Lexical semantics

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Lexical semantics, a subfield of linguistic semantics, is the study of how the semantic organization of the lexicon interacts with syntax.[1]

The study of lexical semantics looks at:

the classification and decomposition of lexical items
the differences and similarities in lexical semantic structure between different languages
the relationship of lexical meaning to sentence meaning and syntax.

The units of analysis in lexical semantics are lexical units, which can be free or bound morphemes. These lexical units, also called syntactic atoms,[2] fall in a narrow range of meanings (semantic fields) and can combine with each other to generate new meanings.

Semantic classification of lexical items[edit]

Lexical items contain information about category (lexical and syntactic), form and meaning. The semantics related to this deals with lexical relations that occur with each lexical item in the lexicon.[3] Lexical items can also be semantically classified based on whether the meaning is derived from single lexical units themselves or from its surrounding environment.

Lexical relations: how meanings can be related to each other[edit]

Lexical items participate in regular patterns of association with each other. This includes hyponymy, hypernymy, synonymy and antonymy, as well as homonymy.[3]

Hyponymy and hypernymy[edit]

Hyponymy and hypernymy refers to a relationship between a general term and the more specific terms that fall under the category of the general term.

For example, the colors red, green, blue and yellow are hyponyms. They fall under the general term of color, which is the hypernym.

Taxonomy showing the hypernym "color"
Color (hypernym) → red, green, yellow, blue (hyponyms)

Hyponyms and hypernyms can be described by using a taxonomy, as seen in the example.


Synonymy refers to words that are pronounced and spelled differently but contain the same meaning.

Happy, joyful, glad [3]


Antonymy refers to words that are related by having the opposite meanings to each other. There are three types of antonyms: graded antonyms, complementary antonyms and relational antonyms.

dead, alive [3]
long, short 


Homonymy refers to the relationship between words that are spelled and pronounced the same way but hold different meanings.

bore, boar [3]
two, too 

Neighborhoods: how lexical items cluster into semantic networks[edit]

Lexical semantics explores whether the meaning of a lexical unit is established by looking at its neighbourhood in the semantic net, (words it occurs with in natural sentences), or whether the meaning is already locally contained in the lexical unit.

Semantic fields: how lexical items map onto concepts[edit]

First proposed by Trier in the 1930s,[4] semantic field theory proposes that a group of words with interrelated meanings can be categorized under a larger conceptual domain. This entire entity is thereby known as a semantic field. The words boil, bake, fry, and roast, for example, would fall under the larger semantic category of cooking. Semantic field theory asserts that lexical meaning cannot be fully understood by looking at a word in isolation, but by looking at a group of semantically related words.[5] Semantic relations can refer to any relationship in meaning between lexemes, including synonymy (big and large), antonymy (big and small), hypernymy and hyponymy (rose and flower), converseness (buy and sell), and incompatibility. Semantic field theory does not have concrete guidelines that determine the extent of semantic relations between lexemes and the abstract validity of the theory is a subject of debate.[4]

Event structures: how lexical items map onto different types of events[edit]

Event structure is defined as the semantic relation of a verb and its syntactic properties.[6] Verbs are separated into two categories: telic verbs and atelic verbs. Telic verbs describe a change of state involving an end-point (the verbs catch and rescue, for example) and atelic verbs refer to actions or events that are in themselves complete regardless of the presence of an endpoint or conclusion, such as stative verbs (for example, thinking, or the state of being happy).

The syntactic basis of event structure: a brief history[edit]

Generative semantics in the 1960s[edit]

The analysis of morphologically complex words, such as verbs with different arguments, had a decisive role in the field of "generative linguistics" during the 1960s.[7] The term generative first applied to linguistics when it was proposed by Noam Chomsky in his book Syntactic Structures published in 1957. The term generative linguistics was based on Chomsky's generative grammar, a linguistic theory that states systematic sets of rules can predict grammatical phrases within a language. [8]Generative Linguistics is also known as Government-Binding Theory. Generative linguists, including Noam Chomsky and Ernst von Glasersfeld, believed semantic relations between transitive verbs, intransitive verbs, and associated adjectives were idiosyncratic and tied to their independent syntactic organization.[7]

