Grammatical Semantics - Compositionality

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1. Introduction Compositionality, also known as syntagmatic delimitation of lexical units, is a feature of language in virtue of which the meaning of a sentence is a function of the meanings of its constituent parts. For example, the meaning of the sentence "John thought the dog fetched the stick" is a function of the meanings of the component phrases "the dog fetched the stick" and "John thought," whose meanings are in turn a function of their parts.

Compositionality is related to the semantic theory of truth, developed by Alfred Tarski, which maintains that a sentence's truth is a function of the satisfaction conditions of its parts. A satisfaction condition of, for example, the predicate "is greater than seven" is any number which is greater than seven.

The semantic value of the complex forms "a red hat" or "the girl is playing football" must be interpreted as a complex meaning being the result of the combination of the single meaning of all its constituents.

The meaning of a complex expression is determined by the meanings of its constituents and predictable by general rules from the meanings of its constituents.

Taking all this into account, we can conclude that the expressive possibilities of a language and of semantic space are infinite. However, the mind, which is finite, cannot store an infinite number of linguistic forms, mapped on to an infinite number of concepts, which let us assign aspects of our experience to stable categories and learn from it, because each experience is not unique. So, as happens with the formal side of language (morphology, phonetic, spelling), there must be a set of units with recursive rules for combination, which specify well-formed complex conceptual structures. Their meanings, therefore, must be composed by generative rules out of the meanings of their parts.

2. Modes of combinationThere are two modes of combination of two meanings to build up a third. They are:1) Common examples of additive modes are simple syntactic co-ordinations:"[A manageress and two clerks] entered the meeting room and sat down.""My son is [tall and fair]."2) In interactive modes, at least one of the constituents is modified. Two types of interactive combinations can be identified:- An endocentric combination is one that fulfills the same grammatical role as one of its constituents. For example, if a zoo has a "lion house", that phrase is endocentric since it functions as a noun, as are its two constituent words. More formally, an endocentric construction is one whose distribution is functionally equivalent, or approaching equivalence, to one of its constituents, which serves as the centre, or head, of the whole. Hence an endocentric construction is also known as a headed construction.

- On the other hand, exocentric combinations are phrases and compound words which are not the same part of speech as their constituents. For example, in the sentence "I am in the doghouse", the phrase "in the doghouse" is an exocentric phrase, since it functions as a adjective (similar to the "tired" in "I am tired"), not as a preposition or noun, which is what its constituents "in" and "house" are. The word "shortcoming" is also exocentric, since it is a noun, but its two constituents are an adjective and a verb.

2.1. Some endocentric combinations2.1.1. Boolean combinationsIt is the most basic type of endocentric combination and can be illustrated by the example "black shoes". "Black shoes" are things that are "shoes" and "black" at the same time. We know that we are facing a Boolean combination because "black shoe" is of the same ontological class than "shoe" (a thing) because "black" restricts the applicability of shoe.

2.1.2. Relative descriptorsTo explain this concept we will use the phrase "blue pine-tree". In reality, there is not "something which is "pine-tree" and "blue". "Blue" depends on the class "pine-tree", so that it should be interpreted as something like "significantly more bluish green than the average green pine-tree". Since "pine-tree" and "blue pine-tree" denote the same basic ontological type, we are in front of endocentric combinations.

2.1.3. Negational descriptorsThe effect of the modifier is to negate the head and, at the same time, to indicate the real referent. For example, in the phrase "a former governor", "former" indicates that the "Governor" is not anymore "Governor". However, "Governor" and "former Governor" belong to the same basic ontological class, so that they are an interactive combination. The same would happen with the phrases "an ex-singer" or "an imitation Picasso painting".

2.1.4. Indirect typesTo clarify this concept, we will take the example of "a beautiful dancer", which is an ambiguous phrase. It can be read as "someone who is simultaneously "beautiful" and "a dancer" and as "someone who dances beautifully".

2.2. Exocentric combinationsExocentric combination are of a radical different ontological type from that of any of the constituent meanings. For instance, if we combine a preposition like "on" and a noun phrase like "the table", we produce the prepositional phrase "on the table", which denotes a place, thus being of a different ontological class.

3. Restrictions to compositionality: conventionality and creativityThere is a permanent process of conventionalization of the language. This process is rooted in individual psychology and is called routinization. If two or more actions are often performed together, we create a package of automatized parts for which a single decision is sufficient. We treat this package as an entity on its own right And when it happens, it may develop its own interpretation, not derivable from the meanings of its constitutive elements.

The idioms "to kick the bucket" or "to paint the town red" are not predictable from the meanings of their constituents. So, idioms restrict compositionality. Furthermore, some expressions have come to mean something that is in principle compatible with the compositional meaning, but which is in fact something much more specific. Despite "family values" would seem to mean something like "values related to a family, nowadays is used to denote a conservative ideology with respect to sex and related matters.

