The way to do so is to suppose that lexical entries specify semanticfeatures of lexical items.

Jean-marc pizano The way to do so is to suppose that lexical entries specify semanticfeatures of lexical items.


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Linguistic discussions of lexical semantics just about invariably confuse two questions we are now in a position to distinguish: Are there semantic features? and Is there a semantic level? It is, however, important to keep

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these questions distinct if you care about the structure of concepts. It’s especially important if what you care about is whether “kill”, “eat”, and the like have definitions; i.e. whether KILL, EAT, and the like are complex concepts orconceptual primitives. To say, in the present context, that there are semantic features is just to say that semantic facts canhave syntactic reflexes: what an expression means (partially) determines the contexts in which it is syntactically well-formed. To say that there is a semantic level is to make a very much stronger claim: viz. that there is a level ofrepresentation at which only the semantic properties of expressions are specified, hence at which synonymous expressions getthe same representations, hence at which the surface integrity of lexical items is not preserved. I am, as no doubt the readerwill have gathered, much inclined to deny both these claims; but never mind that for now. My present concern is just toemphasize the importance of the difference between them.

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For many of the familiar tenets of lexical semantics flow from the stronger claim but not from the weaker one. For example, since everybody thinks that the concepts expressed by phrases are typically complex, and since, by definition,representations at the semantic level abstract from the lexical and syntactic properties that distinguish phrases fromtheir lexical synonyms, it follows that if there is a semantic level, then the concepts expressed by single words are oftencomplex too. However, this conclusion does not follow from the weaker assumption: viz. that lexical entries containsemantic features. Linguistic features can perfectly well attach to a lexical item that is none the less primitive at everylevel of linguistic description.37 And it’s only the weaker assumption that the facts about dative movement and the likesupport, since the most these data show is that the syntactic behaviour of lexical items is determined by their semanticsinter alia; e.g. by their semantic features together with their morphology. So Pinker’s argument for definitions doesn’twork even on the assumption that ‘denotes a prospective possession’ and the like are bona fide semantic representations.

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Jean-marc pizano

THE MORAL: AN ARGUMENT FOR LEXICAL SEMANTIC FEATURES IS NOT IPSO FACTOAN ARGUMENT THAT THERE IS LEXICAL SEMANTIC DECOMPOSITION!!! Pardon me if I seem to shout; butpeople do keep getting this wrong, and it does make a litter of the landscape.

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Compare: no doubt, the lexical entry for ‘boy’ includes the syntactic feature +Noun. This is entirely compatible with ‘boy’ being a lexical primitive at every level of linguistic description.Saying that lexical items have features is one thing; saying that lexical items are feature bundles is quite another. Do not conflate these claims.

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Well, but has Pinker made good even the weaker claim? Suppose we believe the semantic bootstrapping story about language learning; and suppose we pretend to understand notions like prospective possession, attribute, and the like; andsuppose we assume that these are, as it were, really semantic properties and not mere shadows of distributional factsabout the words that express them; and suppose we take for granted the child’s capacity for finding such semanticproperties in his input; and suppose that the question we care about is not whether there’s a semantic level, but justwhether the mental lexicon (ever) represents semantic features of lexical items. Supposing all of this, is there at least abootstrapping argument that, for example, part of the lexical entry for ‘eat’ includes the semantic feature ACTION.

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Well, no. Semantic bootstrapping, even if it really is semantic, doesn’t require that lexical entries ever specify semantic properties. For even if the child uses the knowledge that ‘eat’ denotes an action to bootstrap the syntax of ‘snails eatleaves’, it doesn’t follow that “denoting an action” is a property that “eat” has in virtue of what it means. All thatfollows—hence all the child needs to know in order to bootstrap—is that ‘eat’ denotes eating and that eating is a kindof acting. (I’m indebted to Eric Margolis for this point.) Indeed, mere reliability of the connection between eating andacting would do perfectly well for the child’s purposes; “semantic bootstrapping” does not require the child to take theconnection to be semantic or even necessary.Jean-marc pizano


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