Lexicalist theories in the 1980s[edit]

Lexicalist theories became dominant during the 1980s, and emphasized that a word's internal structure was a question of morphology and not of syntax.[9] Lexicalist theories emphasized that complex words (resulting from compounding and derivation of affixes) have lexical entries that are derived from morphology, rather than resulting from overlapping syntactic and phonological properties, as Generative Linguistics predicts. To understand the distinction between Generative Linguistics and Lexicalist theories, consider the transformation of the word destroy to destruction:

  • Generative Linguistics theory:

States the transformation of destory --> destruction as the nominal, nom + destroy, combined with phonological rules that produce the output destruction. Views this transformation as independent of the morphology.

  • Lexicalist theory:

Sees destroy and destruction as having idiosyncratic lexical entries based on their differences in morphology. States that the formation of the complex word destruction is accounted for by a set of Lexical Rules, which are different and independent from syntactic rules.[9]

A lexical entry lists the basic properties of either the whole word, or the individual properties of the morphemes that make up the word itself. The properties of lexical items include their category, c-selection, (category selection), phonological shape, and if it is bound or free. The properties of lexical items are idiosyncratic, unpredictable, and contain specific information about the lexical items that they describe.[7]

Example of a lexical entry for the verb prefer:

prefer: V DPexp PPtheme/CP[for]theme/CP[that]theme

In sum, Lexicalist theories state that a word's meaning is derived from its morphology or a speaker's lexicon, and not its syntax. The degree of morphology's influence on overall grammar remains controversial.[7] Currently, the linguists that perceive one engine driving both morphological items and syntactic items are in the majority.

The micro-syntax of lexical items in the 1990s[edit]

By the early 1990's, Chomsky's minimalist framework on language structure led to sophisticated probing techniques for investigating languages.[10] These probing techniques analyzed negative data over prescriptive grammars, and allowed syntacticians to hypothesize that lexical items with complex syntactic features (such as ditransitive, inchoative, and causative verbs), could select their own specifier element within a syntax tree construction. (For more on probing techniques, see Suci, G., Gammon, P., & Gamlin, P. (1979).

This brought the focus back on the syntax-lexical semantics interface; however, syntactians still sought to understand the relationship between complex verbs and their related syntactic structure, and to what degree the syntax was projected from the lexicon, as the Lexicalist theories argued.

In the mid 90's, linguists Heidi Harley, Samuel Jay Keyser, and Kenneth Hale addressed some of the implications posed by complex verbs and a lexically-derived syntax. Their proposals indicated that the predicates CAUSE and BECOME, referred to as subunits within a Verb Phrase, acted as a lexical semantic template. [11] Predicates are verbs and state or affirm something about the subject of the sentence or the argument of the sentence. For example, the predicates went and is here below affirm the arguement of the subject and the state of the subject respectively.

(2) Lucy went home.
     The parcel is here.

The subunits of Verb Phrases led to the Argument Structure Hypothesis and Verb Phrase Hypothesis, both outlined below.'.[12] The recursion found under the "umbrella" Verb Phrase, the VP Shell, accommodated binary-branching theory; another critical topic during the 1990s.[13]Current theory recognizes the predicate in Specifier position of a tree in inchoative/anticausative verbs (intransitive), or causative verbs (transitive) is what selects the theta role conjoined with a particular verb.[7]

Hale & Keyser's 1990's Argument Structure Hypothesis[edit]

Kenneth Hale and Samuel Jay Kyser introduced their thesis on lexical argument structure during the early 1990s. [14] They argue that a predicate's argument structure is represented in the syntax, and that the syntactic representation of the predicate is a lexical projection of its arguments. Thus, the structure of a predicate is strictly a lexical representation, where each phrasal head projects its argument onto a phrasal level within the syntax tree. This lexical projection of the predicate's argument onto the syntactic structure is the foundation for the Argument Structure Hypothesis. [15]This idea coincides with Chomsky's Projection Principle, proposed in 1981.

