying it, rather than
the stronger 'I know that dolphins communicate' or 'Jenny's eyes are
blue' (see IMPLICATURE). He also objected to certain ambiguity claims, e.g., that 'or'
has an exclusive as well as inclusive sense, as in 'I would like an apple or
an orange', by pointing out that it is the use of 'or', not the word
itself, that carries the implication of exclusivity. Grice's Modified
Occam's Razor ('Senses are not to be multiplied beyond necessity') cut
back on a growing conflation of (linguistic) meaning with use, and has since
helped linguists appreciate the importance of separating, so far as possible,
the domains of semantics and pragmatics.
Grice's concept of speaker's meaning (1989,
chs. 5, 14, & 15) was an ingenious refinement of the crude idea that
communication is a matter of intentionally affecting another person's
psychological states. He discovered that there is a distinctive, rational means
by which the effect is achieved: by way of getting one's audience to recognize
one's intention to achieve it. The intention includes, as part of its content,
that the audience recognize this very intention by taking into account the fact
that they are intended to recognize it. A communicative intention is thus a
self-referential, or reflexive, intention. Grice observes that 'this seems
to involve a reflexive paradox, but it does not really do so' (1989, p. 219),
but he does not explain why not.
So consider his example of
deliberately frowning to communicate that one is displeased. Since frowning is a
natural sign of displeasure, frowning deliberately might lead another to believe
that one is displeased. The simplest scheme would be to misleadingly intend the
other person to take one's deliberate frown for a spontaneous one and thereby
take it as evidence that one is displeased. But what if one's frowning is
obviously deliberate? Then it would lack the evidential value of natural
frowning. However, one could exploit the common knowledge that frowning is a
sign of displeasure and intend one's frowning to be taken as indicating
displeasure, provided the other person supposes one intends it to be so taken.
Part of what the other person is to take into account in order to infer that one
is displeased is that one intends one's frowning as indicating that. This may
seem to be circular, to involve a 'reflexive paradox', but Grice does not
mean that one's audience has to already know what one's intention is in
order to figure out what it is. He means, rather, that the audience has to take
into account that one's intention, whatever it is, is intended to be
In communicating, linguistically
or otherwise, one is expressing some PROPOSITIONAL
other psychological state. In performing the speech act of asserting, one is
expressing a belief, in requesting one is expressing a desire, in making an
offer one is expressing a conditional intention, in apologizing one is
expressing regret for something one did, and in thanking one is expressing
gratitude for something the listener did. In general, different types of SPEECH
be classified by the type of psychological state they express (Bach and Harnish,
1979, ch. 3), although expressing such a state does not imply that one is in
it--one could be insincere.
Cognitive science touches on meaning at many points, some
of which are covered in separate articles: CONCEPTS AND CONCEPT ACQUISITION; LANGUAGE ACQUISITION;
LANGUAGE PROCESSING; MENTAL REPRESENTATION; PARSING.
A few other topics will be briefly addressed here.
Normal speakers understand tens of thousands of words of
their language. Understanding a word is knowing its meaning, but what does that
involve? A natural suggestion is that this involves two things: possessing a
certain concept and associating that concept with the word. Merely possessing
the concept is not enough--the concept must be tied to the word somehow.
However, it would be implausible to require that the speaker believe that
the concept is the meaning of the word, for that would require him to have
concepts of both the concept and the word. Something less cognitive and more
associative seems more plausible.
Whatever understanding a word amounts to, part of what it
involves is knowing how the word can fit into a sentence, e.g., whether it is a
noun, a verb, or some other part of speech. Many words are compounds, like
'newspaper', 'hotbed' (notice the difference between the location of the
stress in 'hotbed' and 'hot bed') and 'toadstool' ('mushroom'
has the look of a compound but isn't), or is otherwise composed of meaningful
parts, stems with prefixes and/or endings, such as 'composed',
meaningful', 'parts', 'prefix' and 'ending' (see LEXICAL
PROCESSING; LEXICON). Also, lexical knowledge, which includes information
about the form and meaning of a word and syntactic constraints on its
occurrence, must be combined with knowledge of how words are put together to
form sentences. Finally, all of this purely linguistic knowledge must be
supplemented with knowledge about how what people mean can go beyond what their
words mean. Such knowledge, the subject of PRAGMATICS, is not, strictly speaking,
Although there is ample research on phonological, lexical,
and syntactic, and semantic processing, there has been little work on pragmatic
processing, that is, on how people manage, when uttering a sentence, to make
themselves understood and how, when hearing a sentence, they manage to
understand what the speaker means. Grice's (1989, ch. 2) theory of
conversational implicature and the associated maxims of conversation provides a
broad framework for identifying the factors that contribute to successful
communication, from both the speaker's and the hearer's sides, but it does
not explain in detail how this process works.
One issue pertaining to pragmatic processing has begun to
be addressed. Recanati (1995) has distinguished different models of the
hearer's processing of an utterance in cases where what the speaker means is
an enriched version of what the sentence means, e.g., 'I've had breakfast
[today]' and 'Mary has [exactly] three children', or where the speaker
intends to be implicating something. On one model, the hearer computes the
proposition strictly and literally (the 'minimal' proposition) expressed by
the utterance before arriving at a candidate for what the speaker means; on
another, this proposition is computed, but not necessarily first; on the third,
'local processing' model, this proposition is not computed at all.
