Introduction to the Study of Meaning

Linguistics/Psychology 315/515
Prof. Suzanne Kemmer

Course Information
Spring 2009

Class meetings: T/Th 9:25-10:40, Herring Hall 125 (new room as of 1/13/09)
Instructor contact: Office, Herring Hall 209; Tel. (348)-6225, email, kemmer AT
Instructor office hours: After class, TTh 10:45-11:55, and by appointment
T.A. contact: Piotr Nowak,
T.A. office and hours: Herring Hall 127, Mondays 1:00-2:00 p.m. and by appointment
Course schedule - under construction, not yet linked.
Reading list (under construction, not yet active)
Links to semantics research. Linked as related materials arise.

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 the semantics of space and motion, including dimenionality and shape; and the semantics of everyday concepts.

Questions explored

Some questions we will deal with are the following.





Nature of mind

Access to readings and assignments

The course readings will be accessed, and assigned work will be submitted and graded, through Owlspace, a course management program used for many Rice courses. Problem assignments will be linked to this page as we get to them, but answers are to be uploaded to Owlspace like the other assignments described below.

Course Schedule

The Course Schedule is still under construction, but I have posted the tentative topics of each class through January. I will update it periodically.


Readings are articles and excerpts from books (there is no textbook). Readings will be made available, either handed out or placed on Owlspace in .pdf form. Authors of the readings include Dwight Bolinger, Stephen Tyler, Adrienne Lehrer, Charles Fillmore, David Lee, Vyvan Evans, Guenter Radden, 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 will be available on Owlspace in the form of pdf downloads.

Course requirements

  • Assigned readings; supplemental readings as necessary
  • Lecture notes if available (posted on Owlspace)
  • Participation in class discussions and data-gathering
  • 'Response Writings' (see below)
  • 4 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 Owlspace, a written "Response Writing" as described below.


    1. Response Writings (also known as Reading Responses)

    These are small writings on assigned readings, due before the 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 posted on Owlspace and also be linked to the heading for this section above. They are due before class on the date specified on the Course Schedule. They are to be submitted online via by uploading a Word file (not a .pdf) to Owlspace.

    These writings must be entirely original with the student, except for possible use of paraphrased points or short quotes from the readings (both of these must be referenced, including page number), or points that you draw from other readings in or outside the class, also cited with page number and reference. These readings are essentially the student's own summary and reflections on what he or she has read.

    The response writings will not receive letter grades, but will be logged online as part of the course requirements, on a small point scale. 15% of the grade is based on the Response Writings and 5% on class participation. See late policies on assignments below.

    2. Semantic problems

    The semantic problems will be posted to Owlspace, and linked to this page, as we get to them. The topics listed are tentative.

    Problem 1 (Assignment 1). Lexical semantic features and lexical relations. Two verbs of motion; some (near) synonyms.

    Problem 2.The semantics of a relational term (a spatial preposition)

    Problem 3. Semantic fields and lexical relations. English dimensional terms.

    Problem 4.The semantic field of English motion verbs.

    Total number of problem assignments is 4, 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 page where the problem is described. 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

    I hope there are no late Problem Assignments. They lead to problems for me in figuring out how much credit to deduct to be fair to the others.

    The Reading Responses will have a short grace period. If you don't submit them by the end of that, I will assume you chose to prioritize other things. I don't take it personally if you do.

    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 November and then a short proposal/abstract (one paragraph) given to the instructor by about Oct. 15. Further consultation will also be available as need arises.


    For undergraduates, the Semantics Problems constitute 80% of the grade; 15% is based on the Response Writings; and 5% is based on class participation.

    Criteria for the Response Writings are: clarity of expression; thoughtful consideration of the relevant issues; original observations of how ideas in the readings relate to concepts in the class (class lecture, discussion, other readings); overall structure/progression of ideas in a way a reader can follow logically.

    Criteria for Problems: Discovery of generalizations about the meanings of the items analyzed and their relation to other lexical items in the problem; use of supporting data; clarity of writing; structure/progession of ideas to bring reader to an idea of the complete analysis.

    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.

    © 2009 Suzanne Kemmer
    Last modified 24 Feb 2009