Main approaches in semantics study

Semantic study

In the first part of the lesson, we have learned about the lexical semantics. Today we will continue with the cognitive semantics and formal semantics.

Cognitive semantics, said to be rooted in cognitive linguistics (starting in the 1970s), is now gaining ground and has become a major area of interest with many adherents. Frawley (1992) in his work “Linguistic Semantics” recognizes that: “Linguistic itself is a cognitive science, and my cognitivism is more of a requirement than a choice“. 

Barbar Abbott (1999) states “(However) in linguistic semantics these days the cognitive aspects are the centre of focus“. The core idea of this approach is that the meanings of expressions are mental. In other words, as A.Paternoster (1999) claims: “In fact, language is typically used to describe the reality, to convey information about the world; a semantic theory that failed to account for this fact would be disregarding an essential part of language use“. 

Thus semantics is seen a mapping from the linguistic expressions to cognitive structures, and language is seen the part of the cognitive structure. Emphasizing the importance and relevance of cognitive semantics, Talmy also asserts that semantics is intrinsically cognitive. Basically the main tenets of cognitive semantics can be summarized as follows:


  • Meaning is conceptualization in a cognitive model. More precisely, it involves the mapping from the expressions of the language to some mental entities, and does not convert itself with such important concepts of formal semantics as reference and truth.  As Paternoster observes from the very beginning, cognitive semantics has been inclined to give up reference and truth since reference and truth are inevitably committed to some disputable form of metaphysical realism. The truth expression is considered secondary as truth concerns the relations between the mental structure and the world. Meaning comes before truth. 
  • Cognitive models are mainly perceptually determined. As it happened cognitive structures are connected to our perceptual mechanisms either directly or indirectly. Thus meanings are more or less perceptually grounded. According to this account, meanings relate the perceiving the individual and the entity perceived. This is in contrast to the traditional realistic versions of semantics which claim that meaning has nothing to do with perception because it is a mapping between language and the outside world. 
  • Semantics elements are based on spatial or topological objects. Mental structures applied in cognitive semantics are the meanings  of linguistic expressions. In addition, it is essential to know that the conceptual schemes that are used to represent meanings are often based on geometric or spatial contractions. Gordenfos (1988) proposes the notion of conceptual space as a framework for semantics structure used in describing cognitive semantics. A conceptual space consists of a number of quality dimensions. Examples of quality dimensions are: color, pitch, temperature, weight, and the three ordinary spatial dimensions. However, we should stress that “dimension” should be understood literally, being endowed with certain topological or metric structures. 
  • Cognitive  models are primarily image-schematic. Image-schemas are transformed by metaphoric and metonymic operations. Lakoff (1987) and Johnson (1987) believe that the most important semantics structure in cognitive semantics is that of an image schema which is believe to possess an inherent spatial structure. 
  • Semantics is primary to syntax and partly determines it
  • Concepts show prototype effects

Cognitive semantics is concerned with such important notions as perspective, imagery, construal, figure-ground organization (or grounding), abstraction, prototype, conceptual metaphor, experiential gestalt, idealized model. 

Lackoff’s conceptual metaphor claims that metaphor is not just the figure of speech, it is a way of imposing our understanding out sort of thing into another. Consider in English a hidden enemy is described through the metaphor of “a snake in the grass”  . Obviously, this is the reflection of the way English people perceive this experience. Meanwhile, Vietnamese uses “Kẻ thù giấu mặt” (an enemy with a hidden face ( literal translation)). 

A comparison can reveal this point clearly. Another example is how English and Vietnamese perceive “time” . English people see time as “money” but Vietnamese people see it as “gold or silver”. In Vietnamese we say: “Thời gian là vàng là bạc

Grounding is another notion defined by Langacker (1991:315) as the ability to relate language events to the perspective of conceptualizer who chose to construe the situation and portray it for expressive purposes. A simple example from English would suffice. Just imagine we saw a film a couple of weeks ago. The event or situation is the same, but the hearer will say “I have seen the film”  to an invitation to go to the cinema to see a film, implying a connection between seeing the film two weeks ago and the invitation now. Note the use of the present perfect tense. The same speaker would say “I saw the film two weeks ago” as she or he was just describing what they did. 

Thus from this discussion, it appears apparent that the kind of cognitive semantics that deals with meaning in this way should rest on two basic assumptions as follows:

a) Meaning is human conceptualization of the world

b) There is difference between the real world and the conceptualized world, or in other words there is no one-to-one correspondence between these two worlds.

Some reservation would be made about the first point (a). Most cognitive linguists identify meaning with conceptualization. This view comes close to accepting the thought that meaning is the concept, which is questionable. Apart from these conceptualization constituent, meaning can encode other features such as the emotive or emotional. 

Let us compare the two words “lung vs. airbags“. The conceptualization component is the same for the two words, but what is obvious is that these items differ from each other in terms of their emotive charge. Thus for this reason, we shall simply say meaning reflects human conceptualization rather than it is the conceptualization.

One last point to be discussed in connection with formal and cognitive semantics is : what is the fundamental difference between the two kinds. The answer to the question is  that while both claim to be the study of meaning, formal semantics is more concerned with how the meaning of an expression can be represented than what it denotes or how it is encoded. 

For example, Katz and Postal’s work (1964) primary deals with semantic representation in terms of semantic features called “markers”  . The fact of the matter is that to simply to represent meaning is not to give an analysis of it. By contrast, cognitive semantics remains solidly on the side of what the meaning of language can denote and how it is encoded./

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