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Episode 27: Emma Borg discusses semantic minimalism

Emma Borg is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Reading, and was the White Distinguished Visiting Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago Spring Quarter 2011.  Click here to listen to our conversation with her.

In linguistics and the philosophy of language, semantics is the study of literal meaning, and pragmatics is the study of implied meaning. For example, if I say ‘It’s cold in here,’ all I’m literally saying is that the temperature in the room is low. But one could imagine a situation in which I said that in order to request that someone turn on the heat. In that case, I wouldn’t literally be saying, ‘Please turn on the heat,’ but I would be implying something to that effect. Try taking a second look at most of the things you said over the past few days: you’ll be surprised to find that you rarely mean exactly what you say!

The principle idea behind Emma Borg’s view, semantic minimalism, is that we ought to draw the distinction between literal and implied meaning in a very specific way: namely, the literal meaning of a sentence is what results automatically from the meanings of the individual words you uttered and the rules for combining those meanings. Anything not derivable from those two things has to count as implied meaning.

Here’s a toy example of how we might derive the meaning of a sentence from the words in it–there are other much more complicated theories of how sentences produce meaning, but a simple version will suffice to illustrate the point. Suppose I say of my pet lizard, ‘Bob is scaly.’ One account of this sentence would have it that the word ‘Bob’ is a noun standing for my lizard, the word ‘is’ is vacuous, and the word ‘scaly’ is an adjective standing for the set of all scaly things: reptiles, fish, and whatever else. Since ‘is’ is vacuous, we can think of my sentence as equivalent to ‘Bob scaly’ (and indeed, there are languages in which you would say exactly that, such as Japanese or Arabic). Then, we can have a general rule saying that whenever you have a sentence consisting of a noun followed by an adjective, the meaning of the sentence is a statement to the effect that whatever the noun refers to is a member of whatever set the adjective refers to. By applying this mechanical procedure to the sentence ‘Bob is scaly,’ we get the following result: what I said was that the lizard referred to by ‘Bob’ is contained in the set of things referred to by ‘scaly.’

So Borg’s thought is that we should consider something to be part of what a sentence literally means only if it is the result of that kind of mechanical process. If a sentence literally means such-and-such, then such-and-such has to be recoverable from what’s actually in the sentence–it has to be derived from the words in the sentence and how they’re put together. (This is what philosophers and linguists mean when they claim that literal meaning has to have a syntactic basis.) Literal meaning doesn’t pop up willy-nilly; it follows strict rules. And this is precisely what makes it different from implied meaning: though there are also a few rules governing what sorts of things you can imply, in general they’re much looser.

Matt Teichman

Further Reading:
Semantic Minimalism’ (2009). In The Pragmatics Encyclopedia, ed. L. Cummings. Routledge. 423-5.

Posted in Podcast.


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