On The General Character Of Semantic Theory English Language Essay

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Semantic theory answers the questions related with semantic properties and relations, concerns the semantic structure of natural language in general. It discusses the general features of the theory of language.

Theories about the objective reality of language:

According to the view of Humboldt and Arnauld, the conception of the traditional rationalist theory of grammar, recently rediscovered in the theory of transformational grammar, is that the objective or empirical reality of a language consists in the internalized rules of grammar that constitute the fluency of its native speakers.

However, empiricist linguist such as Whitney and Bloomfield opposing that view, according to them the language consists in a vast stock of sound chunks classifiable into various phonological and syntactic categories, much as the books of a library are classifiable into various fiction and nonfiction subject categories.

The question of the nature of the objective reality of language is by no means a purely speculation one in the metaphysics of linguistics. When the objective reality of language is taken to be chunks of physical sound, then empirical investigations are conceived as being concerned with the procedures, which sort concatenations of sound patterns.

This conception limits the aspirations of linguistic investigation to uncovering rather superficial facts about the aspects of sentence structure most directly related to properties of the physical speech signal.

Instead, language is taken as internalized grammatical rules; the conception of nature of relevant investigations is quite different; it allows linguistic investigation to concern itself with deeper properties of syntactic organization and semantic interpretation which have no physical realization in utterances.

Thus, the primary contribution of empiricist linguist consisted in providing an enormous body of formally presented facts about phonology and surface syntax.

The primary contribution of the rationalist linguists was to provide a deep level of grammatical organization which determines their overt syntactic and phonetic form, on the other hand, their semantic properties, which makes it possible to explain grammatical properties.


The basic of natural language is to serve as vehicles of communication for their speakers. But the function does not distinguish them from "languages" of other sorts, for many types of systems serve as vehicles of communication. Therefore this distinction must be drawn in terms of the range of information that can be communicated and the manner in which it is communicated. The hypothesis that will be put forth in this section is that natural languages alone are unlimited in the range of information that can be communicated through their sentences. Other communication systems can transmit messages that are transmittable by natural languages, but no other permits that transmission of any message like a code. The principle on which this hypothesis depends is called principal of affability.

Competence and performance:

If we look at linguistics communication from an ordinary, commonsense view point, it is process that involves the transmission of one person's thoughts to another by means of disturbances in the air which the first person creates for this purpose. Somehow the speaker encodes his inner thoughts in the form of external, observable acoustic events, and the hearer, perceiving these sounds, decodes them, thereby obtaining for himself his own inner representation of the speaker's thoughts, it is in this way that we use language to obtain knowledge of the contents of another's mind.

In the special case of the ability to communicate in a natural language, as Chomsky has stressed repeatedly, we must distinguish between the aspects that concern the speaker's linguistic competence, that is, what an ideal speaker knows about the grammatical structure of his language that makes it possible for him to communicate in it, and his linguistic performance, that is how he utilizes his linguistic competence to communicate with his fellow speakers in actual speech situations.

Hence, the general theory of linguistics communication is composed of two separate but related theories, one a theory of competence and the other a theory of performance.

In the theory of linguistic competence we seek to state the system of rules that formally represents the ideal linguistic structures that underlie the utterances of natural speech. We idealize away from the distortions and irregularities characteristic of natural speech and concern ourselves with the systematization of those aspects of natural speech that directly reflect the contribution of a speaker's fluency.

The theory of linguistic performance seeks to account for the principles that speakers use in actually producing and understanding natural speech. The study of performance assumes the contribution of competence and directs its attention to the manner in which the contributions of various psychological factors, for e.g., memory limitations, attention shifts, distractions, brain damage, errors.

The structure of theory of language:

A theory of the ideal speaker's linguistic competence to relate acoustic signals to meaning is broader than a theory of language: a theory of language comprises only that branch of linguistics whose aim is to state the universals of language, those aspects of the ideal speaker's linguistic competence that the ideal speaker of every natural language shares; the former encompasses the particular features of the natural language in question as well as whatever is common to all natural languages.

The theory of language, then, is a definition of 'grammar' and, alternatively, a definition of 'natural language', where a grammar is any system of rules consistent with the specified constraints and a natural language is anything represented by a grammar. The constraints are of three types: formal universals, substantive universal, and organizational universals.

Semantic theory's model of a semantic component:

Semantic theory contains a model of the semantic component of a grammar which must describe the manner in which semantic interpretations are mapped onto underlying phrase markers. It must specify the contribution of both linguistic universals and language-specific information to this mapping.

The most elementary syntactic components of a sentence are, in general, meaningful units of the language. These, the morphemes, can be divided into two and the non grammatical morphemes, which are relatively rare and devoid of meaning, and the non grammatical morphemes.

Since morphemes are formed out of phonological elements having no intrinsic semantic content, and since higher level syntactic constituents are formed out of them, it is reasonable to think that the meaning of higher level syntactic constituents comes from the meanings of their component morphemes. If so, then the speaker's ability to understand any sentence depends in part on his knowing the meaning of its component morphemes. This can be seen from the fact that a speaker who does not know the meaning of certain morphemes in his language will miss something about the meaning of every sentence in which those unfamiliar morphemes appear.

Preliminary definition of some semantic properties and relations:

Relative to the definitions of semantic properties and relations, the semantic component provides an explanation of how the semantic properties and relations of a constituent are determined by the senses of the constituents that comprise it. A constituent of a sentence receives a set of readings in the semantically interpreted underlying phrase marker where the constituent occurs. Each reading in such a set formally represents one of the senses of the constituent in the sentence to which the semantically interpreted underlying phrase marker is assigned.

