Semantics

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{theory, work, human}
{language, word, form}
{math, number, function}
{disease, patient, cell}
{food, make, wine}
{water, park, boat}
{system, computer, user}
{school, student, university}

In Chomskian linguistics there was no mechanism for the learning of semantic relations, and the nativist view considered all semantic notions as inborn. Thus, even novel concepts were proposed to have been dormant in some sense. This view was also thought unable to address many issues such as metaphor or associative meanings, and semantic change, where meanings within a linguistic community change over time, and qualia or subjective experience. Another issue not addressed by the nativist model was how perceptual cues are combined in thought, e.g. in mental rotation.[6]

This view of semantics, as an innate finite meaning inherent in a lexical unit that can be composed to generate meanings for larger chunks of discourse, is now being fiercely debated in the emerging domain of cognitive linguistics[7] and also in the non-Fodorian camp in Philosophy of Language.[8] The challenge is motivated by:

  • factors internal to language, such as the problem of resolving indexical or anaphora (e.g. this x, him, last week). In these situations "context" serves as the input, but the interpreted utterance also modifies the context, so it is also the output. Thus, the interpretation is necessarily dynamic and the meaning of sentences is viewed as context change potentials instead of propositions.
  • factors external to language, i.e. language is not a set of labels stuck on things, but "a toolbox, the importance of whose elements lie in the way they function rather than their attachments to things."[8] This view reflects the position of the later Wittgenstein and his famous game example, and is related to the positions of Quine, Davidson, and others.

A concrete example of the latter phenomenon is semantic underspecification – meanings are not complete without some elements of context. To take an example of a single word, "red", its meaning in a phrase such as red book is similar to many other usages, and can be viewed as compositional.[9] However, the colours implied in phrases such as "red wine" (very dark), and "red hair" (coppery), or "red soil", or "red skin" are very different. Indeed, these colours by themselves would not be called "red" by native speakers. These instances are contrastive, so "red wine" is so called only in comparison with the other kind of wine (which also is not "white" for the same reasons). This view goes back to de Saussure:

and may go back to earlier Indian views on language, especially the Nyaya view of words as indicators and not carriers of meaning.[11]

An attempt to defend a system based on propositional meaning for semantic underspecification can be found in the Generative Lexicon model of James Pustejovsky, who extends contextual operations (based on type shifting) into the lexicon. Thus meanings are generated on the fly based on finite context.

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