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CSMN workshop on word meaning

Time and place: September 2nd & 3rd, 2010, seminar room 201, Harriet Holters hus, Oslo University's Blindern campus



The organisers are Robyn Carston and Deirdre Wilson.


A central issue for the workshop is whether or not lexically encoded meaning (sometimes called the ‘standing meaning’ of a word) is to be thought of as the same kind of thing as the content that it is used (in combination with other words) to express or communicate: for instance, whether word meanings are concepts (constituents of a thought) or ‘senses’, in Frege’s terms, or denotations. All of these sorts of views make for a fairly direct application of a principle of semantic compositionality.

There are various alternative positions according to which words don’t have ‘meanings’ but encode rules for use, traces of previous uses, or some other kind of rather schematic indication of possible meanings: on these views, compositionality, if it works at all, comes in only after a fair bit of pragmatic work. A prime example is Paul Pietroski’s internalist view of word meanings as ‘instructions to fetch a monadic concept’, where monadic concepts must undergo further refinement or elaboration in order to yield truth-evaluable judgements.

It may well be that we shouldn’t be looking for any single account and that different kinds of words work differently, some encoding a concept, some an instruction for use or schema, some a combination of the two. Relevance theorists, for instance, invoke a distinction between conceptual and procedural encoding, with some words seen as encoding either conceptual or procedural information alone, and others as possibly encoding both.

What a linguistic perspective on this issue might usefully provide is evidence of how particular elements of word meaning may have effects on the wider grammar, or of how certain elements may have a systematic presence throughout a lexical system and what this might indicate about the various possible construals of word meaning mentioned above. There is still room here for consideration of various decompositional or rich views of word meaning (as opposed to the lean, atomic concept stance favoured in broadly Fodorian accounts).