Introduction to the Study of Meaning

Linguistics/Psychology 315/515
Prof. Suzanne Kemmer

Course Information
Spring 2006

Class meetings: TTh 9:25-10:40, Herring Hall 125
Instructor contact: Office, Herring Hall 209; Tel., (348)-6225, email, kemmer AT
Instructor office hours: TTh 10:50-11:50 and by appointment
T.A. contact: Christopher Schmidt; Office, Herring Hall 215, email, cks AT
T.A. office hours: Wednesdays 2:00-3:00
Course schedule
Reading list
Links to neat research
Rice WebCT login page

Aims and focus

The aim of this course is to introduce some basic approaches to the study of meaning in Linguistics and related fields (primarily Cognitive Science and Psychology). The primary focus will be on word meaning (lexical semantics), although semantics and pragmatics at the clausal level and above will be addressed in regard to how lexical semantics is integrated in larger units.

The general theme running through the course is how best to describe meaning in human language.

Theoretical topics covered

Theoretical topics covered include categorization; construal; acquisition of concepts; metaphor; blending; metonymy; compositionality; mental spaces; lexical semantic change. Various semantic domains will be examined in connection with these topics, e.g. color terms, kinship, dimensional terms, verb meaning; but two domains will be treated in depth from various perspectives: the semantics of everyday concepts, and the semantics of space and motion.

Questions explored

Some questions we will deal with are the following.





Nature of mind

Access to readings and assignments

The course readings and assigned work will be largely be accessed and graded through WebCT, a course management program used for many Rice courses.

Students should sign up as soon as possible, from their Rice computer account, for a WebCT account at the WebCT Login Page). Once you have a Rice WebCT account and a password, you join the WebCT course Ling 315, listed under a large range of Rice courses, by clicking on the "pencil" icon to the right of Ling 315. If you have joined more than one WebCT course, you can see the list of your courses by clicking on My WebCT at the top left of the screen.


Readings are articles and excerpts from books (there is no textbook). Readings will be made available, either handed out or placed on WebCT in .pdf form. Authors of the readings include Dwight Bolinger, Stephen Tyler, Adrienne Lehrer, Charles Fillmore, David Lee, Vyvan Evans (if book is available in time), Leonard Talmy, Eve and Herbert Clark, Mark Turner, George Lakoff, Ronald Langacker, Anna Wierzbicka, Hans-Joerg Schmidt and Friedrich Ungerer. The Course Schedule indicates when we will discuss each reading in class. The full reading list with references to required and recommended readings is available in a module on WebCT or directly via Reading List.

Course requirements

  • Assigned readings; supplemental readings as necessary
  • Lecture notes (posted on WebCT)
  • Participation in class discussions and web discussions
  • 'Response Writings' (see below)
  • 5 Take-home semantics problems (mainly exercises in semantic description)
  • For graduate students: a short final paper, describing (in English) some semantic phenomenon in English or the native language,
  • There is no final exam for undergraduates or graduate students, and no final paper for undergraduates.
  • Students are expected to read the assigned readings in time for the class discussion posted on the Course Schedule, and to submit, via WebCT, a written "Response Writing" as described below.


    Response writings

    These are small writings on assigned readings, due before class in which each reading is discussed. These are expected to be about 2-3 paragraphs in length. They are designed to get you to read and think about the reading before the discussion and consider how the readings relate to each other.

    Each Response Writing is a short discussion of what the article is about or a response to a particular pre-posed question about the current reading or a comparison of readings. Sometimes students will be asked to summarize goals or content of readings, sometimes they will be asked to compare an author's view with one of the previously-read authors' views on a particular point.

    The questions for the short response writings will be posed under the relevant icon on WebCT. They are due before class on the date specified in WebCT and on the Course Schedule. They are to be submitted online on WebCT via by uploading a Word file (not a .pdf) to the relevant icon on the WebCT Course Home Page for Ling 315.

    These writings must be entirely original with the student, except for possible use of short quotes from the readings (quoted with page number). They are essentially the student's summary and reflections on what he or she has read.

    The writings will not receive letter grades or point grades, but will be logged on WebCT as part of the course requirements. 10% of the grade is based on timely completion of the Response Writings and 5% on participation. See late policies on assignments below.

