Formal semantics (natural language)

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Formal semantics is a framework which offers a theoretical account of how sentences' meanings are derived from the meanings of their parts. Formal semantics is practiced in linguistics, mathematical logic and philosophy, drawing on earlier work in philosophy of language, formal language theory, and logic.


Linguists rarely employed formal semantics until Richard Montague showed how English (or any natural language) could be treated like a formal language.[1] His contribution to linguistic semantics, which is now known as Montague grammar, was the basis for further developments, like the categorial grammar of Bar-Hillel and colleagues, and the more recent type-logical semantics (or grammar) based on Lambek calculus.[2]

Aims and scopeEdit

There is some disagreement concerning the explanatory roles attributed to formal semantics. Several theorists ground semantics on facts about communication, convention and truth,[3] whereas others tend to see it as a syntactically-driven project primarily concerned with explaining productivity and systematicity in natural language, and thus part of a larger linguistic enterprise such as Chomskyan linguistics[4] or any other modular view of the human linguistic ability.[5]

Varieties of formal semanticsEdit

Most current approaches to formal semantics fall within the paradigm of the so-called truth-conditional semantics, which attempts to explain the meaning of a sentence by providing the conditions under which it would be true.[3][6] However, several adherents to the truth-conditional program have also argued that there is more to meaning than truth-conditions.[7] Alternative approaches include more cognitive-oriented proposals such as Pietroski's treatment of meanings as instructions to build concepts, sentences being devoid of truth-conditions.[8] Another line of inquiry, using linear logic, is glue semantics, which is based on the idea of "interpretation as deduction", closely related to the "parsing as deduction" paradigm of categorial grammar.[9]

Cognitive semantics emerged and developed as a reaction against formal semantics, but there have been recently several attempts at reconciling both positions.[10]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ For a very readable and succinct overview of how formal semantics found its way into linguistics, please refer to The formal approach to meaning: Formal semantics and its recent developments by Barbara Abbott. In: Journal of Foreign Languages (Shanghai), 119:1 (January 1999), 2–20.
  2. ^ Michael Moortgat (1988). Categorial investigations: logical and linguistic aspects of the Lambek calculus. Walter de Gruyter. ISBN 978-90-6765-387-9. Retrieved 5 April 2011.
  3. ^ a b Lewis, David (December 1970). "General Semantics". Synthese. 22 (1/2): 18–67. doi:10.1007/BF00413598.
  4. ^ Seth Yalcin (2014). "Semantics and metasemantics in the context of generative grammar". In Alexis Burgess; Brett Sherman (eds.). Metasemantics: new essays on the foundations of meaning. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199669592.
  5. ^ Borg, Emma (2004). Minimal semantics. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0199206926.
  6. ^ Irene Heim; Angelika Kratzer (1998). Semantics in generative grammar. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 978-0-631-19713-3.
  7. ^ Stefano Predelli (2013). Meaning without truth. Oxford Scholarship. ISBN 9780199695638.
  8. ^ Paul Pietroski (2018). Conjoining meanings. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780198812722.
  9. ^ Harry Bunt (2008). Computing Meaning. 3. Springer. p. 458. ISBN 978-1-4020-5957-5.
  10. ^ Hamm, Fritz; Kamp, Hans; Lambalgen, Michiel van (2006-09-01). "There is no opposition between Formal and Cognitive Semantics". Theoretical Linguistics. 32 (1): 1–40. CiteSeerX doi:10.1515/tl.2006.001. ISSN 1613-4060.

Further readingEdit