Introduction to the Study of Meaning

Linguistics/Psychology 315/515
Prof. Suzanne Kemmer

Course Information Sheet
Spring 2004

Class meetings: TTh 1:00-2:15, Herring Hall 125
Instructor contact: Office, Herring Hall 209; Tel., (348)-6225, email,
Office hours: TTh 10:50-12:00 and by appointment

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 sentential semantics and pragmatics will be introduced time permitting.

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

Some questions we will deal with are: What is linguistic meaning? What kinds of basic elements do we need to make reference to in characterizing the meanings of words or other linguistic units? What kinds of data are relevant, and how do we evaluate the various possible types of data? What are some fundamental properties of particular meaning systems in human languages, and what is the range of variation found in the expression of these systems in various languages? How do word meanings change over time and what implications does this have for theories of lexical meaning? How does linguistic meaning relate to the human conceptual apparatus?

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.

Ongoing issues throughout the course:

Representations: How do we represent analyses descriptively;

What kinds of mental representations should we postulate;

What kinds of data can we use? What advantages and disadvantages do they have?

Relation of linguistic and cognitive categories;

Cognitive prerequisites for language;

Acquisition of linguistic and other categories (1st and 2nd language)

Cross-linguistic generalization and variation (universal vs. language specific categories)

What is the nature of mind (modular; connectionist; preexisting vs. learned categories; etc.)


  • Course textbook: David Lee, Cognitive Linguistics: An Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Other readings as needed to be made available, either handed out or placed on electronic reserve.
  • T.A.'s

    T.A. Office hours
    Monica Sanaphre Thursdays 3-4:00 p.m. (but Wed. Feb 18 5-6:00p.m. exceptionally)
    Martin Hilpert Tuesdays 4-5:00 p.m.
    T.A. Location: Linguistics Dept. Graduate Offices, Herring Hall Second Floor

    Course Requirements

  • Assigned Readings; supplemental readings as necessary
  • Participation in discussions
  • Take home assignments (mainly exercises in semantic description)
  • Take-home final paper(semantic description and essay; open book)
  • Total number of assignments is most likely 5, each containing one problem. They will be time-consuming! Good ones tend to take anywhere from 4-10 hours of thought and writing. So don't leave them until the night before.

    The honor code policy will be posted with each assignment. It will be specified what materials can be used (e.g. use of dictionary or not) and what level of collaboration is possible for a given assignment.


    Assignments will be posted as we get to them.

    Assignment 1. Lexical Semantic Features and Lexical Relations.

    Case Study: Two Individual Verbs; Two Contrasts. (40)

    Assignment 2. Tools for Lexical Semantic Description: Frames, or Idealized Cognitive Models.

    Case Study: Semantics of the Days of the Week. (40)

    Assignment 3. Semantic Fields and Lexical Relations..

    Case Study: Dimensional Terms. (40)

    Assignment 4. Talmyan Analysis.

    Case Study: Motion Verbs. (60)

    Assignment 5. Last problem and essay.

    Case Study in Semantic Change. Meaning Properties. (60)

    Announced 4/5/04: The first three assignments were were 40 each (120). I have set the value of the last two at 60 each (120), for a total of 240 points.

    Graduate Final Assignment

    Instead of Assignment 5 above, grad students write a Graduate Final Paper It should be a self-chosen problem in semantic analysis with a theoretical dimension. Grad students--see me for exploration of topics so that we can together find something of the right scope for the time period available.


    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.

    Last modified April 15, 2004

    © 2004 Suzanne Kemmer