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Review of  Communicative Organization in Natural Language: The semantic-communicative structure of sentences

Reviewer: Andrea Sansò
Book Title: Communicative Organization in Natural Language: The semantic-communicative structure of sentences
Book Author: Igor Mel'čuk
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Semantics
Issue Number: 13.1852

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Date: Wed, 3 Jul 2002 17:43:45 +0200 (CEST)
From: Andrea Sanso'
Subject: Mel'cuk (2001) Communicative Organization in Natural Language

Mel'cuk, Igor (2001) Communicative Organization in Natural Language: The Semantic-Communicative Structure of Sentences. John Benjamins Publishing Company, xii+393pp, hardback ISBN 90 272 3060 9 (Eur) / 1 58811 101 6 (US), $86.00, Studies in Language Companion Series 57

Andrea Sanso', University of Pavia, Italy

Mel'cuk's book addresses a long-standing problem in linguistic theory, that of communicative organization, from a very specific perspective. The author's intended aim is to show how actual utterances are constructed from a representation of their meaning within a Meaning-Text Theory framework (cf. Mel'cuk 1981). The use of theory-specific terminology, however, is kept to a minimum, so that the concepts presented throughout the book are accessible to a wide audience.

According to the author, the main advantages of the Meaning-Text framework are systematicity and terminological rigor. In Melcuk's own words, "I do not try to develop new theories, or present new facts, but rather propose some formal means (simply put, systems of symbols) that, if properly used in the corresponding representations, ensure the construction of the sentences I am interested in" (p.2).

Unfortunately, the subtleties of the notational system proposed by Mel'cuk cannot be fully appreciated in a plain ASCII text. Therefore, I will limit myself to a very general sketch of the contents of the book, which should act as a stimulus to read the book.

The introduction is devoted to a general discussion of the book's aims. A general problem faced within the domain of linguistic studies known as "information packaging" is terminological idiosyncrasy: there is little or no overlap between the terminology used by different schools, and the result is that notions such as, say, Theme or Topic are rather vague, or, to put it more positively, at least multifaceted. Mel'cuk's primary concern is thus to get rid of these terminological and notional mess. Two basic notions are thus introduced, namely the Semantic Structure (henceforth SemS) and the Deep-Syntactic Structure (henceforth DSyntS) of a sentence: the former exclusively represents propositional meaning, and defines a family of more or less synonymous utterances, whereas DSyntS represents the lexico-grammatical organization of a sentence.

In order to describe all the properties of a sentence that have to do with its communicative aspect, the notion of Semantic-Communicative Structure (Sem-CommS) is introduced in Chapter I. Sem-CommS is called upon in the process of synthesizing a sentence S from its SemS. Sem-CommS thus characterizes S as a message (i.e., as an answer to an underlying question), or, in other words, it organizes the meaning of a SemS from the point of view of its transmission by the speaker and its reception by the hearer. This operation is analogous to the process of profiling in Cognitive Grammar, as Mel'cuk himself points out. Sem-CommS is not an atomic entity. Rather, it can be described by eight logically orthogonal axes, or oppositions (a.k.a. discourse functions or pragmatic functions in the linguistic tradition).

The eight dimensions of the communicative organization of a sentence are discussed in detail in Chapter II. These oppositions are: (i) thematicity; (ii) givenness; (iii) focalization; (iv) perspective; (v) emphasis; (vi) presupposedness; (vii) unitariness; and (viii) locutionality. They are thoroughly discussed along with the main linguistic phenomena that instantiate them (dislocation, clefting, etc.). I will limit myself to a sketchy presentation of the aforementioned oppositions. I will try to use Mel'cuk's idiosyncratic terminology as rarely as possible, for this would imply a detailed presentation of the terminology itself, and this is beyond the scope of the present review.

(i) Thematicity, or the THEME-RHEME opposition. This is the most universal and relevant among the Sem-Comm oppositions. Whenever speakers intend to transmit a piece of information, they cannot avoid thematicity, i.e. the division of the initial meaning into Rheme and Theme. In a sentence such as "John will bring the booze" 'John' is the Theme and 'will bring the booze' is the Rheme. The Theme-Rheme relationship is reversed in the passive sentence "The booze will be brought by John".

(ii) Givenness, or the GIVEN-NEW opposition. This opposition is relevant within the limits of a coherent discourse, because it reflects the contextual boundness of sentential semantic elements. This opposition is more "semantic" than "communicative": when the speaker selects his Theme and Rheme, he does so because he wants to communicate some information about some specific item. Thus, while Thematicity is a speaker-oriented category, Givenness has to do with the mental state of the Hearer at the moment when the sentence is uttered: the Speaker singles out some items in his initial SemS which he believes are in the active zone of the Hearer's consciousness. In the sentence "The book is on the table", both "book" and "table" are given, whereas in the sentence "There is a book on the table" "book" is new.

