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Review of  Understanding Semantics

Reviewer: Prisca Augustyn
Book Title: Understanding Semantics
Book Author: Sebastian Loebner
Publisher: Hodder Education
Linguistic Field(s): Semantics
Issue Number: 14.1484

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Date: Mon, 19 May 2003 15:40:53 -0400
From: Prisca Augustyn
Subject: L**bner, Sebastian (2002) Understanding Semantics

L**bner, Sebastian (2002) Understanding Semantics. Arnold and Oxford University Press, paperback ISBN 0-340-73198-2, xii+260pp, Understanding
Language Series.

Prisca Augustyn, Florida Atlantic University

L**bner's objective is to introduce the uninitiated student of linguistics not only "to the major fields in the discipline, but also the dominant approaches that shape semantics in its current state of the art" (xi). His ideal reader, he concludes in his preface, "will read the book carefully and completely [and] will acquire the background for going deeper into the matter by reading more advanced semantic literature" (xii).

The somewhat unconventional organization of his textbook presents "basic concepts and central phenomena investigated in semantics" (1) in part one (chapters one through six); and "the essentials of the three major theoretical approaches: structuralist semantics, cognitive semantics, and logical (formal) semantics" (1) in part two (chapters seven through ten) of the book. While L**bner detaches basic concepts from their theoretical origin in part one, his characterization of theoretical approaches in part two is
neither a chronological presentation, nor does it include authentic
theoretical material such as classic examples.

L**bner pursues a neutral presentation of semantic concepts and theoretical constructs, placing much emphasis on terminology and proper definitions, which is underscored by terminology 'checklists' at the end of each chapter throughout the book. The checklists are followed by sparse suggestions for 'further reading' which rarely include original texts. Beginning in chapter two, L**bner adds exercises. Each chapter has endnotes.

His exercises, unlike his style of presentation, reveal whom L**bner may have seen as his intended readership. The promise he makes in his preface that "[you] need not know much about linguistics in order to understand this introduction" (xii) corresponds more to the nature of the exercises and limited suggestions for further reading than to the style and diction in which he presents the material.

In part one, L**bner introduces different levels of meaning in the first chapter, discussing notions such as reference, truth, and context of utterance. In chapter two, devoted to the distinctions between descriptive, social, and expressive meaning, he introduces his own semiotic triangle under the subheading "Denotations and truth conditions" (25) without reference to the former proponents of this prominent heuristic or its original structure and terminology.

As he continues to discuss other notions and theoretical approaches, he modifies his own semiotic triangle throughout the chapters, leaving the uninitiated reader with no other possible conclusion than that the semiotic triangle is the author's own illustrative device. His main objective is not to provide a textbook that is at the same time a comprehensive resource for the budding semanticist, but rather an introduction to the procedures and technicalities of semantic analysis. L**bner provides the tools without mentioning who invented them, when, and why.

L**bner guides the reader through what often seem rather lengthy, but
nonetheless effective discussions of examples, for instance, the use of the German forms of address or the honorific code in Japanese in order to extrapolate the distinction between social and descriptive meaning. Summary tables at the end of such discussions match examples with the appropriate technical term, once again attesting to his emphasis on terminology.

In chapter three, entitled "Meanings and readings", he discusses the
lexicon, introducing the notions of the lexeme, homonyny, polysemy, and synonymy. A discussion of metonymy and metaphor is followed by one of his terminology-example-tables, in which he uses Lakoff's definition of metaphor, again without reference to Lakoff. While this may be a legitimateway to introduce students to a definition of metaphor, it is this reviewer's opinion that even an introductory textbook owes the student at least the most rudimentary information about the origin of a particular definition.

L**bner introduces the principles of meaning and logic in chapter four. He begins his discussion of the principles of formal logic with the example 'Donald Duck is a duck'. With this example, he is preparing the reader for the importance of categorization he discusses later in the chapter, under the subheading "Logical relations between words", by comparing the denotation of the superordinate term 'bird' to that of the term 'duck'. The
informed reader may suspect that he chose this example to prepare the reader for the prototype approach, although L**bner makes no overt reference.

