So much for exposition. I claim that Jackendoff’s account of polysemy offers no good reason to think that there are definitions. As often happens in lexical semantics, the problem that postulating definitions is supposed to solve is reallyonly begged; it’s, as it were, kicked upstairs into the metalanguage. The proposed account of polysemy works onlybecause it
This analysis couldn’t be exhaustive; cf. ‘keep an appointment/ promise’ and the like. But perhaps ‘keep’ is ambiguous as well as polysemous. There’s certainly something zeugmatic about ‘He kept his promises and his snowshoes in the cellar’.
On the West Coast of the United States, much the same sort of thesis is often held in the form that lexical analysis captures the regularities in a word’s behaviour by exhibiting a core meaning together with a system of ‘metaphorical’ extensions. See, for example, the putative explanation of polysemy in Lakoff (1988) and in many othertreatises on “cognitive semantics”. As far as I can tell, the arguments against Jackendoff that I’m about to offer apply without alteration to Lakoff as well.
takes for granted a theoretical vocabulary whose own semantics is, in the crucial respects, unspecified.11 Since arguments from data about polysemy to the existence of definitions have been widely influential in linguistics, and sincethe methodological issues are themselves of some significance, I’m going to spend some time on this. Readers who areprepared to take it on faith that such arguments don’t work are advised to skip.
The proposal is that whatever semantic field it occurs in, ‘keep’ always means (expresses the concept) CAUSE A STATE THAT ENDURES OVER TIME. Notice, however, that this assumption would explain the intuitiveunivocality of ‘keep’ only if it’s also assumed that ‘CAUSE’, ‘STATE’, ‘TIME’, ‘ENDURE’, and the rest arethemselves univocal across semantic fields. A’s always entailing B doesn’t argue for A’s being univocal if B meanssometimes one thing and sometimes another when A entails it. So, then, let’s consider the question whether, forexample, ‘CAUSE’ is univocal in, say, ‘CAUSE THE MONEY TO BE IN SUSAN’S POCKET’ and ‘CAUSE THECROWD TO BE HAPPY’? My point will be that Jackendoff is in trouble whichever answer he gives.
On the one hand, as we’ve just seen, if ‘CAUSE’ is polysemic, then BLAH, BLAH, CAUSE, BLAH, BLAH is itself polysemic, so the assumption that ‘keep’ always means BLAH, BLAH, CAUSE, BLAH, BLAH doesn’t explain why‘keep’ is intuitively univocal, and Jackendoff looses his argument for definitions. So, suppose he opts for the otherhorn. The question now arises what explains the univocality of ‘CAUSE’ across semantic fields? There are, again, twopossibilities. Jackendoff can say that what makes ‘CAUSE’ univocal is that it has the definition BLAH, BLAH, X,BLAH, BLAH where ‘X is univocal across fields. Or he can give up and say that what makes ‘CAUSE’ univocalacross fields isn’t that it has a univocal definition but just that it always means cause.
Clearly, the first route leads to regress and is therefore not viable: if the univocality of ‘CAUSE’ across fields is required in order to explain the univocality of ‘keep’ across fields, and the univocality of ‘X across fields is requiredin order to explain the univocality of ‘CAUSE’ across fields, then presumably there’s got to be a ‘Y whose univocalityexplains the univocality of ‘X across fields. From there it’s turtles all the way up.
But the second route is equally embarrassing since it tacitly admits that you don’t, after all, need to assume that a word (/concept) has a definition in order to explain its being univocal across semantic fields; ‘CAUSE’ would be a case tothe contrary. But if that is admitted, then how does the fact that ‘keep’ is univocal across semantic fields argue that‘keep’ has a definition? Why not just say that ‘keep’ is univocal because it always means keep; just as, in order to avoidthe regress, Jackendoff is required to say that ‘CAUSE’ is univocal because it always means cause. Or, quite generally,why not just say that all words are univocal across semantic fields because semantic fields don’t affect meaning. This‘explanation’ is, of course, utterly empty; for all words to be univocal across semantic fields just is for semantic fieldsnot to affect meaning.Jean-marc pizano