A word in your ear

Linguistics - Meaning in Language - Semantics
November 24, 2000

In the film, Twelve Angry Men , the jury in a murder trial are told that the accused man had been heard arguing with the victim and threatening to kill him. But did he really mean it? One of the jurors is convinced that he did, until he loses his temper at another jury member and hisses "I’ll kill him". The man is shamefaced when he realises that what he has said speaks volumes. His words are perfectly clear, but we would usually assume that he did not mean them quite that way. If words can mean one thing, but people who use them can express another, where does that leave the study of meaning?

Linguists traditionally deal with this problem by distinguishing between pragmatics - the study of how people use language to communicate - and semantics, which limits itself to what language means. It is semantics in this narrow sense that is the main focus of Alan Cruse’s Meaning in Language . Despite the book’s subtitle, only three of its 17 chapters are devoted to pragmatics. The central concern is the study of word meaning, which Cruse has uniquely made his own area for many years. The book is an outstanding introduction to an area where nothing is as simple as it seems.

It may look easy, for instance, to decide how many different senses a word has: take smack , where we can agree that the meaning "violent blow" is quite different from “small boat”. It is less clear that a mark on a student’s essay and a mark on my shirt are completely distinct. For a more difficult case, take the film, Blazing Saddles , in which Lili von Shtupp receives a gift of a single red rose and murmurs "how romantic". Is this the same sense of the word that the actress’s mother would have used if she had advised her daughter to "give up your romantic notion of becoming a film star"? 

Cruse discusses a wide range of similar problems with immense skill and subtlety. I know no other book that covers this ground so thoroughly, and it is hard to imagine anyone else doing it better. My only regrets are that Cruse does not encourage students to look in detail at how dictionaries define words, or to use a computer corpus of authentic texts to find evidence of how words are used. The first of these would have given the book a useful practical dimension, and the second would have brought it more up to date.

Kate Kearns’s approach in Semantics could hardly be more different. Kearns has only a few pages on word meaning, devoting far more space to how words behave in combination. Although words are perhaps what come to mind when we first think about meaning, we do not talk in individual words but in sentences. Kearns introduces some tools from formal logic in an early chapter, and then uses them to look at quantifiers, tense, aspect and modality, along with several other key topics in sentence semantics. The subject matter is demanding. Most students would need a skilful teacher and a large amount of supporting material to help them through the book. In research I have rarely found logical formalism to be a useful tool for investigating real languages, but there is a good argument that it imposes a useful discipline on students. Furthermore, most linguists teach logic precisely to highlight the differences between artificial systems and natural language, and that has to be good practice. Most courses in semantics are probably more in tune with Kearns’s book, though language teachers and lexicographers will find Cruse more to their liking.

Neither of these books is intended for first-year students, which makes them rare among linguistics textbooks. The authors assume a certain amount of sophistication in their readers, as well as familiarity with basic notions in other areas of linguistics. This is one of many ways in which the large Linguistics volume by Victoria Fromkin and her colleagues at University of California at Los Angeles differs from the other two. It starts completely from scratch, making the standard distinction between linguists who investigate language and polyglots who speak many languages; it briefly surveys the different branches of linguistics and gives a concise history of the field. The book covers syntax, semantic and phonology only, a much narrower focus than most introductory textbooks.

The authors’ starting point is a cognitive one, which treats language as a system of knowledge in the heads of human beings. The central aim of linguistics, we are told, is to analyse that system of knowledge. The influence of Noam Chomsky is strong and explicit. This perspective on linguistics is an important one, but it is not easy to explain to lay people. Nor is it one that most language teachers, translators, speech therapists and other language professionals adopt. It leaves out the social, cultural and communicative facets of language (hence pragmatics does not feature at all in this book). The authors could have made a stronger case for treating language as a system of knowledge, explaining not just why this approach is coherent, but why it is worth pursuing.

Even a committed cognitivist will not find this book fully satisfying. Most of the chapters aim to describe parts of the grammar and sound patterns of English and other languages accurately and thoroughly, a task in which it makes little difference whether you see language as a system of knowledge or a collection of texts. There is little genuine interest in the human mind along the way, and the methods and issues presented do not crucially depend on a cognitive view of language. To put it bluntly, a book that purports to link language and mind had better say some definite things about the mind: otherwise the reasons given for ignoring the social side of language will not be very convincing.

The authors do, however, explore cognitive issues in the chapters on how children pick up their first language. Here, though, some readers will find another difficulty. Most people are interested in language acquisition by children, either because children are inherently fascinating or because they want to find out how to help young people with speech and language problems. Few lay people want to learn about this area as a test bed for hypotheses about universal properties of language, which is how this book approaches the subject. Some people might regard this attitude to language acquisition as cold and uncaring. Just as with the cognitive approach in general, an introductory text should address these concerns and justify its stance at some length, but this one does not (nor, to be fair, do other books which take the same stance).
A textbook that conveys enthusiasm can be forgiven many other weaknesses, and in this respect both Cruse and Fromkin score highly. If it also acts as an archive of expertise, organising an area of knowledge in a lucid and original way, then everyone in the field benefits. In this respect, Cruse comes out the clear winner.
Raphael Salkie is principal lecturer in language studies, University of Brighton.   

Linguistics: An Introduction to Linguistic Theory, First edition

Editor - Victoria A. Fromkin
ISBN - 0 631 19709 5 and 19711 7
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £60.00 and £18.99
Pages - 747

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