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OTHER APPROACHES TO SEMANTICS

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OTHER APPROACHES TO SEMANTICS

6.1. COGNITIVE SEMANTICS



6.1.1. Cognitive semantics is a term used to describe the semantic approach of linguists who see no separation between linguistic knowledge and general thinking, or cognition.

Cognitive linguists tend to adopt a functional view of language, as opposed to the more formal accounts formulated by Noam Chomsky and similar generative linguists. They argue that no adequate account of grammatical rules is possible without considering the meaning of elements.

Cognitive linguists are concerned to relate language to basic conceptual structures which they see as part of our experiential world. These structures, or domains, reflect the mental categories which we have formed as part of the inevitable process of being alive.

6.1.2. Special attention is given in cognitive semantics to metaphor.

According to George Lakoff and Mark Johnson,

our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act

is fundamentally metaphorical in nature. (1980: 1)

Cognitive linguists view this conceptual system as derived largely from bodily experience and perception. It is from these that we extrapolate image schemas, primitive conceptual structures through which we organize and imaginatively construct the world.

A good example of an image schema is the containment schema described by Mark Johnson (1987). This derives from our experience of the human body as a container, that is, the sense we have of inhabiting our own body. This links with other experiences of containment being in rooms, buildings, and beds, and putting things in bottles or jars - to establish a schema or framework, which extends over other areas of experience.

So, for example, the visual field is often conceived of as a container:

He is coming into view now.

The cars out of sight.

States, too, are often conceived of as containers:

She is in love;

He is in a temper;

They are in difficulty.

Another schema example is the path schema, which derives from our experience of moving around the world. On the basis of the path schema, we conceptualize our lives as journeys and talk of rushing to do something and not getting sidetracked.

A further schema is the force schema, which reflects the sense we have of interacting with animate and inanimate entities. This schema gives rise to expressions like being held up or feeling bogged down.

Cognitive linguists use image schemas to explain a range of semantic phenomena which other approaches are not able fully to penetrate.

6.1.3. The meanings of prepositions such as in and over, for example, are notoriously variable in everyday use. In the following instances from George Lakoff and Claudia Brugman (1988: 477 508), the preposition over has several distinct meanings:

a) The plane is flying over the hill.

b) Sam walked over the hill.

c) Sam lives over the hill.

d) The painting is over the mantel.

e) The board is over the hole.



It is possible to see that over has a number of related senses, the principal of which are above across, as in the first three (a c); in (d) it means above and in (e) it has the meaning of covering. The above across sense is viewed by Lakoff and Brugman as the prototypical (see Prototype theory) one which they relate to the path schema. This schema allows us to focus on the end point of the journey its acrossness if we wish, as in (c), or to indicate degrees of aboveness, as in the difference between (a) and (b).

Similar points are made about the other main senses of the preposition by seeing them as related aspects of the path schema.

The covering sense in (e), for example, has a path element latent within it as we can see in the extension:

She spread the cloth over the table.

Similar analyses of other prepositional relations are characteristic of the way cognitive linguists are concerned to provide a semantically functional description of linguistic behaviour.

6.2. PROTOTYPE THEORY

6.2.1 Sense is really an abstraction from reference. If you looked up tree in a dictionary, it wouldnt list every single characteristic of trees. To do that would take ages and be quite unhelpful; after all, what we are looking for are the definite features of tree, that is, its essential characteristics. As a consequence, most dictionaries restrict their definitions of trees, dogs, houses, and so forth, to prototypes.

Prototype theory, as it is known, has been very influential in modern semantic approaches in helping to account for how the mind stores and processes the senses of words. It does so by concentrating on typical, rather than marginal, usages.

Prototype theory is a theory which argues that people understand the meanings of words by reference to a typical example.

If we were asked for the sense of bird, for example, we should probably base our answer on a robin or sparrow, or blackbird, that is, a central member of the species, rather than on an ostrich or a penguin, or a chicken which are more marginal. This is because robins and sparrows are seen as prototypical birds whereas the others arent.

The idea is that all categories involve members which are central to the category as well as those which are marginal. The central members are used by the mind as a way of assessing the right to inclusion of possible new entries.

6.2.2. Basic to these semantic procedures for class membership are what are termed defining features and characteristic features.

Defining features are those which a member of a category must necessarily possess. In the case of birds they would include having feathers, two legs, two wings and being warm-blooded.

Characteristic features, on the other hand, are optional properties which a member may, rather than must, possess. So birds usually have short legs, are small, can fly, and are able to sing, and so on.

Prototypical birds, like robins and blackbirds, are those which, in addition to the defining features, possess most, if not all the characteristic features as well. According to prototype theory people verify statements such as

A robin is a bird, or A chicken is a bird,

by checking the number of features which robin and chicken have against the prototype of bird. This explains why most respondents take longer to verify a chickens status as a bird since, although it satisfies the defining features for bird, there are significant characteristic features which it lacks, or which are at least in doubt. Would we, for instance, describe the noise a chicken makes as singing?

One of the problems which besets prototype theory, however, is in deciding just what is a defining, as opposed to a characteristic, feature. Indeed, some characteristic features may seem more important than defining ones. Probably many people would initially think the ability to fly was an essential feature of birdhood rather than having two legs.

And there are some categories where there appear to be no defining features, only characteristic ones. A case in point is fruit. Its possible to list numerous typical features which various fruits possess, but very hard to find one feature which they all have. Were forced to say that fruit is a category not because of any defining features which members have but on the basis of family resemblances. A prototypical fruit has many of these, a marginal fruit has less. Its on this basis that we can say that olives ad tomatoes are borderline cases in that they share as many features with vegetables as with fruits.

6.2.3. The same is arguably true of some word classes such as nouns and adjectives. Nouns have family resemblances, on the basis of which its possible to categorise a prototypical noun as one which shares all the features that nouns are capable of. But there is no single, defining, feature which a noun categorically has to have to be a noun.




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