Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics

Modern & Medieval Languages

Structures and meanings

Linguistics Tripos Part I and Part IIA: Paper 2
MML Tripos Part IB: Paper Li.2
AMES Tripos Part IB: Paper X.8

Paper Coordinators 2013/14: Michaelmas Term - Dr Jenneke Van Der Wal Lent Term - Dr Napoleon Katsos

Past and specimen exam papers, examiners' reports, full reading lists and lecture handouts are available from the Linguistics Resources on CamTools.


A fundamental property of language - one which gives it its enormous power and flexibility - is its 'compositionality', the building of larger elements (such as sentences) out of smaller (words).

Sentences are not random strings of words. Languages impose limitations on the order in which they can be placed (in English statements, the verb normally comes after the subject, whereas in Japanese it goes at the end of the sentence).

Equally importantly, the sentence is associated with an abstract structure, which for instance defines a position in the sentence where we can put John in John left for Moscow today or equivalently a much more complex expression fulfilling the same role in the sentence, as in That student we met in Bonn last year and who's been visiting us left for Moscow today.

Syntax, the level of linguistic description which deals with the structure of sentences, the order of elements within them, and the relations between the elements, is introduced in this paper.

The purpose of combining words is to convey complex meanings, and the study of how language conveys meaning is semantics. It is concerned with the meaning of individual words - for instance 'deictic' terms such as today in the sentence above which can only be fully interpreted in the context of utterance - but also crucially with how meaning arises from the combination of words and yet is more than a simple function of the meaning of the individual words.

Semantics is closely related to pragmatics, which deals with the additional meanings that a hearer can draw from an utterance, in its context, beyond that conveyed directly by the words. For instance How old were you when you passed your driving test? presupposes that you have already passed it; and I'm so thirsty this afternoon! may be an indirect way of requesting a drink.

Both semantics and pragmatics, like syntax, differ between languages and cultures. Even common phenomena such as time are expressed in different ways; and yet the semanticist, like the syntactician, seeks general cognitive principles which accommodate these differences.


The paper begins with an introduction to formal approaches to language. For Structures the lectures will visit topics such as categories and constituents, phrase-structure rules and constituency tests, X'-theory, Wh-movement, pronouns, binding and c-command, syntax beyond English and the architecture of the grammar.

For Meanings lectures will discusslexical meaning, theta-roles, sentence meaning and truth, Quantification, utterance meaning and speaker’s intentions and politeness.

A detailed paper outline and reading list is available in the relevant Camtools folder.


The paper will be taught in 16 one-hour lectures. There will be one lecture per teaching week of Michaelmas 2013 - 8 lectures in total - focussing on Structures. Another 8 lectures in Lent 2014 will focus on Meanings. You will also attend 6 supervision classes for Structures and another 6 for Meanings in the respective terms. There will be two revision supervisions (one for each part of the paper) in Easter term 2014.
Handouts for each lecture will be available in the relevant Camtools folder.


You will be assessed by written examination during the Easter Term. There will be one 3-hour examination and you will be required to answer three questions. The exam paper will comprise two sections, the first having two compulsory data-driven questions, and the second having a choice of essay questions. Past exam papers are available on Camtools.

Preliminary reading

Aitchison, J. 2003 Words in the mind: An introduction to the mental lexicon Oxford: Blackwell. Third edition.

Baker, M. 2001 Atoms of Language Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Larson, R. 2010 Grammar as Science Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Levinson, S.C 1983 Pragmatics Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press

Mey, J. L. 2001 Pragmatics: An introduction Oxford: Blackwell. Second edition.

Pinker, S. 2007 The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature New York: Viking

Tallerman, M. 1998/2005 Understanding syntax London: Arnold.

Go to other Linguistics Part I papers:

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