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Review of  The Semantics of Polysemy

Reviewer: Zouhair Maalej
Book Title: The Semantics of Polysemy
Book Author: Nicholas Riemer
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Cognitive Science
Subject Language(s): English
Book Announcement: 17.106

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Date: Tue, 3 Jan 2006 16:26:30 -0800
From: Zouhair Maalej <>
Subject: The Semantics of Polysemy: Reading Meaning in English and

AUTHOR: Riemer, Nick
TITLE: The Semantics of Polysemy
SUBTITLE: Reading Meaning in English and Warlpiri
SERIES: Cognitive Linguistics Research
PUBLISHER: Mouton de Gruyter
YEAR: 2005

Zouhair Maalej, Department of English Language and Literature,
University of Manouba-Tunis


Riemer offers a cross-linguistic cognitive semantic view of polysemy
based on a typology of metaphoric and metonymic relations in keeping
with the problematics of general cognitive science. Apart from the
Introduction and the Conclusion, the book offers six chapters, of which
the first two are a review and a repudiation of cognitive semantics and
the Natural Semantic Metalanguage as currently practiced, with the
rest of the chapters presenting evidence for polysemy (chapter 3), a
theory for polysemy (chapter 4), and two case studies, one about
English (chapter 5) and the other Warlpiri (chapter 6).

Ch 1: Cognition and linguistic science
Riemer presents the objective of his monograph as consisting in
analyzing polysemy in English and Warlpiri's percussion (hitting) verbs
using ordinary language paraphrase in cognitive semantics, where
polysemy is seen as a function of three metonymic and one
metaphoric relation. However, the author disagrees with pairing
semantic structure and conceptualization within cognitive semantics,
and elaborates a distinction between the observability of phono-
morpho-syntactic features of language and the non-observable nature
of semantic phenomena, concluding that semantics has no data that
constitute its object of investigation.

The author devotes the rest of the chapter to discussing his
disagreement with cognitive semantics in pairing meaning and
conceptualization. Riemer argues that to meet scientificity a theory
needs to satisfy two conditions: causal explanation condition and
empirical identity condition. It fails to satisfy the former as the theory
does not attempt to characterize the causal succession of cognitive
states which result in linguistic tokens (p. 27). Riemer qualifies the
latter as ''at a prescientific point in its development'' (p. 28).

Ch 2: Meaning, definition and paraphrase
Riemer presents the Natural Semantic Metalanguage (NSM)
framework of Wierzbicka and co-workers. Riemer sees NSM as a
model of definitional enterprise, presented as a ''refinement'' on
modern dictionaries. In proposing universally intertranslatable and
indefinable semantic primitives, the NSM meant to evade charges of
ethnocentrism, by developing a maximally culture-neutral methodology
and objective terminology. Instead, it fell into semantic primitives that
are not to be found in each culture

Ch 3: Evidence for polysemy
As a way of evidencing the existence of polysemy, Riemer rejects
Allwood's (2003) proposal of a continuum between the two as
a ''meaning potential'' for lexical items in favor of the distinction
between monosemy and polysemy. Riemer also rejects Tuggy's
(1999) assumption that polysemy is the default case in accounts of
meaning. Furthermore, Riemer looks at the various criteria advanced
in defense of polysemy such as logical, syntagmatic, syntactic,
paradigmatic, and definitional tests, and rejects all of them as defining
criteria. The second half of the chapter serves to defining the author's
own conception of polysemy as based on metaphor and metonymy,
and captured in G (glosses), with M (manifest) and S (sensory) as

Ch 4: A four-category theory of polysemy
Riemer isolates four categories that are claimed to account for English
and Warlpiri's polysemy of P/I (percussion-impact) vocabulary, namely:
(i) Metaphorical applications of the core verbal meaning,
(ii) Effect metonymies: metonymic extensions to the effect of the action
of the verb,
(iii) Context metonymies: metonymic extensions to the context in which
the action of the verb occurs, and
(iv) Constituent metonymies: metonymic extensions by selection of a
constituent of the verbal event.

Ch 5: Applications I: English
Riemer isolates eight metaphoric profiles of polysemy in English in a
diachronic perspective:
(i) using words is subjecting them to P/I,
(ii) consciousness is a surface; thoughts and percepts are impactors,
(iii) attaining a desired result is hitting a surface,
(iv) detrimental interaction is P/I,
(v) requests are acts of P/I,
(vi) arriving at a location is P/I,
(vii) emotional attraction is physical impact, and
(viii) metaphors with touch.

