Structures and meanings
Linguistics Tripos Part I and Part IIA: Li.2
MML Tripos Part IB: Paper Li.2
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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.
- A working knowledge of the following core areas of description in linguistics: syntax, semantics, and pragmatics
- Familiarity with the range of variation found between languages in these areas
- An awareness of the overlap between these areas, and the difficulties of separating them in actual analysis
- An appreciation of how variation between languages in their syntactic structures and ways of conveying meaning is not limitless, but governed by general principles
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Burton-Roberts, N. (1997) Analysing sentences: An introduction to English syntax. Cambridge: CUP.
Cook, V. & M. Newson (1996/2006) Chomsky's Universal Grammar. An introduction. Oxford: Blackwell.
Jaszczolt, K. M. (2002) Semantics and Pragmatics: Meaning in Language and discourse. London: Longman.
Kearns, K. (2000) Semantics. London: Macmillan.
Mey, J. L. (2001) Pragmatics: An introduction. Oxford: Blackwell. Second edition.
Radford, A. (2004) Minimalist syntax. Cambridge: CUP.
Tallerman, M. (1998/2005) Understanding syntax. London: Arnold.
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