Linguistics 301/701: Semantics, the study of meaning

What does the word 'cat' mean? This course looks at three answers. One says that 'cat' is just the set of all cats. Another says that 'cat' refers to a prototypical cat, one described by the characteristics common to all the cats that you have ever seen. The third answer says that 'cat' is the word that the brain associates with the cats that you saw when you were younger. Each of these answers assumes that the mind works in a certain way, so the right one tells us something about how the mind works in situations that have nothing to do with the meaning of 'cat'.

Course description

This course undertakes an introduction to the two main theories of natural language semantics practiced in the United States today, and adds a third alternative that is only now emerging from computational neuroscience. The first theory is model-theoretic semantics, in which the meaning of a sentence is given by its truth conditions, which are stated in first-order logic and defined by set theory. The second theory goes under the banner of 'cognitive linguistics', which combines ideas drawn from prototype theory and the study of metaphor. It rejects the notion that meaning is defined on objectively-specifiable sets, and instead attempts to root meaning in metaphoric extensions of immediate experience, such as one's understanding of how one's own body exists in space. The third theory uses computer simulation of simplified neurological processes to model how the brain learns and uses language. It has the mathematical precision of model-theoretic semantics, while its representations are much closer to the prototypes and image schema of cognitive linguistics.


The rationale of this course is to round out the undergraduate offerings in linguistics by including the last major field that we do not offer.


There are three objectives:

Requirements and evaluation

   LING 301 LING 701
 Participation 10% 10% 
Homework 15% 10% 
3 exams (one per month) 75% 60%
Final project    20%


Sample reading list

I. Model-theoretic semantics

Larson, Richard & Gabriel Segal. 1995. Knowledge of Meaning. An Introduction to Semantic Theory. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

Chierchia, Gennaro & Sally McConnell-Ginet. 1990. Meaning and Grammar. An Introduction to Semantics. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

II. Prototypes, image schema, and conceptual metaphor

Ungerer, Friedrich & Hans-Jörg Schmid (1996) An Introduction to Cognitive Linguistics. London & New York: Longman.

Langacker, Ronald. 1987. Foundations of Cognitive Grammar, vol. 1: Theoretical prerequisites. Stanford, Ca.: Stanford University Press.

Langacker, Ronald. 1990. Concept, Image and Symbol. The Cognitive Basis of Grammar. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Langacker, Ronald. 1991. Foundations of Cognitive Grammar: Volume II, Descriptive Applications. Stanford, Ca.: Stanford University Press.

Lakoff, George. 1987. Fire, Woman and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff, George & Mark Johnson. 1980. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff, George & Mark Turner. 1989. More than cool reason: A field guide to poetic metaphor. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Taylor, John. 1995. Linguistic Categorization: Prototypes in Linguistic Theory. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press.

III. Neuromimetic semantics

Hagan, Martin T., Howard Demuth & Mark Beale. 1996. Neural Network Design. Boston, Mass.: PWS Publishers.

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Inception: 4/19/99. Last revision: 9/1/99.