Riemer also isolates six metonymic profiles:
(i) motion induced in surface by P/I,
(ii) change of state caused in surface by P/I,
(iii) change of mental/experiential state caused in surface by P/I,
(iv) change of physical structure cause in surface by P/I,
(v) surface brought into being by P/I, and
(vi) surface brought into being and made to move by P/I.

Another two profiles include context metonymies, where the
metonymic extension derives from the context, and constituent

Ch 6: Applications II: Warlpiri
Riemer distinguishes three types of polysemy for Warlpiri, but argues
that only two of them (structural and lexical) are relevant for his
purposes. Structural and lexical polysemies occur across metaphor
and metonymy (effect, context, and constituent metonymies). In the
analysis of Walpiri hitting verbs, the constituent type metonymy seems
to be less frequent than metaphor and effect and contextual


On a positive note, Riemer's book is one of the very few (cognitive)
semantic contributions to Warlpiri, a Pama-Nyunga language spoken
by several thousand people in the Northern territory of Australia.
Riemer's contribution to the theory of polysemy through the study of
Warlpiri counts as an extension of polysemy to include not only
metaphor as motivation but, more importantly, metonymy as a
conceptual phenomenon.

However, on a negative note, it seems that the refutational apparatus
on which Riemer built his disagreement with CS is not well-founded.
For instance, attributing a ''property correspondence'' (p. 33) theory of
meaning to CS is displaced. Work within prototype theory by Rosch
(1978) and on ICMs by Lakoff (1982, 1987) dealt with the repudiation
of this necessary and sufficient feature theory of meaning, arguing
that meanings are fuzzier and more indeterminate than has been
thought. Idealized cognitive models presuppose their non-idealized
counterparts, suggesting that meanings are not fixed but negotiable in
discourse contexts as Riemer himself rightly argued. On the other
hand, concepts are not argued within CS to be reflections of the
properties of real-world phenomena; concepts are more a function of
experience with categories in the world (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999), and
can be argued to include a subjective dimension that makes this
experience with categories quite unique. Riemer should not much
disagree that a survivor in a car accident must have, as part of the
packaging of the concept of car, some of his lived experience with the
car and the accident that may not be available in the cognitive
environment of every other individual not having experienced the
same sad event.

Riemer's distinction between micro-, macro-, and intermediate-level
categorizations is useful and interesting, but it is not the case that
cognitive semanticists ignored the micro-level, which is basic-level
category in prototype theory. Lakoff & Turner (1989: p. 113) argue
that ''metaphorical understanding is grounded in semantically
autonomous conceptual structure.'' However, they point out that,
although semantically autonomous concepts are conventionally
understood nonmetaphorically, they may be understood
metaphorically if they have a complex internal structure. And they
mention DOG as part of the autonomous class of OBJECTS, pointing
out that we do talk about ''a dog's wagging his tail as flagging it, a
dog's loyalty and friendship, which are human traits (Lakoff & Turner,
1989: p. 112).

To end this critical evaluation, it should be noted that the conclusion to
the book is a theoretical discussion of semantics, where no summary
of the findings can be found.


Allwood, J. (2003). Meaning potentials and context: Some
consequences for the analysis of variation in meaning. In H.
Cuyckens, R. Dirven & J. R. Taylor (Eds.), Cognitive Approaches to
Lexical Semantics (pp. 29-65). Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Lakoff, G. (1982). Categories: An essay in cognitive linguistics. In The
Linguistic Society of Korea (Ed.), Linguistics in the Morning Calm (pp.
139-193). Seoul: Hanshin Publishing Company.

Lakoff, G. (1987). Women, fire, and dangerous things: What
categories reveal about the mind. Chicago/London: The University of
Chicago Press.

Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the flesh: The
embodied mind and its challenge to western thought. New York: Basic

Lakoff, G., & Turner, M. (1989). More than cool reason: A field guide
to poetic metaphor. Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press.

Rosch, E. (1978). Principles of categorization. In E. Rosch & B. B.
Lloyd (Eds.), Cognition and categorization (pp. 27-48). Hillsdale, New
Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.

Tuggy, D. (1999). Linguistic evidence for polysemy in the mind: A
response to William Croft and Dominiek Sandra. Cognitive Linguistics,
10(4), 343-368.

The reviewer is an associate professor of linguistics. His interests
include cognitive linguistics and metaphor, cognitive pragmatics,
cognitive psychology, experimental psycholinguistics, anthropology,
critical discourse analysis, etc. He teaches two undergraduate
courses in psycholinguistics and undergraduate and postgraduate
courses in critical discourse analysis. He also teaches two
postgraduate courses titled Critical Metaphor Analysis and Cognitive

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 3110183978
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: xvi, 487 pages
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