Hayes Introductory Linguistics p. 233Chapter 9: Semantics 1.Goals of semantics Semantics is the branch of linguistics that studies meaning, particularly meaning as it is conveyed by language. We can start out by asking what meaning is. Meaning is a characteristic of symbolic systems; language is by far the most elaborate and powerful symbolic system that has ever been found. Our sentences are complex symbols, physically realized in speech or writing, which bear meanings and thus express our thoughts. Clearly, there is more to thought than the language that expresses it. Thought can exist in the absence of language, since many animals can behave in a sophisticated and rational fashion without having anything like human language.84It also seems clear that we experience thought in ways that are very direct and not linguistic.85There is no need for thought to occur in a linear sequence, as our words must; and moreover that our visual thoughts are not particularly expressible in language. The development of a theory of thought is at present an active but speculative activity, involving psychologists, philosophers, cognitive scientists, and scholars in the field of artificial intelligence. One vindication for a proposed theory of thought would be if it could be embodied in a system that could think and reason like a person. This remains a distant goal. Our focus in semantics is not quite as grand; we just want to know how language expresses thought. The problem faced by semanticists is to study the ways in which language embodies thought, without a well-developed theory of thought to go by. This problem has not stymied research, however, because there are plenty of ways to conduct careful research that don’t require a full theory of thought to make progress. For instance, one strategy that has been followed (it originates in the field of philosophy) is to develop formal systems that determine the truth conditions of sentences (properties of the world that must hold for sentences to be true), often in a small, artificially-constructed world. This kind of approach requires a fair amount of development and will not be taught here; instead, in the interested of a unified course I want to cover aspects of semantics that interact most closely with syntax. 2.Some aspects of linguistic meaning We will cover three aspects of linguistic meaning. predicate-argument structure 84A book on this topic I have enjoyed, written from a sober but exploratory viewpoint, is Animal Minds, by Donald Griffin (University of Chicago Press, 1992). 85It’s probably unnecessary to give an example, but for what it’s worth: imagine a parent who sees his toddler put in danger from an unleashed dog: the experience is direct and primal, and depends in no way on an internalized utterance “That dog is a threat to my child” or the like. The dog, the child, the teeth are all part of the thought, but the thought is probably complete before it is ever embodied in NP’s, VP’s, etc.
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