On the nature of the lexicon: the status of rich lexical meanings

Journal of Linguistics (forthcoming)
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Abstract
The main goal of this paper is to show that there are many phenomena that pertain to the construction of truth-conditional compounds that follow characteristic patterns, and whose explanation requires appealing to knowledge structures organized in specific ways. We review a number of phenomena, ranging from non-homogenous modification and privative modification to polysemy and co-predication that indicate that knowledge structures do play a role in obtaining truth-conditions. After that, we show that several extant accounts that invoke rich lexical meanings to explain such phenomena face problems related to inflexibility and lack of predictive power. We review different ways in which one might react to such problems as regards lexical meanings: go richer, go moderately richer, go thinner, and go moderately thinner. On the face of it, it looks like moderate positions are unstable, given the apparent lack of a clear cutoff point between the semantic and the conceptual, but also that a very thin view and a very rich view may turn out to be indistinguishable in the long run. As far as we can see, the most pressing open questions concern this last issue: can there be a principled semantic/world knowledge distinction? Where could it be drawn: at some upper level (e.g. enriched qualia structures) or at some basic level (e.g. constraints)? How do parsimony considerations affect these two different approaches? A thin meanings approach postulates intermediate representations whose role is not clear in the interpretive process, while a rich meanings approach to lexical meaning seems to duplicate representations: the same representations that are stored in the lexicon would form part of conceptual representations. Both types of parsimony problems would be solved by assuming a direct relation between word forms and (parts of) conceptual or world knowledge, leading to a view that has been attributed to Chomsky (e.g. by Katz 1980) in which there is just syntax and encyclopedic knowledge.
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