Linguistic communication always relies on extra-linguistic knowledge. Without it, a speaker could not rely on a listener's capacity to "read between lines". This capacity is called creativity. In "There was no fish pudding left on the Kitchen's table. The cat climbed down from it licking its mouth" and "Some money disappeared from the Bank. The director was seen the following day flying to Brazil", the speaker has to rely on the listener's ability to put together the different "parts of the puzzle" and create his or her own interpretation.

Finally, it would be important to remark the fact that the concepts of conventionalization and creativity are closely linked up with each other. As a result of conventionalization, certain expressions, such as "you are welcome" or "as far as I know", lose their original meaning. So, new expressions need to be created. Besides this, any conventionalized expression must have been created as a novel way of saying things.

4. Semantic constituents and the "recurrent contrast test"An expression cannot have meaning unless it was chosen from a set of possibilities. Therefore, if an element is obligatory, as happens in idioms, frozen metaphors, etc., it cannot be said to have meaning as a single constituent and cannot be termed compositional. The "recurrent contrast test" states that semantic constituents can be substituted by some other constituent belonging to the same grammatical class, therefore giving a different meaning.

In "the girls play tennis", "tennis" can be substituted by "marbles" changing the meaning of the phrase, so, the recurrent contrast test would have been passed. However, in "I want to read a book", "to" cannot be substituted since it is an obligatory element.

At least some of the contrasts of meaning produced by substitution in one context should be reproducible using the same items in a different context.

At the same time, these constituents cannot be divided into smaller parts. "Girls" is not a minimal constituent, since it can be divided into smaller parts. Therefore, we cannot assure that if we changed the context it would be interchangeable, in the sense that the meaning would not be altered.

5. Limits to compositionalityThe principle of compositionality is not a universally valid concept. There are expressions whose resulting meaning, when analysed compositionally, does not coincide with the meaning of its individual constituents. This is the case of spill the beans or kick the bucket.

Idioms, frozen metaphors, collocations and clichés can be regarded as products resulting from limiting the combination of constituents although having different compositional reading. Transparency and opacity are the two extreme points of a continuum of degrees. There seem to be two factors to this notion of degree opacity and/or compositionality. The first deals with the question: are constituents of opaque expressions full semantic indicators, "blackbird", with two full indicators, is less opaque than "ladybird", with one partial indicator only which in turn is less opaque than "red herring". The second factor is the discrepancy between the combined contribution of the indicators, whether full or partial, and the overall meaning of the idiom. This is difficult to measure, since some "irreversible binomials" like "fish and chips" are less opaque then, "blackbird", even though both contain only fully semantic indicators.

5.1. Indicators, tallies and categorisersThere are certain types of elements which fail the recurrent contrast test but are not words. It is the case of "cran-", "rasp-" and "goose-", of "cranberry", "raspberry" and "gooseberry"; also the case of "pad-" of "padlock" and "gang-" of "gangway". They merely distinguish like numbered or lettered labels. They are termed semantic tallies and their partner elements, which indicate a general category, semantic categorisers.

Semantic indicators are "black-" and "-bird" in "blackbird" or "green-" and "-house" in "greenhouse". Other cases could be included un this category: "im-" of "impertinent", "impudent"; "dis-" of "disappoint", "disgust", "dismay", "dislike", etc. The segments "-appoint", "-gust", "-may", "-pertinent" and "-pudent" have no discernible function, and, thus, do not need a label.

5.2. Idioms and idiomaticityIdioms and idiomatic, while closely related, are not identical. The basis of both is the habitual and., therefore, predictable co-occurrence, pf specific words, but with idioms signifying a narrower range of word combinations than idiomaticity. Idioms are indivisible units whose components cannot be varied only between the finable limits. No other words can be substituted for those comprising, for example, "smell a rat" or "seize/grasp the nettle", which take either of these two verbs but no others: thus "grab" is unacceptable. Nor are the words of an idiom usually recombinable.

All idioms, of course, show idiomaticity. However, all word combination showing idiomaticity, for instance, habitual collocations such as "rosy cheeks", "sallow complexion", "black coffee" or "catch a bus", etc., are not idioms for they are relatively unrestricted in their adjectival and nominal variants: "rosy/plump cheeks", "rosy dawn", and "a sallow skin" are all possible. Similarly, we can have "strong coffee" and "catch a tram". All these variation yield idiomatic expressions exemplifying idiomaticity, but they are not idioms. Idiomaticity is exemplified not only in idioms and conventional ad hoc collocations, but also in conventional lexicogrammatical sequencing most apparent in longer text fragments: "those smooth, plump, rosy cheeks will one day be shrunken, shrivelled and withered". This ad hoc sequence of adjectival modifiers proceeding and following "cheeks" exemplifies idiomaticity in both selection and sequencing, but there are no combinations between the sequence qualifying as idioms. Such an ad hoc sequence can be compared with "tll dark and handsome", an idiom both lexically and sequentially fixed.

That conventionalized co-occurrence is the usual basis of idiomatic expressions is evident in the unacceptable sequencing of "butter and bread issue", "rosy, plump, smooth cheeks" or "little three adorable girls". More strikingly Chomsky's famous "colourless green ideas sleep furiously" illustrate a different kind of unacceptable co-occurrence, a semantically unconventional collocation.