In chapter five, "Meaning relations", L**bner begins with the relation of hyponymy, in particular as it pertains to compound nouns. Under the subheading "Oppositions" he introduces the notions of antonym, directional opposites, complementaries, heteronyms and converses, followed by a terminology-example-table. The chapter ends with a discussion of what he calls "Lexical fields", which turns out to be about taxonomies and meronymies.

Chapter six is entitled "Predications" and provides the reader with the basics of predicate logic. Here he sets the ground for his extensive presentation of formal semantics at the end of part two of the book. The chapter closes with a presentation of semantic roles. "This concludes the first part of the book, in which central semantic phenomena and concepts were introduced and interconnected" (120) L**bner says at the end of the chapter. While he may have successfully introduced central semantic phenomena and concepts, the interconnectedness of these notions may not be as apparent in a presentation that seems to give everything equal importance.

Part two of the book begins with L**bner's chapter seven, "Meaning
components", in which he presents four approaches to meaning which are anchored in the notion of decomposition. First, he discusses structuralist semantics, thankfully invoking Saussure, as an approach that is "radically relational" (128); second, he introduces feature semantics mostly with his own examples; third, he gives a description of semantic formulae including a very detailed discussion of Dowty's decompositional semantics, which he then
compares to Jackendoff's cognitive approach; and fourth, he adds a
presentation of "Wierzbicka's Natural Semantic Metalanguage."

In chapter eight, L**bner presents approaches based on language comparison; he discusses translation problems and methods of contrastive analysis, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and Berlin and Kay's investigation on color terms.

Again, L**bner chooses an unconventional way of presenting different
approaches: rather than separating structural, cognitive, and formal
semantics, he presents approaches based on the notion of decomposition in chapter seven, and approaches based on comparison in chapter eight.

In chapter nine, "Meaning and Cognition", L**bner concentrates on cognitive semantics, declaring at the outset that "[the] chapter will take a rather critical turn, investigating the assumptions of prototype theory" (172); in particular, L**bner challenges the notion of fuzzy category boundaries. After an in-depth presentation of the main components and assumptions of Rosch's Prototype Theory, L**bner also offers a detailed critique with rather compelling examples. He concludes that "[there] may be categories for which membership is a matter of matching with the prototype (in certain, relevant
aspects). For other categories, the NSC [necessary and sufficient
conditions] model may be more adequate. Yet other models may be necessary for further types of categories" (199).

As one of the rare incidents of reference to an original text, L**bner begins the final section in chapter nine, entitled "Semantic knowledge", with a quote from Sapir's 'Language'. This underscores his view that the distinction between 'semantic knowledge' and 'world knowledge' is "necessary, important, and feasible" (201). In his chapter summary, L**bner concludes that "[cognitive semantics] is still far from a fully-fledged semantic theory [since] [central] fields of semantics have never been elaborated within the cognitive framework" (207).

In his final chapter, L**bner discusses formal semantics, which he sees as "the most technical and difficult form of semantics, very mathematical, but [...] the main framework in which sentence semantics has been developed" (211). He begins with an elaborate analysis of Japanese numerals; then he introduces connectives with different sets of examples. His discussion of "Model-theoretic semantics" is equally as detailed as the following presentation of "Possible-world semantics" in which he enters into a fairly
complex presentation of the intensional vs. extensional distinction.

Even though L**bner points out the limits of formal semantics, he presents this approach as "a firmly established discipline with a lot of work going on in various languages -- within different frameworks that keep being elaborated and refined in order to capture more and more semantic phenomena" (247).

Even though L**bner presents semantic concepts and approaches neutrally, pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of different theoretical currents, he seems most comfortable with formal semantics. L**bner definitely has his own distinctive style as far as the structure of the book is concerned as well as his manner of presentation, which is at times fairly demanding for an introductory text. While his examples are effective, he rarely uses classic examples associated with a given theory. The more traditionally oriented instructor may wish to supplement this impressive text with original materials and classic examples, in order to provide students with the necessary information s/he needs "for going deeper into the matter by reading more advanced semantic literature" (xii).


ABOUT THE REVIEWER Prisca Augustyn is Assistant Professor of Linguistics and German at Florida Atlantic University. She received her Ph.D in Germanic Linguistics from the University of California, Berkeley. She teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in Linguistics. ?ļ

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 0340731974
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 256
Prices: U.S. $ 74.00

Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0340731982
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 256
Prices: U.S. $ 19.95