The semantics of polysemy: Reading meaning in English and Warlpiri

The semantics of polysemy: Reading meaning in English and Warlpiri. By Nick Riemer. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2005. Pp. 487. ISBN 3110183978. $165.20 (Hb).

Reviewed by Martin Hilpert, Rice University

Nick Riemer’s The semantics of polysemy can be divided into two sections. The first four chapters explore the philosophical and methodological underpinnings of cognitive semantics and the study of polysemy. Chs. 5 and 6 present case studies of polysemous English and Warlpiri verbs from the semantic domain of percussion and impact.

Ch. 1 questions the identification of linguistic meaning with conceptualization, an assumption that is championed, for example, by Langacker (1987). The meaning of words such as English above is viewed as a conceptually basic figure-ground configuration. With the later Wittgenstein, R argues that in order to be understood, such a configuration would still need to be interpreted, as would the resulting interpretation, leading to an infinite regress. He concludes that cognitive semantics cannot lay claim to psychological reality, or even scientific validity. Instead, cognitive semantics is viewed as an interpretive enterprise.

Ch. 2 is a critique of the natural semantic metalanguage (NSM) developed by Anna Wierzbicka and colleagues, which aims to offer an alternative to cognitive semantics by defining the meaning of words through a set of universal semantic primitives. R shows that words, contra NSM, need not be understood through component primitives. The commitment to undefinable primitives also leaves a large residue of basic vocabulary unaccounted for. Hence, R does not adopt NSM, but uses ordinary English as a semantic metalanguage.

Ch. 3 examines different types of evidence that characterize a lexeme as polysemous. R proposes that metaphor and metonymy provide a way to organize different senses of a word into a polysemy network. For example, the Warlpiri verb pakarni means both ‘hit’ and ‘kill’. As the two senses are distinct, but connected through a cause for effect metonymy, it is warranted to view pakarni as polysemous.

Ch. 4 develops a typology of semantic extensions that give rise to polysemy. Besides metaphor, R distinguishes three types of metonymies. In effect metonymies, an action stands for its result. In context metonymies, a particular action stands for its wider event frame. Conversely, in constituent metonymies, an action stands for a subpart of its event frame. R’s typology of metonymies thus resembles a classification into cause for effect, part for whole, and whole for part.

Chs. 5 and 6 explore the meanings of verbs of percussion and impact, such as English strike and Warlpiri pakarni ‘hit’. Using dictionary data and field notes, R shows how the proposed semantic extensions allow for a classification of the encountered meanings. For example, A thought has struck me! is motivated through metaphor, while strike a fire is motivated through an effect metonymy.

To summarize, The semantics of polysemy is a thought-provoking book that questions a number of assumptions that are widely held in cognitive linguistics. R rightly points out that cognitive semantics in its current state is an art, rather than a science. Still, not everyone will give up on the psychological reality of semantic representations because of a philosophical argument. A growing body of experimental and corpus-based work in cognitive linguistics promises to address at least some of R’s criticisms in the near future.