Making Sense out of Meaning

Making Sense out of Meaning: An Essay in Lexical Semantics

Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Making Sense out of Meaning
    Book Description:

    In his exploration of word meaning, Walter Hirtle examines an important and controversial topic in lexical semantics: polysemy, the capacity of words to manifest a range of different meanings when employed in different contexts. Building on the work of French linguist Gustave Guillaume, Making Sense out of Meaning is a speaker-oriented study that describes how speakers form word meaning and not, as in other theories, how listeners interpret the meaning of what they hear. Hirtle develops a general model of the ways in which words and word meaning may be realized in discourse contexts and addresses such issues as the demarcation of polysemy and monosemy, metaphorical meaning, parts of speech, and the concept of conversion or zero derivation. Bringing together both lexical and grammatical components, Hirtle shows that distinct lexical senses can be observed and their relations can be understood by focusing on speakers' use of verbs and nouns. A methodical and thoughtful work, Making Sense out of Meaning situates its central question by recalling traditional views of language’s relation to thought and argues for meaning as a valid object of scientific inquiry.

    eISBN: 978-0-7735-8917-9
    Subjects: Linguistics

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 3-8)

    This essay will be one more attempt to situate meaning, that protean component of words, within an overall view of language, to bring it within the scope of a linguistic theory permitting us to understand how we manage to communicate by means of such a changeable element. The traditional view of meaning as the mental counterpart of linguistic signs has been called into question by work in the field of neuroscience¹ and even in the field of linguistics. If it is a mental entity, then meaning is strictly subjective and so, in the eyes of many scholars, cannot be treated...


    • 1 Language as a Human Phenomenon
      (pp. 11-23)

      To situate the topic of this essay at the outset, it will be useful to evoke general attitudes toward language reflecting the cultural tradition of the last two centuries. This chapter will compare remarks by writers from various fields – literature, philosophy, history, etc. – to give an idea of the cultural setting in which linguistic thought has developed. One may well wonder what such comments can bring to a discussion of linguistics. Their value lies in the fact that each of these persons, besides having the daily experience of language as a phenomenon like any other speaker, also has a particular...

    • 2 Linguists and the Tradition
      (pp. 24-32)

      This excerpt helps recall the first point of view brought out by the rather haphazard collection of citations in the last chapter, which was not intended to constitute a survey or history of the way language has been regarded, but merely to call to mind a traditional way of viewing the relation between language and man, or more precisely between language and thought. This traditional mentalist approach offered two perspectives, depending on how the wordthoughtis understood, perspectives which were seen to be complementary. Language enables us to fix on and grasp more or less adequately what we have...

    • 3 Meaning: An Object of Scientific Enquiry?
      (pp. 33-40)

      We have looked at traditional views which associate language with thought so intimately that one thinks of a sort of symbiotic relationship. For some, language is a necessary precondition for thought, taken in its categorial, conceptual sense, and from this point of view it can be argued that there is no thought expressed without language (or a language surrogate such as mathematics). For others, thought, in its experiential, content-of-awareness sense, is a necessary precondition for language, and so from this point of view it can be argued that there is no language sayable without thought. This binary relationship (far from...


    • 4 Coming to Grips with Meaning
      (pp. 43-56)

      In the last chapter we saw that tongue, our language potential, involves a system for constructing words, a mental mechanism consisting of the means of providing both the physical part of the word, the sign, and the mental part, its import or meaning. We saw also that the role of word meaning is to help effect the transition between pre-language thought and post-language thought, between the speaker’s momentary experience and the categorial, languaged version of it expressed by a sentence. Moreover, tongue provides a speaker with the permanent capacity of effecting this transition for whatever experience the speaker may have...

    • 5 How Access “Got Verbed”
      (pp. 57-72)

      The assumption of a word-forming mechanism available to speakers during the act of language is far less well-known than an alternative, quite different assumption about words. To compare the two, examples of what, for the speaker at least, appear to be innovations in English will be examined in the light of different grammarians’ comments to see if that alternative assumption can explain them. This will lead to the crucial question: “What’s in a word?” Considering a traditional view of words will make the assumption developed here more explicit and provide a different basis for explaining the examples examined. Finally, I...

    • 6 Wording
      (pp. 73-86)

      So far we have situated language, and more specifically meaning as expressed by language, the object of our study, between what precedes languaging and what follows it. What precedes languaging is pre-language thought, that portion of a speaker’s ongoing experience focused on as an intended message. Languaging consists of constructing words to constitute a sentence expressing meaning. What follows speech is the realized message, the mental referent the listener has managed to piece together from the meaning expressed and its relation to the linguistic context (if any), the speaker, the situation, common knowledge, etc. What exists during the act of...


    • 7 Monosemy and Polysemy
      (pp. 89-110)

      Having set the stage in preceding chapters, we will now focus on observing meaning in the next three chapters. This is painstaking work since it calls for comparing diverse uses of particular lexemes for the senses expressed. First, however, a word of caution is appropriate. Although a word’s lexical import must be accessible in ordinary discourse for anyone to understand a sentence and reconstitute the speaker’s message, what ordinary speakers are not usually aware of is the variation of lexical sense a given word expresses in different uses. Certainly translators, lexicographers, and writers, to varying degrees, become aware of different...

