[appeared in Natural Language Engineering, 1997]
John Lyons. Linguistic Semantics: An Introduction. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press. 1995.
ISBN 0 521 43302 9 Price #35.00 (hardback) - ISBN 0 521 43877 2 (paperback). xvii+376 pages.
Sir John Lyons's Linguistic Semantics: An Introduction (LSAI from now on) is a tolerable addition to the list of half a dozen or so impressive titles he has produced on linguistic subjects over the years. This book was initially planned to be a second edition of his Language, Meaning and Context (Lyons 1981). However, in the end it turned out to be a successor and replacement. For it is, in the author's words, a very different book compared to the 1981 volume: it is much longer, treats topics missing in the earlier volume, and is written in a different style. (Unfortunately, I am not familiar with (Lyons 1981) and the reader is asked to take these remarks with a grain of salt.)
By `linguistic semantics' Lyons means the study of meaning systematically encoded in the vocabulary/grammar of natural language. Thus, linguistic semantics is a branch of linguistics; semantic issues which have more to do with philosophy belong, in Lyons's view, to the more proper branch of philosophical semantics. Accordingly and understandably, Lyons devotes limited space to philosophical problems while he cautions that nobody would be able to appreciate modern linguistic semantics without some acquaintance with its philosophical groundwork.
According to Lyons, LSAI can be used as a textbook for introductory semantics courses in departments of linguistics. If one is familiar with various key issues in semantics, then this book is quite enjoyable because Lyons is raising some interesting points and asking stimulating questions. On the other hand, a beginner would be easily unsettled by the lack of exercises, light (at times skin-deep) treatment of some very significant topics of semantics, and the generally verbose writing style of Lyons. In fact, this last point needs some emphasis. To repeat the words of Wittgenstein vis-a-vis a well-known philosopher (Rhees 1984, page 88): ``He is too long-winded; he keeps on saying the same thing over and over again. When I read him I always wanted to say, Oh all right, I agree, I agree, but please get on with it.''
It should be added that since LSAI is not a formal semantics book, it is natural that the writing style suffers from a good deal repetition--probably thought of as a cure for ambiguity. In a formally written book, the mathematics would take care of the rest, and less prose would be needed. However, in LSAI there is only a minimal amount of mathematics. (This, by the way, reminds me of Daedalus, an influential American journal which allows no formulas.)
LSAI consists of the following parts (each part is followed by the chapters comprising it):
Part 1 (which consists of one long chapter) deals with the Herculean question of semantics, linguistic or non-linguistic: what is meaning? The need for a metalanguage of semantics is elucidated and Standard English is adopted as the metalanguage. This chapter also introduces the usual distinctions between language and speech, langue and parole, competence and performance, form and meaning, sentences and utterances.
The first chapter of Part 2 is concerned primarily with words as expressions. The fundamental distinction of C. S. Peirce, viz. tokens vs. types, is explained. Homonymy, polysemy, and synonymy are studied in long expositions. There is also an interesting discussion of full (e.g., man, green) vs. empty (e.g., the, to) word-forms. The second chapter of Part 2 enumerates the different techniques that can be employed to define the meaning of words. Classical notions such as sense, reference, extension, intension, ostension, natural kinds, and prototypes are introduced. The final chapter of Part 2 hints at the notion of compositionality. It also studies (propositional) entailment while drawing the classical distinctions between necessarily vs. contingently true propositions. As a result of reading this part, it would be nice if the reader got an overall picture of what word meaning is all about. Unfortunately, this does not happen. Personally, I might as well prefer the following holistic explanation (Suzuki 1984, page 79):
``Consider the word dog. The word dog evokes very different images in the minds of those who have been bitten by dogs and those who have not. Dog lovers can distinguish different kinds of dogs and point out their respective characteristics, while people who are not interested in dogs cannot. But this does not keep anyone from understanding and using the word dog. With this in mind, I feel that the meaning of a word should be as follows: the sum total of all the individual experience and knowledge we have in connection with a certain phonological shape.''
