Author Topic: Semantic components and semantic primes  (Read 338 times)

Offline Mirta

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Semantic components and semantic primes
« on: October 11, 2018, 01:10:26 AM »
Hi everyone,
I am an Italian PhD student in linguistics and I am interested in the analysis of the expression of Manner.
I went throught the works of Lakoff, Talmy and Wierzbicka recently and their event semantics raised some questions in me which I am not sure to be able to answer.
So, I would ask to the semanticists on this forum: in your opinion, what is the difference between Talmy's semantic components Move, Figure, Ground, Path and  Wierzbicka's semantic primes MOVE, I/YOU/THIS, WHERE/HERE?

Is it just a terminological difference?Both authors seem to assert that these semantic "elements" are universally shared and not further decomposable. Am I wrong? Could you make some clarification? Many thanks.   

Offline Daniel

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Re: Semantic components and semantic primes
« Reply #1 on: October 11, 2018, 01:23:13 PM »
Wierzbicka's work is about lexical meaning, properties of words. Talmy's work is about function (event or conceptual structural meaning), properties of grammatical structure. There is likely to be some overlap between the two once both theories are polished, and I imagine either would accept that overlap as relevant if they accepted the details of the other theory in general but they're talking about different things. For example, words identified by Wierzbicka's categories might fit into the grammatical slots identified by Talmy, but one problem is (in)directness, because Wierzbicka's categories are so abstract that those primitives might fight into almost any part of speech in various functions, so it isn't clearly how exactly to connect the theories except to notice some conceptually similar points.

Furthermore, Talmy's work can be interpreted loosely as a description of cross-linguistic variation, rather than necessarily a theory about the inner-workings of languages. Wierzbicka's work is essentially irrelevant if it doesn't have theoretical validity-- it's analytical/predictive, not loosely descriptive.

Making a connection between these two approaches is a very interesting possibility, although your results would then be contingent on both approaches being accepted. Generally Talmy's work seems widely accepted (with a few exceptions that work out as additional details, like "equi-polent" languages where Serial Verb Constructions behave in the middle of his verb-framed and satellite-framed types), but I think partly because it is a descriptive tool rather than necessarily a theoretical analysis, in which case it might not be as strictly accepted if required to be a theoretical explanation rather than just labels. Weirzbicka's work is highly controversial (to the extent that I'd say the vast majority of linguists may reject it), although it can be interpreted less controversially if we loosen the goal from lexical decomposition of all vocabulary (a way it is often interpreted, and seems to be sometimes suggested by Wierzbicka et al. themselves), versus just an enterprise in finding common meanings cross-linguistically and thereby partial lexical decomposition for some vocabulary. The semantic primes are either ingredients to build all vocabulary (with a high burden of proof) or just common, shared cross-linguistic elements with vocabulary in all languages (still not uncontroversial, but less extreme). Note that the number of primes has fluctuated over the years such that the second interpretation might be more plausible. Regardless, there is essentially no imaginable way to get from the core primes to "tree" or "squirrel", so I personally find the second interpretation much more likely.
« Last Edit: October 12, 2018, 07:38:28 AM by Daniel »
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Offline Mirta

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Re: Semantic components and semantic primes
« Reply #2 on: October 13, 2018, 05:15:26 AM »
Thank you very much for your quick and exhaustive response. It is a pleasure for me to have someone to share ideas with.

So, I wrote a resume of my ideas and I decided to adopt the perspective that considers semantic primes as nuclear semantic concepts maybe coded in all languages, without going into their role as absolute ingredients for the construction of all possible meanings in language.
I  compared Wierzbicka's lexical semantic theory to talmian event conceptualization briefly explaining that: Wierzbicka considers the semantic primes as pre-existing concepts, conceived as having a full meaning in isolation (despite their possible patterns of combinations) rather than acquiring it as part of a structured scheme; Talmy, instead, considers the semantic elements in the event schemas as just the most relevant semantic components that we can find in the expression of  motion events crosslinguistically, not assuming that they are some of the semantic nuclear basis of all meanings.

Does it make sense?

As far as the specific component of Manner is concerned, I would ask: Talmy inserts the component Manner in his event schemas and doesn't talk about its composition; Wierzbicka talks about Manner indirectly, suggesting that it is a meaning resulting from the combination of the semantic primes LIKE THIS according to the context (Goddard&Wierzbicka 2002:313). How do you consider the semantic component Manner used by Talmy (but also by Jackendoff, i.e.: climb = Event [Manner CLAMBERING])? It seems to me an irreducible and universal semantic component like the semantic primes. What do you think?

Offline Daniel

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Re: Semantic components and semantic primes
« Reply #3 on: October 13, 2018, 12:19:13 PM »
What you wrote makes sense in general to me.

As for Manner, that's a complicated issue. Talmy's approach makes sense because it's describing it as something modifying another component. But that doesn't mean it reduces to some simple meaning. In fact, it seems to me that it would be inherently variable in meaning. The similarity is just in what it modifies-- in the structural meaning.
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Offline vox

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Re: Semantic components and semantic primes
« Reply #4 on: October 14, 2018, 08:51:58 AM »
Quote from: Daniel
In fact, it seems to me that it would be inherently variable in meaning.
I agree. I think Talmy calls "Manner" an empty variable to fill.   

Quote from: Mirta
It seems to me an irreducible and universal semantic component like the semantic primes. What do you think?
I’m quite sure that expressing manner is universal. The problem is the status you give to manner : a semantic category or a semantic prime ? Theoretically that makes a difference.