Argument Structure and Specifier position[edit]

Based on the the interaction between Lexical Properties and Locality, (where a phrasal head selects another phrasal element locally), Hale and Keyser make the claim that the Specifier position and a complement are the only two semantic relations that project a predicate's argument that most words must choose from - that is, a word cannot have both. [16]


Halle & Marantz' distributed morphology[edit]

Morris Halle and Alec Marantz introduced the notion of distributed morphology in 1993. [17]This theoretical views the syntactic structure of words as a result of their morphology and semantics, and not that the syntax contributes to the word-level meaning.

Ramchand's 2007 "first phase syntax"[edit]

In her 2007 book, Verb meaning and Lexion: A first-phase syntax, linguist Gillian Ramchand acknowledges the roles of lexical entries in the selection of complex verbs and their arguments. 'First-Phase' syntax, proposes that event structure and event participants are directly represented in the syntax by means of binary branching. This branching ensures that the Specifier is the consistently subject, even when investigating the projection of a complex verbs lexical entry and their corresponding syntactic construction. This generalization is also present in Ramchand's theory that the complement of a head for a complex verb phrase must co-describe the verb's event.

Homomorphic Unity[edit]

The structural synchronization between the head of a complex verb phrase and its complement is coined Homomorphic Unity. According to Ramchand, Homomorphic Unity is described as:

  • Homomorphic Unity: When two event descriptors are syntactically Merged, the structure of the complement must unify with the structure of the head.[18]

Syntactic analysis of event types[edit]

Two types of intransitive verbs: unaccusative versus unergative[edit]

The unaccusative hypothesis was put forward by David Perlmutter in 1987, and describes how two classes of intransitive verbs have two different syntactic structures. These are unaccusative verbs and unergative verbs.[19] They have the following structures:

  • unaccusative verb: __ [VP V NP][19]
  • unergative verb: NP [VP V]

Change-of-state predicates: (x cause) y become z[edit]

The change-of-state property of Verb Phrases (VP) is a significant observation for the syntax of lexical semantics because it provides evidence that subunits are embedded in the VP structure, and that the meaning of the entire VP is influenced by this internal grammatical structure. There are two types of change of state predicates: inchoative and causative.

The inchoative/causative alternation[edit]

Main article: causative alternation
Tree diagram for (1a)
Tree diagram for (1b)

Inchoative verbs are intransitive, meaning that that they occur without a direct object, and these verbs express that their subject has undergone a certain change of state. Inchoative verbs are also known as anticausative verbs.[20] Causative verbs are transitive, meaning that they occur with a direct object, and they express that the subject causes a change of state in the object.

Linguist Martin Haspelmath classifies inchoative/causative verb pairs under three main categories: causative, anticausative, and non-directed alternations.[21] Non-directed alternations are further subdivided into labile, equipollent, and suppletive alternations.

English tends to favour labile alternations,[22] meaning that the same verb is used in the inchoative and causative forms.[21] This can be seen in the following example: broke is an intransitive inchoative verb in (1a) and a transitive causative verb in (1b).

(1) English[20]
    a. The vase broke.
    b. John broke the vase.

English change of state verbs are often de-adjectival, meaning that they are derived from adjectives. We can see this in the following example:

(2) a. The knot is loose. [23]
    b. The knot loosened.
    c. Sandy loosened the knot.

In example (2a) we start with a stative intransitive adjective, and derive (2b) where we see an intransitive inchoative verb. In (2c) we see a transitive causative verb.

Marked inchoatives in inchoative/causative alternation[edit]

Some languages (e.g., German, Italian, and French), have multiple morphological classes of inchoative verbs.[24] Generally speaking, these languages separate their inchoative verbs into three classes: i) verbs that are obligatorily unmarked (they are not marked with a reflexive pronoun, clitic, or affix), ii) verbs that are optionally marked, and iii) verbs that are obligatorily marked. The causative verbs in these languages remain unmarked. Haspelmath refers to this as the anticausative alternation.

Tree diagram for (3a)
Tree diagram for (3b)

In German, for example, their inchoative verbs are classified into three morphological classes. Class A verbs necessarily form inchoatives with the reflexive pronoun sich, Class B verbs form inchoatives necessarily without the reflexive pronoun, and Class C verbs form inchoatives optionally with or without the reflexive pronoun. In example (3), the verb zerbrach is an unmarked inchoative verb from Class B, which also remains unmarked in its causative form.[24]

(3) German[24]
    a. Die Vase zerbrach.
       the  vase  broke
       'The vase broke.'
    b. Hans zerbrach die Vase.
       John  broke   the vase
       'John broke the vase.'
Tree diagram for (4a)
Tree diagram for (4b)

In contrast, the verb öffnete is a Class A verb which necessarily takes the reflexive pronoun sich in its inchoative form, but remains unmarked in its causative form.

