Meaning and Formal Semantics in Generative Grammar

Erkenntnis 80 (1):61-87 (2015)
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A generative grammar for a language L generates one or more syntactic structures for each sentence of L and interprets those structures both phonologically and semantically. A widely accepted assumption in generative linguistics dating from the mid-60s, the Generative Grammar Hypothesis , is that the ability of a speaker to understand sentences of her language requires her to have tacit knowledge of a generative grammar of it, and the task of linguistic semantics in those early days was taken to be that of specifying the form that the semantic component of a generative grammar must take. Then in the 70s linguistic semantics took a curious turn. Without rejecting GGH, linguists turned away from the task of characterizing the semantic component of a generative grammar to pursue instead the Montague-inspired project of providing for natural languages the same kind of model-theoretic semantics that logicians devise for the artificial languages of formal systems of logic, and “formal semantics” continues to dominate semantics in linguistics. This essay argues that the sort of compositional meaning theory that would verify GGH would not only be quite different from the theories formal semanticists construct, but would be a more fundamental theory that supersedes those theories in that it would explain why they are true when they are true, but their truth wouldn’t explain its truth. Formal semantics has undoubtedly made important contributions to our understanding of such phenomena as anaphora and quantification, but semantics in linguistics is supposed to be the study of meaning. This means that the formal semanticist can’t be unconcerned that the kind of semantic theory for a natural language that interests her has no place in a theory of linguistic competence; for if GGH is correct, then the more fundamental semantic theory is the compositional meaning theory that is the semantic component of the internally represented generative grammar, and if that is so, then linguistic semantics has so far ignored what really ought to be its primary concern.

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Stephen Schiffer
New York University

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References found in this work

Aspects of the Theory of Syntax.Noam Chomsky - 1965 - Cambridge, MA, USA: MIT Press.
Semantics in generative grammar.Irene Heim & Angelika Kratzer - 1998 - Malden, MA: Blackwell. Edited by Angelika Kratzer.
Saving truth from paradox.Hartry H. Field - 2008 - New York: Oxford University Press.
Logic, semantics, metamathematics.Alfred Tarski - 1956 - Oxford,: Clarendon Press. Edited by John Corcoran & J. H. Woodger.
Content and Consciousness.Daniel C. Dennett - 1968 - New York: Routledge.

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