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Jackendoff's "Semantic (?) Structures"

From:Philippe Caquant <herodote92@...>
Date:Wednesday, April 21, 2004, 13:49
At least Father Amazon brought me Ray Jackendoff's
"Semantic structures", and I opened it with much
curiosity. I for sure haven't read it thoroughly yet,
and even less thoroughly understood. And yet I feel a
little bit disappointed. Of course it is interesting,
but, how should I say ? I have the impression that,
despite of the title, the author beholds a tendency to
think "syntactically" (and more, English-oriented
syntactically) rather than "semantically". Maybe I'm
wrong, but for ex, when I came across Chapter 7 (The
Action Tier and the Analysis of Causation), I felt
very perplex about an example he gives (in fact he
seems to refer to Anderson, but he doesn't add any
comment, except that "unfortunately", Anderson used
the term "Theme" rather than "Patient"):

The point (as I understand it) is about comparing:
- Bill loaded the books onto the truck
- Bill smeared paint onto the wall.
So we try to find out what is the Patient in both
cases, by reformulating these sentences like:

- What Bill did to the books was load them on the
- What Bill did to the truck was load it with books
- What Bill did to the paint was smear it on the wall
- What Bill did to the wall was smear paint on it [and

and the conclusion is apparently: "The thematic
relations in each case are the same: the books go onto
the truck, the paint goes onto the wall. The change is
in which entity is viewed as most directly "affected"
by Bill's action, and the direct object has a stronger
claim on the role in either case [...]

I wonder about these "thematic relations being the
same". To me, it's very different, conceptually
speaking. In one case Bills move a physical thing from
one place to another (and lays it according to the
laws of gravity), in the other case Bill changes the
external appearance of a (vertical) part of something,
by means of applying a (liquid) substance on it. What
has it to do together ? The answer is clear: the
syntax is the same. Huh, I thought we were talking
about semantics ? Does really the single word "onto"
imply an equivalent meaning in both cases ? To me,
"onto" just implies: direction + contact. This is true
in both cases, and yet the situations seem very
different. In French, for ex, we can say "J'ai vole'
cet argent a un touriste", or "J'ai donne' cet argent
a un touriste" (same preposition, a grave, in both
cases): shall we infer that it is equivalent ?

Besides, reformulations like "What Bill did to the
paint was smear it on the wall" makes little sense to
me. I could have said "Bill smeared the wall with
paint". Where is the Patient ? Is there any Patient at
all ? Are they two of them ? The author refers to "the
syntactic frames of verbs like 'load' and 'smear'".
This is, once more, about syntax, and of course, about
some special syntax, the English one. To me, if we
want to talk about semantics, we should do it the
opposite way: starting from the possible concepts,
whatever the natlang, and then come to the
implementations in languages. For ex: let's take a
census of all the possible spatial concepts (with the
help of drawings), then let's see how English (and
other languages) manage them. Seems to me that
Jackendoff is thinking all the time "syntactically".

He also seems to take for granted, without any further
inquiry, that "major ontological categories", or
"conceptual parts of speech", are "Thing, Event,
State, Action, Place, Path, Property, and Amount". To
me it is clear that Human Being, for ex, can hardly be
described just as a "Thing", even having special
properties. To me Human Being IS a major ontological
category, even if it shares some properties with
Animals or Artefacts or Natural Objects. (And also,
where is Modality for ex ?) He also thinks in terms of
"arguments", for ex: "to run" implies a Path (if I
remember well), and if the path (the direction for ex)
is not expressed, than it is understood from the
context (I can't find the exact quotation). In other
terms, if you run, than you run toward some place, or
from some place, or whatever, but you can't just
"run". I disagree: "What have you been doing this
morning ? - Running" (meaning: having physical
exercise by the action of running). Maybe I ran on a
training outfit, not moving one step forwards ! In "to
run", there are clearly two concepts: 1/ to go in a
fast way; 2/ to move one's body in a special way. You
can focus on either concept, or on the combined one.
Only if you focus on concept 1, or on concept 1+2, you
may say that there is a Path implied. (Maybe this is
even more evident with "to swim").

Maybe I got it all wrong and it will become clearer in
the following chapters, but until now, I feel a little

Philippe Caquant

"High thoughts must have high language." (Aristophanes, Frogs)

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And Rosta <a.rosta@...>THEORY/CHAT: Re: Jackendoff's "Semantic (?) Structures"
Mark P. Line <mark@...>