(4) German[24]
    a. Die Tür öffnete sich.
       the door opened REFL
       'The door opened.'
    b. Hans öffnete die Tür.
       John opened the door
       'John opened the door.'

There has been some debate as to whether the different classes of inchoative verbs are purely based in morphology, or whether the differentiation is derived from the lexical-semantic properties of each individual verb. While this debate is still unresolved in languages such as Italian, French, and Greek, it has been suggested by linguist Florian Schäfer that there are semantic differences between marked and unmarked inchoatives in German. Specifically, that only unmarked inchoative verbs allow an unintentional causer reading (meaning that they can take on an "x unintentionally caused y" reading).[24]

Marked causatives in inchoative/causative alternation[edit]

Tree diagram for (5a)
Tree diagram for (5b)

Causative morphemes are present in the verbs of many languages (e.g., Tagalog, Malagasy, Turkish, etc.), usually appearing in the form of an affix on the verb.[20] This can be seen in the following examples from Tagalog, where the causative prefix pag- (realized here as nag) attaches to the verb tumba to derive a causative transitive verb in (5b), but the prefix does not appear in the inchoative intransitive verb in (5a). Haspelmath refers to this as the causative alternation.

(5) Tagalog[20]
    a. Tumumba ang bata.
       fell    the child
       'The child fell.'
    b. Nagtumba ng bata si Rosa.
       CAUS-fall of child DET Rosa
       'Rosa knocked the child down.'

Change-of-possession predicates: x cause y have z[edit]

Tree diagram for (6)

Ditransitive verbs require three arguments: the agent that causes the event (DP1), the direct object or theme (DP2) , and an indirect object or goal (DP3). These last two are selected by the verb as complements to the verb. In (6), a story is the theme and the children the goal.

(6) Ray told the children a story [25]
Tree diagram for (7a)
Tree diagram for (7b)

There are two constructions in (7), the double object construction (DOC) of (7a) and the prepositional dative construction of (7b), represented in ternary tree structures. In both of these, both Mary, the DP goal, and package, the DP theme, are arguments of the verb and in mutual relationship to one another:

(7) a. John sent Mary a package.
    b. John sent a package to Mary. [26]

Kayne's 1981 unambiguous path analysis[edit]

Tree diagram for (8)
Tree diagram for (9)

Richard Kayne proposed the idea of unambiguous paths as an alternative to c-commanding relationships, which is the type of structure seen in examples (6-7). The idea of unambiguous paths stated that an antecedent and an anaphor should be connected via an unambiguous path. This means that the line connecting an antecedent and an anaphor cannot be broken by another argument.[27] When applied to ditransitive verbs, this hypothesis introduces the structure in (8). In example (8) it can be seen that an unambiguous path can be drawn from either DP to the V.

Larson's 1988 "VP-shell" analysis[edit]

Most current theories, however, no longer allow the ternary tree structure as above.[28] The theme and goal are rather seen in a hierarchical or assymetrical relationship where DP2 c-commands DP3.

