The Reality Interface

This article is part of a series entitled Redividing Linguistics. See also:

  1. Morphology and Syntax: What’s In A Name?
  2. Syntax and Semantics: The Search For Meaning
  3. Semantics and Pragmatics: The Reality Interface

Semantics and pragmatics, in linguistics, distinguish between two types of meaning. Semantics refers to the meaning which is encapsulated in the language itself. Pragmatics refers to meaning which must be accrued through cultural context.

Certain statements are true by virtue of their words’ meaning alone. These exemplars of semantic meaning include (I take these from Fromkin’s Linguistics): “People are people”, “Either there are witches in the forest, or there aren’t,”, and “The number four is even.” [1] Philosophers often call these semantic certainties analytic truths.

Pragmatic truth requires going out into the real world. Statements — again from Linguistics — like “Nothing travels faster than the speed of light”, a physical truth, or “The king’s subjects pay taxes”, a legal truth, depend not only on language, but also on matters of fact [1]. These statements are called by philosophers synthetic truths.

This so-called analytic-synthetic distinction has played an important role in modern philosophy. What can it tell us about linguistics? Continue reading

The Search For Meaning

This article is part of a series entitled Redividing Linguistics. See also:

  1. Morphology and Syntax: What’s In A Name?
  2. Syntax and Semantics: The Search For Meaning
  3. Semantics and Pragmatics: The Reality Interface

In computer science, compilers translate the relatively human-friendly languages — Java and C++, for example — into the monotonous sequences of additions, memory loads, and logical operations which the computer’s hardware understands.

Syntax and semantics are crucial elements of the process. Before a program can be translated, it must be ensured to be well-formed. This involves checking both that the program’s recursively nested functions, blocks, and statements are properly organized — syntax — and that the program doesn’t feature contradictions in meaning — semantics. The two processes are entirely distinct, and can even be performed in separate passes.

Not so in linguistics. In natural languages, syntax and semantics are not only hard to rigorously distinguish, but they’re inextricably intertwined. Continue reading

What’s In A Name?

This article is part of a series entitled Redividing Linguistics. See also:

  1. Morphology and Syntax: What’s In A Name?
  2. Syntax and Semantics: The Search For Meaning
  3. Semantics and Pragmatics: The Reality Interface

Morphology investigates formation rules within words. Defined as “the study of words and their structure,” (Fromkin, 25) morphology studies how a language’s smallest units of meaning, called morphemes, can be combined in systematic ways to form larger words. For example, the root “happy” combines with the prefixes and suffixes (i.e., affixes) “un-“, “-ness”, and “-es” to form the complex word “unhappinesses”. (56)

Syntax studies “how words are combined with each other to form grammatical sentences in a similar rule-governed way.” (89) For example, the determiner phrase “The daughter of Lear” — which itself contains the noun phrase “daughter of Lear” and the prepositional phrase “of Lear” — combines with the verb phrase “loved him” to create the properly formed sentence “The daughter of Lear loved him.” (172)

What if the distinction between these two proved to be elusive and ill-defined? Continue reading