    • 8 Discerning Different Senses of See
      (pp. 111-127)

      In chapter 6 we saw that a word’s meaning consists of a lexical import and a grammatical import, a distinction not made explicit in Ruhl’s study. In order to bring into focus the actualized sense of the lexeme and nothing more, we will now turn to studies making this distinction. The difficulty involved here is considerable but perhaps not as great as Cruse suggests (5) when he remarks that “it is not possible to disentangle semantics from grammar completely. One reason for this is that many grammatical elements are themselves bearers of meaning.”¹ It goes without saying that observation under...

    • 9 Grammatical (In)compatibility with Other Verbs
      (pp. 128-138)

      We will continue our examination of particular lexemes by summarizing the findings of other studies¹ of verbs rarely used in the progressive in order to discern the actualized senses they express when used in the progressive since, as withsee, this permits us to distinguish the lexical from the grammatical import. The first group of verbs consists oflike, dislike, prefer, love, hate, despise,andfear, all expressing a sort of affective attitude or mental state in ordinary uses with the simple form:

      I like the new head of department.

      With the progressive, there is a different expressive effect:


    • 10 Do, Be, Have
      (pp. 139-145)

      Having examined a number of verbs, includinghave toandbe, as used in the progressive to see what that tells us of their lexical import, we will now explore the three verbs found both as auxiliaries and as full or main verbs. As in the preceding chapters, we will try to draw conclusions from comparing the different uses of each verb in discourse, but as above, this will not lead to a description of the traits characterizing the lexeme itself, a task as yet beyond the scope of our analysis.

      I have elsewhere discussed (2007, 277–90) the meaning...

    • 11 Working Out the Right Sense
      (pp. 146-156)

      Ruhl’s attempt to establish the monosemy of verbs was criticized in chapter 7 basically because language was considered uniquely from the point of view of the listener, of discourse, a view leading him to the proposal that to ensure communication a word must be monosemous, expressing the same meaning in every sentence. The other senses indicated by the data were explained as the results of pragmatic metonymy, i.e. the listener appealing to, among other things, the message resulting from referring the meaning of the sentence to its extra-linguistic setting. This would make the referent a way for the listener to...


    • 12 Common and Proper
      (pp. 159-171)

      In this and the next three chapters we will be examining lexemes formed as substantives in an attempt to see if certain commonly observed distinctions in discourse can throw a light on the actualization of these lexemes. As with verbs, we assume that the meaning of any word is binary, consisting of a lexical (material) and a grammatical (formal) component forming its mental content. The speaker synthesizes the two components during the moment of speech by means of a bi-phase operation whereby a lexeme is actualized and then configured grammatically. This meaning synthesis is then expressed by actualizing its physical...

    • 13 ‘Unbounded’ and ‘Bounded’
      (pp. 172-181)

      In this chapter we turn to a component in the lexemes of all substantives with grammatical results, a component that has long been observed. For example, when Jespersen (1954 II, 114–15) remarks that besides “countables” there are “a great many words which represent ‘uncountables’, that is, which do not call up the idea of any definite thing, having a certain shape or precise limits,” he is making a lexical distinction. He illustrates this distinction between “mass-words and thing-words” mainly on the basis of their grammatical number: whether or not they take ‘plural’ -s , the indefinite article, each and...

    • 14 Metaphor
      (pp. 182-196)

      Up to this point we have discussed variations in the sense of a lexeme that give rise to grammatical consequences in the word or its syntax. That is, any listener recognizing a word as a substantive knows that the speaker has given its lexeme either an ‘unbounded’ or a ‘bounded’ sense (as opposed to recognizing it as a verb with either a ‘stative’ or a ‘developmental’ sense) because this distinction is always part of the actualized lexeme of a substantive in English.Unlike the distinction between a common noun lexeme and a proper noun lexeme, this is a lexical distinction within...


    • 15 Making Lexemes into Nouns
      (pp. 199-213)

      Examining lexemes from the point of view of how their characterizing traits condition their range of representation has shown that, in ordinary non-metaphorical uses, common nouns bring to the sentence a representation characterizing the nature of an entity as perceived in the experience of the speaker. In many cases, that entity is depicted with certain identifying traits as a hyponym implying traits of a more general hyperonym, which can itself be represented by another lexeme. Some substantives may not have this hyponym effect, but they do imply a very general lexeme such as ‘thing’ or at least a vague, abstract...

    • 16 Space Words, Time Words, and Adverbs
      (pp. 214-220)

      We have seen (chapters 4–6) that we construct words only when we need them, that is, only when we want to say something about what we have in mind. This entails the intention to construct a discourse, a sentence (in the broad sense) or sentences that will express our intended message. This expressive intent entails the intention to represent our message by an appropriate word or words capable of forming the required sentence. The important point for our discussion here is that the constructing of a word is preceded by, prompted by, the intention to construct a sentence in...


    • Conclusion
      (pp. 223-226)

      In trying to make sense out of meaning, we began by situating the question as seen by linguists and other writers, and then turned to examining it from a scientific point of view, arguing that, though introspective, the observation of meaning expressed by sentences, phrases, or even words permits communication. Since communication presupposes a consensus of qualified observers, the meaning observed can be considered data. Assuming there to be an order or system behind what has been observed (the second necessary condition for adopting a scientific approach), and considering that “unless we already have some hypothesis in mind, we are...

  11. Glossary
    (pp. 227-230)
  12. Notes
    (pp. 231-240)
  13. References
    (pp. 241-250)
  14. Index
    (pp. 251-254)