Not only do the definitions of semantic properties and relations complete the definition of the concept of a semantic interpretation, they also provide a basis for systematically testing the semantic component of a grammar. In accordance with these definitions, the semantic interpretation of a sentence will contain a list of semantic predictions, each of which will say either that sentence has or does not have a certain semantic property or that sentence does not bear a certain semantic relation to some other constituent.

These predictions can be tested against judgments made by fluent speakers of the language. Fluent speakers make various judgments about aspects of the meaning of a constituent and the semantic interpretation makes predictions about the same aspects.

If the judgments and predictions, that is, if the statements in the semantic interpretation of the sentence about aspects of its meaning correctly predict the judgments of the speakers, then the semantic component from which the predictions come is conformed, if not, it is this conformed. In this manner, the semantic component can be submitted to empirical tests that may either conform or disconfirm its accounts of the meanings of expression in the language.

Aspects of semantic representation:

Some historical remarks:

Bolinger (1965) starts out by giving a false picture of the historical background and sources of semantic theory. According to Bolinger, the theory is an attempt to carry over the syntactic notions of a marker into semantics in essentially the same way as taxonomic linguistics was an attempt to carry over the phonological notion of the word into morphology.

Bolinger's historical discussion is highly provincial in that it neglects the philosophical sources of semantic theory. It says nothing about the methodological framework that taken from the philosophy of science and served as a guide to theory construction both in syntax and semantics. It ignores the exceedingly significant impetus for the development of a semantic theory within formal grammar that was provided by critiques of positivist and ordinary language philosopher's attempts to handle meaning.

It omits the basic problem common to every philosophical effort to gain some measure of clarity about the concept of meaning, namely, the problem of understanding logical form. And it neglects wholly the direction given to the development of semantic theory by the classical philosophical problems of analyticity, categories, and so on. In short, Bolinger fails to note that semantic theory was not simply a development within linguistics, but rather a joint development within both linguistics and philosophy.

On explanatory goals in semantics;

Both Bolinger and Weinreich misrepresent the explanatory goals of semantic theory. These two accounts drastically mischaracterized the aim of semantic interpretation by describing the output of the semantic component, not as a semantic interpretations of a sentence (where this includes predictions about every semantic property and relation), but rather as an integer.

Bolinger and Weinreich refer, and in other places, that as semantic component is concerned with every facet of the speaker's ability to fathom the meaning of sentences compositionally and to determine the full range of their semantic properties and relations. Indeed, the very passage coded by Weinreich clearly explains that we do not limit semantic description.

Weinreich is entertaining the possibility that the sub meanings, or senses, of a lexical item can be infinite in number, that differentiation of the senses of lexical items can involve infinitely many semantic distinctions.

There are the best of empirical reasons for dismissing this possibility, however. The dictionary is a reconstruction of an aspect of the speaker's semantic competent. Since speakers are equipped with finite brains, the mechanism reconstructed by the dictionary can store only finitely many bits of information about a particular lexical item.

Weinreich fails to make the important distinction between the meaning of the words and a fully detailed description of the actual things, situation, activities, event, and such to which word refer. Various that can correctly be called "eating" may differ in the ways they are carried out, as Weinreich suggested. They may be performed with spoons, fingers, chopsticks, knifes, shovels or whatever strikes ones fancy, but, nonetheless, they are instances of "eating" in the same sense of this term.

Some confusion about syntactic markers:

According to Weinreich, the formulation of the syntactic portion of a dictionary entry in Katz and Fodor is give in terms of the type of syntactic theory presented in early works of Chomsky. In this theory, sub classification under a major category (noun, verb, etc.) and cross-classification with respect to subclasses were handled by using rewriting rules typical of what was then called the phrase structure subcomponent of the grammar.

Chomsky has discovered that rules these sorts are inappropriate to express our satisfactory systematization of cross-classification phenomena at the syntactic level, for reasons which we discuss directly. According to the author along with other linguists prior to Chomsky's discovery in accepting the older theory in which cross-classification properties and relations were treated if they were subclassificational.

The difficulty in using phrases structure rules to handle the phenomena of cross-classification is that their use expresses the mistaken hypothesis that the relation between a morpheme and the categories to which it belongs is the same as the relation between a phrase and the categories to which it belongs. But, as has been argued convincingly by Chomsky, sub classification and cross-classification under major categories are not organized hierarchically in the way that phrases are categorized.

Chomsky developed a way of representing cross classification and sub classification in syntax without imposing hierarchical ordering, modeling his treatment the example phonology. Revising his early version syntactic theory, he restricted the appearance of rewriting rules to what he calls the categorical component of the grammar, which handles just the phrase structure and he introduce what he calls a lexicon to handle structure below the phrase level. The lexicon consists of an unordered set of entries; each entry is a set of syntactic features associated with a set of phonological features that specify the lexical item itself.

The form of a dictionary entry:

Weinreich's notion of a dictionary entry; that dictionary entries consists of a set of phonological markers, a set of syntactic markers, and a set of semantic markers hardly counts as an improvement on our conception theory.

On the other hand, Weinreich's stipulation that a particular dictionary entry not content more than one lexical reading, so that the different senses of a lexical item must be represented by different entries, seems a different from our conception of the dictionary. But the difference is merely terminological, a matter of alternative notation without any substantive significance.

Wilson claims that "there is no sharp line between what properly belongs in a dictionary and what properly belongs in an encyclopedia". But it is necessary to draw a distinction between information that warrants inclusion in a dictionary and information that properly belongs in an encyclopedia. That is, contingent information about the things to which words refer that tells us something beyond what is used in picking them out linguistically.