    Semantic problems

    The semantic problems will be posted under the corresponding icon on WebCt as we get to them. The topics listed are tentative.

    Problem 1. Lexical semantic features and lexical relations. Plod and scurry.
    Problem 2. Tools for lexical semantic description: Frames, or Idealized Cognitive Models (ICMs). The days of the week.
    Problem 3. Semantic fields and lexical relations. English dimensional terms.
    Problem 4. The semantics of everyday words. The concept of 'cat'.
    Problem 5. Talmyan analysis of motion verbs.
    Problem 6. Lexical semantic change. CANCELLED.

    Total number of problem assignments is 5, with one to two weeks to complete them. Each problem will take about 5 pages of double-spaced text to deal with. (This is highly approximate! Some students write very concisely but manage to include a lot of information, and others do the opposite. ) The problems will be fairly time-consuming. Good ones tend to take anywhere from 4-10 hours of thought and writing. So leaving them until the night before will show in the quality of the work.

    The points for each semantics problem will be specified at the time of posting. Points earned on the Semantics Problems are based on a confluence of the following factors: understanding of the issues in the problem; degree of original insight in the analysis; level of detail of treatment; and clarity of thinking and writing. Students typically get better as more experience in writing semantics assignments is gained.

    The Honor Code policy for each semantics problem will be posted along with it on the Ling/Psych 315 WebCT course page. It will be specified what materials can be used (e.g. use of dictionary or not, or other kinds of sources) and what level of collaboration is possible for a given problem.

    Late policies for assignments

    Late problem assignments, except with verified illness, must have some points deducted, the number depending on how late they are submitted. There is a 24-hour grace period, which for problem assignments works as follows. If you turn the problem in on time, you can have the opportunity to resubmit a better version within 24 hours with little penalty (a few points).

    So turn problems in on time even if not complete, and you can turn in a better version within the 24 hours grace period without hurting your score significantly.

    If you require more time than that 24-hour grace, contact the instructor and we will discuss the reasons, the time frame needed, and the penalty. Our aim is to be reasonable, but at the same time keep in mind fairness to those who have managed all their no doubt equally pressing work so that they could still make their deadlines.

    Reading Responses are due the day we discuss a reading, before class. (Current Reading Response deadlines are signalled in the Announcements on the Course homepage on WebCT.) It is possible to submit them up to 24 hours late without a reason, but since they are less useful to do after the class discussion (and probably easier), more than two lates for the Reading responses will affect your grade. If you miss even the grace period, but would still like the chance to make up the zero, contact the instructor as soon as possible and we will discuss the issue.

    Lates are far better than holes in your assignment record. All students should do all of the work in the course, and that includes all of the Reading Responses.

    It is at the instructor's discretion whether to allow makeups of significantly late work. Anything after a week beyond the deadline is very late, and we have all moved on. So do not miss an assignment and let a lot of time go by before you contact the instructor.

    Graduate Final Paper

    The Graduate Final Paper should be a self-chosen problem in semantic analysis with a theoretical dimension. It should be a short paper of 10-12 pages, and include some empirical data that is analyzed.

    Graduate students should see the instructor for exploration of topics so that a topic of the right scope for the time period available can be found in the course of mutual discussion. A preliminary discussion with the instructor should take place before February 1 and then a short proposal/abstract (one paragraph) given to the instructor by March 1. Further consultation will also be available as need arises.


    For undergraduates, the Semantics Problems constitute 85% of the grade; 10% is based on the timely completion of the submissions of the Response Writings; and 5% is based on participation.

    For graduate students, grading is based 30% on the final paper and 60% on the Semantics Problems. The remaining 10% is based on Response Writings and participation broadly construed (including submission of proposal/abstract for the final paper, discussions with instructor etc.).

    Other information for graduate students

    Graduate students should register for Ling 515, which is the graduate level version of the course.

    Graduate students with background in Cognitive Linguistics can use their background to engage in the material in a different way. See instructor for discussion of this issue.


    If you have a documented disability that will impact your work in this class, please contact me to discuss your needs. Additionally, you will need to register with the Disability Support Services Office in the Ley Student Center.

    © 2001, 2006 Suzanne Kemmer
    Last modified 20 Apr 2006