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2.2: Denotational semantics vs. cognitive semantics

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  • Let us begin by discussing the relationships between a speaker’s words, the situation in the world, and the thoughts or concepts associated with those words. These relationships are indicated in the figure in (2), which is a version of a diagram that is sometimes referred to as the Semiotic Triangle.

    Semiotics is the study of the relationship between signs and their meanings. In this book we are interested in the relationship between forms and meanings in certain kinds of symbolic systems, namely human languages. The diagram is a way of illustrating how speakers use language to describe things, events, and situations in the world. As we will see when we begin to look at word meanings, what speakers actually describe is a particular construal of, or way of thinking about, the situation. Now the speaker’s linguistic description rarely if ever includes everything that the speaker knows or believes about the situation, and what the speaker believes about the situation may not match the actual state of the world. Thus there is no one-to-one correspondence between the speaker’s mental representation and either the actual situation in the world or the linguistic expressions used to describe that situation. However, there are strong links or associations connecting each of these domains with the others.

    The basic approach we adopt in this book focuses on the link between linguistic expressions and the world. This approach is often referred to as denotational semantics. (We will discuss what denotation means in §2.4 below.) An important alternative approach, cognitive semantics, focuses on the link between linguistic expressions and mental representations. Of course, both approaches recognize that all three corners of the Semiotic Triangle are involved in any act of linguistic communication. One motivation for adopting a denotational approach comes from the fact that it is very hard to find direct evidence about what is really going on in a speaker’s mind. A second motivation is the fact that this approach has proven to be quite successful at accounting for compositionality (how meanings of complex expressions, e.g. sentences, are related to the meanings of their parts).

    The two foundational concepts for denotational semantics, i.e. for talking about how linguistic expressions are related to the world, are truth and reference. As we mentioned in Chapter 1, we will say that a sentence is true if it corresponds to the actual situation in the world which it is intended to describe. It turns out that native speakers are fairly good at judging whether a given sentence would be true in a particular situation; such judgments provide an important source of evidence for all semantic analysis. Truth will be the focus of attention in Chapter 3. In the next several sections of this chapter we focus on issues relating to reference.

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