While Part 2 has been concerned with lexical semantics, Part 3 moves on to a consideration of sentence-meaning. The verifiability principle of A. J. Ayer (``A sentence is factually significant to a given person if and only if he knows how to verify the proposition which it purports to express'') is given and emotivism (the thesis that statements in ethics and esthetics just codify one's feelings and are not saying anything that is true or false) is presented. The second chapter of this part has a fine discussion of implication and negation in natural language utterances. The meaning of interrogative as well as imperative and exclamative sentences are studied, in addition to the usual declaratives. The last chapter of Part 3 details the principle of compositionality. It also presents a dated theory (which Lyons dubs `Katz-Fodor theory of sentence meaning') together with the time-honored distinction about deep vs. surface structure, and selection-restrictions for handling semantic ill-formedness. There is also a gainless discussion of Montague grammar and possible worlds which would probably cause more confusion for a beginner than clarification. It is a pity that Montague grammar, this particularly fruitful approach to the analysis of natural language, is subjected to such a light treatment in the hands of Lyons. To be fair, Lyons acknowledges that Montague grammar is a very technical subject and that he wishes to explain, non-technically, only some of the most essential aspects of it. (In this endeavor he succeeds to a certain extent.) My overall feeling is that Lyons contends that the standard view of logic is inappropriate for natural language semantics. While I largely concur with this message, I still think that the following excerpt from (Strawson 1985, page 232) does better justice to logic:
``[In] trying to discover the answers to questions of such forms as `What are the conditions under which we use such-and-such an expression or class of expressions?' or `Why do we say such-and-such a thing and not such-and-such another?', we may find ourselves able to frame classifications or disclose differences broad and deep enough to satisfy the strongest appetite for generality. What we shall not find in our results is that character of elegance and system which belongs to the constructions of formal logic. It is none the less true that the logic of ordinary speech provides a field of intellectual study unsurpassed in richness, complexity, and the power to absorb.''
Part 4, based on J. L. Austin's theory of speech acts, includes some of the best chapters of the book. The chapter on contexts is particularly notable in this regard. When the word context is employed in linguistic descriptions, explanations, and analyses, its meaning is frequently left to the reader's understanding, i.e., it is used in an implicit and intuitive manner. In fact, the denotation of the word has become murkier as its uses have been extended in many directions; in short, context has become some sort of conceptual garbage receptacle. Lyons offers, using Paul Grice's accounts of conversational implicature, principle of cooperation, and conversational maxims, a satisfactory review of the role of context. His feeling is that in the construction of a satisfactory theory of context, the findings of social sciences like psychology, anthropology, and sociology will be useful. Finally, the last chapter of this part considers deixis, tense and aspect, and mood. It is a difficult chapter that emphasizes what Lyons calls the `subjectivity of utterance'.
Now that I have given a taste of what is in this book, it is time to voice my disappointment with various shortcomings and omissions.
Government and Binding Theory and the Minimalist Program (Chomsky 1995) receive scant attention in LSAI. Lyons's most recent Chomsky citation is from 1986. I find this hard to understand in the light of the fact that Lyons is also the author of a monograph on Chomsky (Lyons 1991).
Situation Semantics (Barwise & Perry 1983) and Discourse Representation Theory (Kamp & Reyle 1993), are not even mentioned. I find this altogether strange. Obviously, both theories have been around not to be regarded as exotic research fads and have given rise to landmark publications and practical applications in semantics and natural language processing, respectively.
Donald Davidson, whose contributions to the truth-conditional theory are numerous, is another researcher who is simply ignored in LSAI (not counting a passing reference made in `Suggestions for further reading'). As is well known, Davidson holds that Tarski-style truth theories are fundamental: his standpoint is that there is a close affinity between understanding the meaning of a sentence and knowing its truth conditions. On a related note, while Kaplan's work (Kaplan 1989) on the logic of demonstratives has had a profound reign in semantics, it is simply overlooked in LSAI.
Still, Lyons should be commended for writing this book. Writing books is risky business; one does one's best and lets the result stand or fall. In my view, LSAI does not fall but leaves a lot to be desired. As long as one can bear with the sometimes odd (even eccentric) points of view of Lyons, there are no obvious `conceptos'. But there are a small number of typos, e.g., in the Venn diagram on page 111 ~A should read A and on page 167 the formula (~p & ~p) should read (~p & ~q).
In my own graduate teaching (a course titled Varieties of Formal Semantics), I used to prefer (Chierchia & McConnell-Ginet 1990), keeping (Gamut 1991) as a supplementary source to provide the necessary background material as needed. Both of these books are more or less formal and include exercises. I think I'll stick to my choices but will probably ask my students to take a look at LSAI. After all, inverting a remark of Alice ter Meulen, ``This is not the textbook on semantic theory that the world has been waiting for!''
Bilkent University, Ankara