Theories of lexical semantics

Theories of lexical semantics. By Dirk Geeraerts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. Pp. xix, 341. ISBN 9780198700319. $35.

Reviewed by Eitan Grossman, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

This erudite book is a critical historical survey of lexical semantic theories by one of the foremost scholars in the field. The book is divided into five main chapters, an introduction, and a concluding chapter. Each chapter gives a concise presentation of the main concerns, insights, and drawbacks of each tradition, as well as a resumé of further sources.

Ch. 1, ‘Historical-philological semantics’, deals with semantic change. It traces the emergence of this tradition from its origins in speculative etymology, rhetoric, and lexicography, to the pioneering figures of Bréal and Paul. G takes the classification of semantic changes as the hallmark of this tradition and emphasizes its enduring achievements, especially its descriptive and theoretical contributions.

Ch. 2, ‘Structuralist semantics’, is cast as a rejection of historical-philological semantics. The structuralist emphasis on systemic and synchronic aspects of meaning led to a shift from semasiology to onomasiology. The author describes the three main types of structuralist semantics: lexical field theory, componential analysis, and relational semantics. He identifies several problems of structuralist semantics: it downplayed semasiology, it did not do justice to the problem of demarcating linguistic knowledge from encyclopedic knowledge, and it lacked a principled approach to onomasiology.

Ch. 3 discusses generative semantics, which the author sees as continuing the methods of structuralist semantics, especially componential analysis, with a formalist descriptive apparatus (formal logic) and a mentalist conception of language. The chapter focuses on Katzian semantics, briefly treating formal and computational semantics.

Ch. 4, ‘Neostructuralist semantics’ continues structuralist ideas, but takes from generative semantics interests in formalization and in demarcating linguistic knowledge. This chapter, which deals mainly with componential and relational frameworks, is one of the best in the book, as it provides a detailed and critical overview of some of the most prominent theoretical frameworks current today.

The fifth—and longest—chapter is concerned with cognitive semantics, a ‘maximalist’ perspective that focuses on integrating meaning and cognition with semantics and pragmatics. G offers a detailed and illuminating account of the main pillars of cognitive semantics: the prototype model of category structure, the conceptual theory of metaphor and metonymy, idealized cognitive models and frame theory, and language change. He stresses the links between cognitive semantics and earlier traditions, but attributes to the former significant contributions to lexical semantics. The chapter ends with a discussion of where cognitive semantics could be improved.

The concluding chapter summarizes the main points of the book and discusses the interrelationships between the various traditions in a more nuanced way. For example, G describes cognitive semantics as a partial return to the psychological and encyclopedist concerns of the historical-philological tradition. The author’s historical analysis is one of the most enlightening parts of the book.

Theories of lexical semantics is remarkably well-written, well-organized, and highly useful book that succeeds admirably in providing a coherent framework for understanding the issues that connect and distinguish theories of lexical semantics.