All idioms are not grammatically regular.

In sum, while habitual co-occurrence produces idiomatic expressions, both canonical and non-canonical, only those expressions which become conventionally fixed in a specific order and lexical form, or have only a restricted set of variants, acquire the status of idioms and are recorded in idiom dictionaries as "bread and butter" and "footloose and fancy free". Combinations, showing a relatively high degree of variability especially in the matter of lexical replacement such as "catch a bus", "catch a train", etc., are not regarded as idioms, though they exemplify idiomaticity by virtue of habitual co-occurrence: "catch" meaning "be in time for" co-occurs usually with a mode of transport, though "catch the post" is also possible.

The existence of conventionalized multiword expressions, or idioms, showing invariance or only restricted or unrestricted variation in their variability, calls for a scale of idiomatic. Several scholars have all used scales to demonstrate the shading off of sub-classes of idioms into one another as well as the overlap between idioms and their lexical kin, collocations.

5.3. Frozen metaphorsFrozen metaphors are a kind of idiomatic expressions which have a certain degree of compositionality. They keep, however, some syntactic frozenness typical of idioms. Examples of possible substitution are:"The ball's in your court now; The ball's on your side of the net""I can read her like an open book; I can decipher her like an open book""He has one foot in the grave; He has both feet in the tomb"5.4. CollocationsTheir meaning is not the sum of their individual words or parts but go beyond them, becoming more specific and restricted. Heavy rain, high speed and severe frost are collocations.

According to J.R. Firth, they are "the company words keep". Put differently, words generally co-occur in groups that conform to grammatical and semantic usage. For instance, strong/weak/black/Ceylon, etc. tea (Adj + N). While the majority of collocations in a language are ad hoc, some are habitual in that they recur.

5.5. ClichésA cliché originally was a printing term for a semi-permanently assembled piece of type which could easily be inserted into the document being printed (see Block printing). It has come to mean a phrase, expression, or idea that has been overused to the point of losing its intended force or novelty, especially when at some time it was considered distinctively forceful or novel. By extension, "cliché" applies also to almost any situations, subjects, characterisations, or objects that have similarly become overly familiar or commonplace. Their meanings may also be misunderstood leading to them being often misused. As a result, many feel that they should not be used and are seen as an indicator of lack of creativity, innovation, or sincerity. Because the novelty or frequency of an expression's use varies between different times and places, whether a given expression is a cliché depends largely on who uses it and who makes the judgment.

On the other hand, there can also be advantages to using clichés. The use of a cliché that is well known to the audience can help keep the storytelling on a fast pace without as much explanation and elaboration. They can also help in connecting with the audience by showing them something with which they are familiar or can relate to.

Some clichés are "only the top of the iceberg", "six of one, half-a-dozen of another" or "spill the beans".

6. Phonetic elicitors of semantic traitsThere are some phonetic sequences which have semantic value without being grammatically valid. They seem to go straight from sound to meaning, bypassing grammar.

One kind is termed onomatopoeic phonetic sequences, in case like "hum", "buzz", "hiss", "gong", "splash", "crack", "whip", etc. The seem to "resemble" their referents auditorially. However, the degree of objective similarity may be very low. The second type of "meaningful" phonetic sequence is exemplified by cases such as "slimy", "sleazy", "slut", "slouch", "slob", "slattern", "glow", "glimmer", "gleam", "glisten", "glitter", "glare", etc. These series of words all share some meaning resemblance, although the auditory resemblance is lost.

CompositionalityMost of the people would pair "taketa" with the angular illustration and "naluma" with the curved one. That would be so because all the consonants in "taketa" are obstruents, and all the consonants in "naluma" are sonorants. Obstruents are perceived as harder and sharper; sonorants as softer and smoother. It happens the same with the two brand names Clorox, a hard-working laundry product, and Chanel, a perfume. This is called sound symbolism.

Lexicon has completed extensive research into how sound symbolism affects the way brand names are perceived. If a product would be perceived as faster, bigger, or even more reliable depending on how it sounds, it follows that there would be an entirely new set of tools to add to the creative process. The results prove that there is.

Several years ago, under the direction of Stanford Linguistics professor Dr. Will Leben, a program called Sounder, whose was to determine if certain consonant sounds do a better job of communicating specific attributes than others, was startedRespondents answered an extensive series of questions about possible names for three hypothetical new products, a performance sedan, a laptop computer, and a headache tablet.

The results of the studies performed in the United States, Europe and Asia, significant at the 95 percent confidence level and independent of both product category and respondent gender, were quite dramatic, and validate the powerful impact sound symbolism has on the communication of both physical and abstract attributes by a brand name.

However, since these elements are not semantic constituents, we shall call them phonetic elicitors of semantic traits.

7. References: Cruse, D. (1986). Meaning in language. Oxford University PressFernández, C. (1996). Idioms and Idiomaticity. Oxford University Press