What Is Word Meaning?
- Dictionary definitions
- Who decides what words mean?
- Can the meanings of words be expressed in English (Chinese, etc.)
- How do we know what the meanings of the words in the definitions
- Mental images
- Are people's images for words the same?
- What about members of a category which differ significantly from
What about words for the referents do not exist?
What about different expressions with the same referent?
Mary wanted to know if Boris Yeltsin was the current President of
- Sense, as opposed to reference
We need an account of the meaning of expressions like
the current President of Russia,
the current King of France,
and a world in which pigs can fly.
- Semantic decomposition
Can the meaning of a word be described in terms of a set
of primitive semantic features?
- Rules about meaning
If something is swimming, it is in a liquid.
If something is open, it is not closed.
If something is [+human], it is [+animate].
If and only if x owns y, then y belongs to x.
- Necessary and sufficient conditions
- If something is a horse, what do you know about
- What things must be true of a thing in order for you to call
it a horse ?
Is it possible in general to arrive a set of necessary and sufficient
conditions for the meaning of a word?
- More typical and less typical features
- What are the typical features of a horse?
- Semantic relations
Can the meanings of words be expressed in terms of their
relations with other words?
Synonyms, complementary pairs, relation opposites, reversal pairs,
hyponyms, transitive/intransitive pairs
Is it possible to specify the meaning of a word independent of
its linguistic context?
a red brick,
a toy gun
- Literal and figurative meaning
- Is it possible to separate the literal meanings of words from the
The rock hit me like a bolt out of the blue.
The idea hit me like a bolt out of the blue.
- Idioms: should they simply be stored as separate lexical items
along with their (idiomatic) meanings?
- Mary spilled the beans.
- Jack kicked the bucket.
- Polysemy, ambiguity, and indeterminacy
How many meanings does a word such as give have?
the priest married my sister seems to be ambiguous.
What about eat in
Mary ate a cucumber and
Mary ate a noodle?
Indeterminacy is an alternative to polysemy.
- Meanings of particular parts of speech (syntactic categories)
- Noun meanings: things
- Proper nouns and common nouns: individuals and types
- Mass and count nouns
- Verb meanings: relations
- Number and kinds of arguments
- Arguments that are obligatory in the syntax vs. those that aren't
- Adjective meanings: properties
An overview of formal semantics
- Compositionality revisited
- Reference (extension)
- Syntactic rules and associated semantic rules
- NP: individual
- VP: set of individuals
- S: truth value
- Interpretation of a declarative sentence: determining its truth
- Identity statements
- Belief and opaque contexts
- Possible worlds
- Sense (intension)
- NP: function from possible circumstances to individuals
- VP: function from possible circumstances to sets
- S (propositions): function from possible circumstances to truth values
- that complements of verbs like believe refer not
to a truth value but
to the set of circumstances in which the embedded sentence is
- Ambiguity: Every student took a test.
- There is a test T, such that for each student S, S took T.
For each student S, there is a test T, such that S took T.
- Adjective meaning
- Intersection: blue
- Relative intersection: big
- Anti-intersection: fake
Acquisition of Word Meaning
- Some features of the acquisition process
- Complexive concepts
- The Naming Explosion (last half of second year)
- Rapidity of word learning following the Naming Explosion:
approximately 9 words per day for several years
- The Shape Bias
- Dimension adjectives: context specificity and failure
to infer relations among words ("if A is larger than B,
then B is smaller than A")
- "Poverty of the stimulus" for word learning: multitude of
meanings possible given a word and a context
- One account: children are born making particular assumptions.
- Labels refer to whole objects rather than their parts.
- Nouns refer to taxonomic categories not to classes
associated by thematic relations.
- Each object has only one label.
- Every two forms contrast in meaning.
- Another account: rich input in combination with statistical
learning mechanism is powerful enough to do without innate