There is still dispute as to the underlying structures of ditransitive verb phrases. Bresnan and others argue that examples such as (7a) and (7b) share the same meaning and syntax but appear in different contexts.[28] Bruening and representatives of his views, however, (Goldberg, Harley, Beck and Johnson) argue that these are underlyingly distinct from each other in syntax and semantics even though they look similar on the surface. He argues that the goal and theme DPs are arguments of different heads.[28]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Pustejovsky, James (1995). The Generative Lexicon. MIT Press. 
  2. ^ Di Sciullo, Anne-Marie; Williams, Edwin (1987). On the definition of word. Cambridge, MA: MIT press. 
  3. ^ a b c d e Loos, Eugene; Anderson, Susan; H. Day, Jr., Dwight; Jordan, Paul; Wingate, J. Douglas. "What is a lexical relation?". Glossary of linguistic terms. LinguaLinks. 
  4. ^ a b Famer, Pamela B.; Mairal Usón, Ricardo (1999). "Constructing a Lexicon of English Verbs". Functional Grammar (in English) 23 (illustrated ed.). Walter de Gruyter. p. 350. ISBN 9783110164169.
  5. ^ Lehrer, Adrienne (1985). "The influence of semantic fields on semantic change". "Historical Semantics, Historical Word Formation". Walter de Gruyter. pp. 283–296. 
  6. ^ Malaia et al. (2012), Effects of Verbal Event Structure on Online Thematic Role Assignment, Journal of Psycholinguistic Research 41 (5): 323–345, doi:10.1007/s10936-011-9195-x 
  7. ^ a b c d e Sportiche, Dominique; Koopman, Hilda; Stabler, Edward (2014). An Introduction to Syntactic Analysis and Theory. WILEY Blackwell. 
  8. ^ Chomsky, Noam (1957). Syntactic Structures. Mouton de Gruyter. 
  9. ^ a b last1=Scalise|first1=Sergio|last2=Guevara|first2=Emiliano|title=The Lexicalist Approach to Word-Formation|date=1985
  10. ^ Fodor, Jerry; Lepore, Ernie (Aug 1999). The Journal of Philosophy 96 (8): 381–403. JSTOR 2564628. 
  11. ^ Pinker, S. 1989. "Learnability and Cognition: The Acquisition of Argument Structure." Cambridge. MIT Press
  12. ^ Harley, Heidi. "Events, agents and the interpretation of VP-shells." (1996).
  13. ^ Kayne, Richard S. The antisymmetry of syntax. No. 25. MIT Press, 1994.
  14. ^ last1=Hale|first1=Kenneth|last2=Keyser|first2=Samuel Jay|title=On Argument Structures and the Lexical expression of syntactic relations|Journal=Essays in Linguistics in honor of Sylvain Bromberger|date=1993
  15. ^ last1=Hale|first1=Kenneth|last2=Keyser|first2=Samuel Jay|title=On Argument Structures and the Lexical expression of syntactic relations|Journal=Essays in Linguistics in honor of Sylvain Bromberger|date=1993
  16. ^ Paul Bennett, 2003. Review of Ken Hale and Samuel Keyser, Prolegomenon to a Theory of Argument Structure. Machine Translation. Vol 18. Issue 1
  17. ^ Halle, Morris; Marantz, Alec (1993), Distributed Morphology and the Pieces of Inflection, The View from Building 20 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press): 111–176
  18. ^ Gillian C. Ramchand "Verb Meaning and Lexicon: A first-phase syntax." date=2007
  19. ^ a b Lappin, S. (Ed.). (1996). Handbook of contemporary semantic theory. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers.
  20. ^ a b c d Johnson, Kent (2008). "An Overview of Lexical Semantics". Philosophy Compass: 119–134. 
  21. ^ a b Haspelmath, Martin (1993). "More on the typology of inchoative/causative verb alternations". Causatives and transitivity 23: 87–121. 
  22. ^ Piñón, Christopher (2001). "A finer look at the causative-inchoative alternation". pp. 346–364. 
  23. ^ Tham, S. (2013). Change of state verbs and result state adjectives in Mandarin Chinese. JOURNAL OF LINGUISTICS, 49(3), 647-701.
  24. ^ a b c d e Schafer, Florian. The Syntax of (Anti-)Causatives. John Benjamins Publishing Company. p. 1. ISBN 9789027255099. 
  25. ^ Thomas, Linda. (1993). Beginning syntax. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers.
  26. ^ Miyagawa, Shigeru; Tsujioka, Takae (2004). "Argument Structure and Ditransitive Verbs in Japanese". Journal of East Asian Linguistics 13 (1): 1–38. 
  27. ^ Kayne, R. (1981). Unambiguous paths. In R. May & F. Koster (Eds.), Levels of syntactic representation (143-184). Cinnaminson, NJ: Foris Publications.
  28. ^ a b c Bruening, Benjamin (Spring 2010). "Double Object Constructions Disguised as Prepositional Datives". Linguistic Inquiry 41 (2): 287–305.