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  • Semantics: An international handbook of natural language meaning, vol. 1 ed. by Claudia Maienborn, Klaus von Heusinger, and Paul Portner
  • Ariel Cohen
Semantics: An international handbook of natural language meaning, vol. 1. Ed. by Claudia Maienborn, Klaus von Heusinger, and Paul Portner. (Handbooks of linguistics and communication science 33.1.) Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton, 2011. Pp. xv, 969. ISBN 9783110184709. $419 (Hb).

This volume supplies the reader with a view to a variety of topics in semantics, from different and sometimes opposed points of view. The breadth of topics, and the depth of their treatment, is nothing short of staggering. The papers are divided into eight groups by subject matter, but this grouping actually hides a much richer tapestry of connections between them. It is clear that the authors of the individual chapters were encouraged to read and refer to other papers in the volume, and this dialogue between different chapters creates a rich, multidimensional treatment of important topics.

I cannot possibly review each and every one of the thirty-nine papers in the volume. But to illustrate the point, let me focus on a number of important topics in semantics, and comment on the way they are dealt with in different chapters.

Arguably the most fundamental issue in semantics is the notion of truth and its implementation in some form of formal logic. This topic is touched upon in almost every chapter, but is covered in some depth in at least five. Ch. 10, 'The influence of logic on semantics' by ALBERT NEWEN and Bernhard SCHRÖDER, provides a historical overview of the development of the major ideas on logic and its application to the semantics of natural language. This approach eases the reader into the more formal and technical issues, providing clear motivation for every move. The paper would therefore be quite accessible even to readers with little acquaintance with formal logic. It also provides excellent background material to the first chapter of the book, 'Meaning in linguistics', written by the editors. The chapter develops the notions of truth-conditional semantics in some detail, and does an excellent job of dealing with ontology, the semantics-pragmatics interface, and semantic relations.

After finishing this chapter, readers may want to turn to Ch. 14, 'Formal methods in semantics' by ALICE G. B. TER MEULEN. Like Ch. 10, it begins with a historical overview, but this time it is aimed at readers who are well familiar with the logical notions. This paper continues with the development of the logical dichotomy between proof theory and model theory, and the linguistic applications of both. It concludes with insightful comments on the possible convergence of these semantic methods with the syntactic research on language.

An example of an extension of truth-conditional semantics is Ch. 34, 'Event semantics' by CLAUDIA MAIENBORN. Maienborn follows the development of the idea from Donald Davidson, through the neo-Davidsonian approach to Angelika Kratzer's I(ndividual)-level/S(tage)-level [End Page 372] predicates distinction. Maienborn makes it clear how each approach differs from traditional truth-conditional semantics, and how it is similar, and also the similarities and differences between the theories of event semantics themselves.

Ch. 11, 'Formal semantics and representationalism' by RUTH KEMPSON, contrasts formal semantics, which treats syntactic representations as mere vehicles on the way to meaning, with representationalism, according to which the structure of the representation is crucial to capturing the meaning of language. This interesting paper is exactly the sort of discussion one would expect to see in a handbook such as this: it provides an overview of the topic from a particular point of view (representationalism), showing where it diverges from the more common view and why. In addition to Ch. 11, the volume contains at least three more papers that concern representationalism, from different points of view.

Ch. 17, 'Frameworks of lexical decomposition of verbs' by STEFAN ENGELBERG, makes an effort to tie this problem to work on formal semantics, but the somewhat disheartening picture that emerges is that such cooperation is sorely lacking. Anotable exception is David Dowty, who tried to incorporate the insights of generative...


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