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The Goals of Semantics

20 января 2013


The semantic analysis of a given language must explain how the sentences of this language are understood, interpreted, and related to states, processes, and objects in the universe. This general task, which might be summarized by the question 'What is the meaning of a sentences S of the language L?' cannot be approached directly, but must be broken down into a set of more basic questions. <...>

In short, a semantic theory must: (i) make reference to the syntactic structure in a precise way; (ii) systematically represent the meaning of the single words (or, more generally, of the lexical elements, which include also lexicalized phrases like idioms, isolated compounds, etc.); and (iii) show how the structure of the meanings of words and the syntactic relations interact, in order to constitute the interpretation of sentences. Finally, it must indicate how these interpretations are related to the things spoken about. <...>

Some Wider Perspectives

It goes without saying that we have greatly oversimplified the problems raised by the question 'What is meaning?' We have not only ignored several problems of detail, we have also left out of the present discussion certain substantial questions that a full theory of meaning must take into consideration. I will now mention at least some of them.

First of all, we have dealt only with problems of cognitive content or denotative meaning. We have ignored, in other words, all problems of stylistic variation or connotative values. Although it is a fairly obvious fact that two sentences may say the same thing, though in a different way (i. e. with different stylistic connotations), little is known about how this can be systematically explained. Notice that it is not sufficient to assign stylistic values to particular lexical entries, since stylistic phenomena might very well be the function of the particular semantic and syntactic interaction of the basic elements. In any case, every theory of meaning that tries to incorporate such problems must be based on a systematic account of the problems of cognitive meaning. Secondly the semantic interpretation of a given sentence might depend in part on the particular linguistic or extralinguistic context in which it occurs. In other words, a sentence that is ambiguous if taken in isolation might have only one interpretation if it occurs in a particular universe of discourse. Hence we might expect a semantic theory to explain how one of the several meanings associated with a particular word or sentence is selected in accordance with a particular universe of discourse. <...>

Finally it should be noted that the semantic analysis of a given natural language poses enormous difficulties because of the great complexity and apparent vagueness of the relevant phenomena. Problems of this kind are relevant not only for the adequate description of particular languages, but also for the development of the general theory, since a general theory is valid only in so far as it is based on empirical facts. Semantic analysis must therefore start with small, clear sub-systems, developing thereby the necessary basic concepts. Such islands might then be extended to larger complexes and more intricate problems. In this way, we may finally reveal also the basic structure underlying the apparently vague and imprecise phenomena of meaning in natural languages. This process is in its very beginning. It will certainly lead to important modifications of the hypotheses sketched in this outline. But there is good reason to assume that a precise theory of meaning is possible, and that such a theory will provide at the same time important insights into the nature of cognitive processes.

(From "New Horizons in Linguistics", "Semantics" by Manfred Bierwish)