(iii) Focalization, or the FOCALIZED-NON FOCALIZED opposition. Focalized is that part of the SemS which the Speaker presents as being logically prominent for him. A typical example of a focalized element is 'John' in the sentence "It was John who brought the booze". John is also the Rheme of this sentence, i.e. this is a typical case of a focalized Rheme. On the other hand, in "The booze was brought by John" 'John' is the Rheme without being focalized.

(iv) Perspective or the FOREGROUNDED-BACKGROUNDED opposition. This opposition deals with the psychologically primary/secondary character of a chunk of meaning, again from the viewpoint of the Speaker. A good illustration of backgrounded chunks are parenthetical expressions. Possessor Raising is an instance of foregrounding, and reflects the importance that natural languages attach to human possessors.

(v) Emphasis, or the EMPHASIZED-NEUTRAL opposition. This opposition is related to the emotional load the Speaker attaches to a given meaning. It is responsible for marking contrast and insistence, or a high level of the Speaker's feelings (irony, anger, amazement). 'John' (pronounced with rising intonation) is the emphasized element of the sentence "JOHN drinks gin, it is Peter who drinks whiskey". Note that a focalized element needs not be also emphasized: one can pronounce a focalized element in a neutral tone of voice, without any emphasis.

(vi) Presupposedness, or the PRESUPPOSED-NON PRESUPPOSED opposition. Presupposed is that part of the SemS which the speaker presents as taken for granted, in the sense that, if the whole SemS is negated or questioned, that part remains affirmed. When I negate the whole meaning of the sentence "This lazy guy is here" by saying "This lazy guy is not here", I'm still saying that the guy is lazy.

(vii) Unitariness, or the UNITARY-ARTICULATED opposition. This opposition concerns the way in which the speaker presents a complex event: as one single phenomenon or as a sequence of several phenomena. The decision to unitarize or to articulate the situation being described mainly depends on the Speaker's choice. The more typical a situation is, the higher the probability that the Speaker will unitarize it.

(viii) Locutionality, or the SIGNALED-PERFORMED-COMMUNICATED opposition. This opposition distinguishes between two types of utterances: (i) utterances that are meant to communicate something and (ii) utterances that are meant simply to signal something or to perform an action. For instance, if we have the meaning 'it hurts me', we can use a communicating utterance such as "it hurts" or a signaling utterance such as "Ouch!".

All those linguistic examples that are not strictly necessary to the discussion in Chapter 2 are dealt with in Chapter 3. This chapter is by and large the most appealing part of the book, since the complexity of the notation system proposed in Chapter II is fully exploited to address a number of linguistic examples chosen among the most debated cases in the literature.

I decided to review Mel'cuk's book after coming across his "Cours de Morphologie Generale" (Mel'cuk 1994; see also Mel'cuk 2001). In that thought-provoking book, Mel'cuk provided a brilliant notational system for morphological categories. This book is similar to Mel'cuk 1994 in that both underscore the importance of terminological and notional rigor. If one is willing to accept the author's rather idiosyncratic terminology, Mel'cuk's approach to communicative organization is another important contribution to our thinking about the need for crystal-clear definitions when working with linguistic phenomena and their dimensions of variation. It is rather difficult for a reviewer to find points for negative criticism. To sum up, the book is to be recommended to anyone working in the domain of Information Packaging from any perspective. It will not fail to stimulate both functionalists/typologists and formal linguists to get rid of terminological and notional vagueness when addressing the problem of what is communicated through natural language utterances.

Mel'cuk Igor. 1981. "Meaning-Text Models: A recent trend in Soviet linguistics". Annual Review of Anthropology 10: 27-62.

Mel'cuk Igor. 1994. Cours de morphologie generale (theorique et descriptive). Montreal: Les Presses de l'Universite de Montreal, CNRS editions.

Mel'cuk Igor. 2001. "A formal language for linguistic morphology (toward a coherent notional system)". Paper presented at the 37th meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society, April 2001.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER Andrea Sanso', after having graduated in Linguistics from the University of Pisa, attended a PhD programme on Linguistics at the University of Pavia. During this course, he carried out some research about passive constructions in Italian and Spanish in a cognitive-typological framework, which resulted in the Dissertation "Passive and elaboration of events: A case atudy from Italian and Spanish". His research interests cover Linguistic Typology, Semantics, Pragmatics, Discourse, Cognitive Linguistics.