Universals in semantics

Kai von Fintel 1  and Lisa Matthewson 1
  • 1 MIT and The University of British Columbia

Abstract

This article surveys the state of the art in the field of semantic universals. We examine potential semantic universals in three areas: (i) the lexicon, (ii) semantic “glue” (functional morphemes and composition principles), and (iii) pragmatics. At the level of the lexicon, we find remarkably few convincing semantic universals. At the level of functional morphemes and composition principles, we discuss a number of promising constraints, most of which require further empirical testing and/or refinement. In the realm of pragmatics, we predict that Gricean mechanisms are universal, but suggest that the precise nature of presuppositions may be subject to cross-linguistic variation. Finally, we follow E.L. Keenan in concluding that the overarching universal of effability or translatability between languages cannot be upheld in its strongest form. A recurring theme throughout this survey is how much work still remains to be done in the relatively young field of cross-linguistic formal semantics.

Purchase article
Get instant unlimited access to the article.
$42.00
Log in
Already have access? Please log in.


Journal + Issues

The Linguistic Review publishes high-quality papers in syntax, semantics, phonology and morphology within a framework of Generative Grammar and related disciplines, as well as critical discussions of theoretical linguistics as a branch of cognitive psychology. The journal welcomes reviews of important new monographs in these areas, dissertation abstracts and letters to the editor.

Search