Bezuidenhout and Cutting (2000) have tested these models experimentally. Their
findings tend to favor the second model over the third and to disconfirm the
first, the 'literal-first' model.
It is simplistic to suppose that knowing the meaning of a
word consists in associating the 'right' concept with it. One obvious
complication is that a great many words are ambiguous, thereby expressing more
than one concept, but this only shows that the relation of concepts to words is
many to one (actually, it is many to many, since many words have synonyms). A
further complication is that with a great many words it is unclear how many
meanings they have. Take common words like 'go', 'get', 'keep',
'put', 'on', 'in', 'from' and 'to'. Their variable uses
might make it seem that their meanings are not fixed from use to use. Ruhl
(1989) maintains that each such word does have a core meaning, but that this
meaning is too impoverished to comprise what the speaker can mean in using the
word. That is, in any particular use the meaning is always enriched in one way
or another (see Ravin and Leacock (2000) for variations on this sort of view,
applied to a variety of lexical items).
Consider the words 'go', 'from' and 'to' as
they occur in the following sentences:
went from Wilmington to Washington.
road went from Wilmington to Washington.
concert went from 8 to 10.
went from irritated to outraged.
house went from Max to his wife.
On a simplistic conception of linguistic meaning, it might
seem that only in the first sentence, which involves movement from one place to
another, are the words 'go', 'from' and 'to' used literally, and
that their uses in the other sentences are in various ways 'extended', hence
nonliteral uses. However, it seems plausible to suppose that the words are used
literally in all these sentences, despite the fact that they are used
differently from one sentence to the next. What is the existence of those
various uses shows is that the meanings of these polysemous terms are more
abstract than the simplistic movement model would suggest.
great many seemingly univocal words turn out to have distinct but related forces
when applied to things of different sorts. Consider the adjective 'sad' as
it modifies these different nouns:
person / sad face / sad song / sad episode
A sad face is not sad in the way that a sad person is.
Rather, it expresses the person's sadness. A sad song isn't sad in the way
that a sad person is, and need not express any particular person's sadness,
such as the writer's or the performer's (nor need it make the listener feel
sad). And a sad episode isn't itself sad--it causes sadness. Similarly,
notice the variable import of the adjectives 'fast', 'generous' and
'conscious', as they occur in the following phrases:
car / fast track / fast race
donor / generous gift
being / conscious state
Obviously the most plausible import of each of these
adjectives varies with the noun it modifies. Indeed, only in the first phrase in
each case does the adjective express a property that directly belongs to what
the noun denotes. Considering that such adjectives have counterparts in other
languages with the same different but related uses, their variable import is due
to polysemy, not ambiguity (linguistic coincidence). Pustejovsky (1995) proposes
that such polysemy involve 'co-compositionality': what varies from case to
case is not a term's semantic properties but how those properties interact
with those of the term it combines with. Although his ambitious theory, intended
primarily as a computational model, is a definite improvement over what he calls
'sense enumeration lexicons', it seems to conflate pragmatic plausibility
with semantic possibility. Although a speaker is not likely to use, e.g., 'sad
song' to mean song experiencing sadness, 'fast track' to mean track that
is moving fast, or 'generous gift' to mean gift that gives generously,
arguably these improbable interpretations of those phrases are nevertheless
generated by the grammar. It does not seem to be a semantic fact (a fact
about meanings of words) that songs do not experience sadness, tracks do not
move (much less move fast), and gifts are not generous in their giving.
The above examples of adjectival modification raise
questions about the nature of compositionality
(see Partee 1995). So do the following noun-noun compounds:
abuse / drug abuse
nullification / jury nullification
skiing / snow skiing / heliocopter skiing
/ goldfish / catfish
/ diving board / bread board / game board / headboard
Such examples make it clear that compositionality is not
as straightforward as it might seem, for there are different ways in which the
meanings of words can combine. See LEXICAL
Concepts vs. Conceptions
Cognitive scientists, such as
prototype theorists and developmental psychologists, often refer to people's
conceptions of various types of things as 'concepts'. This usage is
misleading, since conceptions are much richer than concepts and play different
roles. Conceptions play a role in how people group and categorize things, judge
similarities and differences between things, and form theories of things of
different types, but concepts are what people associate with words in virtue of
which words mean what they do. The difference is clear if we consider that
people can have different conceptions of a given type of thing and yet use the
same word to refer to it. For example, they can associate the same concept with
the word 'tree' but have different conceptions of trees.
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several unrelated meanings
solely in virtue of meaning
a psychological state
compositionality#Determination of the meaning of a complex
expression by the meaning of its constituents and their syntactic relationship
speech act#Performance of one speech act by way of performing another
nonliteral utterance#Use of a sentence that means one
thing to mean something else
several related meanings
truth-conditional content of a sentence, statement, belief, etc.
the same meaning as another expression
having a clear range of application