[Lingtyp] Does bipolar polysemy exist?

Volker Gast volker.gast at uni-jena.de
Sun Jun 3 14:37:44 UTC 2018

Dear all,
one thing that the numerous (rather interesting!) examples contributed to 
this discussion have shown, I think, is that it makes sense to distinguish 
between various levels of meaning, minimally word meaning, sentence 
meaning and utterance meaning, as is standardly done in 
semantics/pragmatics. (More differentiations are of course possible; for 
instance, S. Levinson makes an additional distinction between 
utterance-token and utterance-type meaning, and others distinguish between 
speaker meaning and hearer meaning.) Moreover, we should (minimally) 
distinguish between propositional meaning and social meaning (a 
distinction also standardly made, e.g. by Lyons, if I remember correctly).

The example of 'inflammable' seems to be a nice illustration of how a 
self-contradictory (propositional) word meaning can emerge through 
reanalysis, though I wonder if this type of 'polysemy' holds for 
individual speakers, or if each speaker has her own version of 
'inflammable' (which would make it a matter of inter-speaker variation). 
As for 'sanction' and 'let', they seem to belong to specific registers. As 
various contributions to this discusion have shown, it is not uncommon for 
words to change into their opposite meanings as a result of language 
change, and meaning variation across registers is also a well known 
phenomenon (often related to diachronic change).

Most of the other examples, it seems to me, pertain to the domain of 
sentence meaning (especially the ones related to polarity, e.g. 
'personne') or utterance meaning. At the level of utterance meaning, 
ambiguity can in fact be useful from a communicative point of view, e.g. 
if speakers wish to avoid committing themselves to a specific stance for 
reasons of politeness (cf. Ital. 'assolutamente'; I witnessed a similar 
example yesterday; a friend, when offered more wine, replied [in Czech] 
'thank you'; the host hesitated for a second and then inquired a second 
time; it turned out the guest didn't want any more wine).

I would still maintain that linguistic elements with potentially 
complementary interpretations, in a given context, are highly unlikely at 
the word level, with propositional content. They are certainly more likely 
at the utterance level, with social meaning (e.g. 'thank you' as a trigger 
of an implicature). Ambiguities at the sentence level are a well-known 
problem of semantics, and I would assume that speakers normally have one 
specific interpretation in mind. Hearers might of course misinterpret the 
sentences in question, or be unable to disambiguate, but that would not be 
a matter of polysemy.

As for Randy's pragmatics-only point of view, it is of course rather 
widespread, e.g. among usage-based linguists. I don't have any strong 
views about the semantics/pragmatics divide; but again, I believe that any 
attempt at generalization (and in fact linguistic description) requires 
abstracting away from some feature(s) of an utterance token. I've recently 
done some work in lexical typology (with M. Koptjevskaja Tamm) and the 
very fact that some non-trivial generalizations can be made in this domain 
seems to show that investigating propositional meanings 
(crosslinguistically, at the word level) is not a waste of time (though it 
comes with difficulties of various types that have to be taken seriously).


Prof. V. Gast

On Sat, 2 Jun 2018, Randy J. LaPolla wrote:

> Thanks very much for your comments, Volker. My view _is_ a difficult one if you want to do large scale comparisons. But as I have mentioned before on this list, abstractions necessarily
> involve loss of information about the entities being abstracted over. That is a problem with a lot of typology generally. 
> Social cognition is of course reality, but it does not have to be seen as the sort of Structuralist langue (shared fixed system) that it is often seen as. It is just memory of how
> oneself and others have behaved in the past, and those behaviours are seen as useful and accepted by the community, and so can be used in communication. As the memory is based on
> experience, and each person’s experience will be different, each person’s understanding of the conventions will be different, but close enough for us to often be able to infer the reason
> for someone using a particular form. We often do get it wrong though, and that shows it is not deterministic coding-decoding involving a completely shared code. It is also general to
> behaviour of all types, and not just language, that is, knowing what is a socially acceptable and useful thing to do in a particular context. 
> In the case of this question, what counts as “the same word”? If we ignore prosody and non-linguistic clues to the speaker’s intention, and just take the written form as the “true" word,
> then do differences of intonation mean it is a different word? Or are they just different uses of the same word? There are many such problems with this way of thinking, which again,
> assumes one accepts the Structuralist view of communication as being coding and decoding. Seeing it instead as inference of the communicator’s intention in performing a particular action
> I think is not only empirically more defendable, but also allows us to include more things in communicative behaviour, and also allows us to see the commonalities with other forms of
> behaviour, and allows us to not see linguistic behaviour as something special.
> As I don’t believe forms have any meaning outside particular uses, I do not recognise a field of semantics that is separate from pragmatics. In our field there is really only form and
> use, but form and meaning emerge out of use, so it is really all about use (pragmatics). 
> All the best,
> Randy
> -----Randy J. LaPolla, PhD FAHA (羅仁地)
> Professor of Linguistics and Chinese, School of Humanities 
> Nanyang Technological University
> HSS-03-45, 14 Nanyang Drive | Singapore 637332
> http://randylapolla.net/
> Most recent book:
> https://www.routledge.com/The-Sino-Tibetan-Languages-2nd-Edition/LaPolla-Thurgood/p/book/9781138783324
>       On 1 Jun 2018, at 5:22 PM, Volker Gast <volker.gast at uni-jena.de> wrote:
> Dear Randy,
> I don't think that anybody disagrees with what you say about language as a medium of communication. And I think that many of us agree that it would be nice to be able to compare
> languages not in terms of abstractions -- phonemes, lexemes etc. -- but in terms of real-world linguistic interactions. As a matter of fact, there are some projects intending just
> that, e.g. the SCOPIC-project directed by Nick Evans and Danielle Barth (https://scopicproject.wordpress.com/).
> As anybody involved in such high-resolution comparative projects knows, the process of gathering and analysing real-world and situationally embedded data is expensive and
> time-consuming. I do not see why we should not, at the same time, continue to pursue 'traditional' low-resolution approaches (grammar mining, large-scale comparisons based on word
> lists etc.). Like the structuralists, typologists tend to abstract away from the context of speech and regard abstractions such as 'phoneme' and 'lexeme' -- and even 'languague' --
> as real-world entities that can be counted, generalized over, etc. I have to say that I find the idea of counting languages very weird, but at the present state I do not see how we
> could get hold of utterance-level real-world data associated with specific speakers in specific contexts at a broader scale. Corpus-based approaches to typology represent a step in
> this direction, but they also come with a lot of difficulties, not just the factors of time and money. Problems of comparability are multiplied as well (you'd need large samples of
> speakers with comparable sociological properties; but then, even sociological contexts are not really comparable).
> Note also that we should take the notion of 'social cognition' seriously. Grammars, words etc. have no existence outside of speakers; but speakers are capable of social cognition,
> meaning, among other things, that they have some representation of the linguistic systems that other speakers work with. In some sense, linguistic systems (and their elements) are
> thus distributed over the members of a speech community, with each speaker having some (personal) representation of these distributed systems. Linguistic elements thus have a
> social-cognitive reality. I therefore do not think that questions like the one raised by Ian Joo are illegitimate, even though I think that the answer to his question is 'no'.
> Moreover, I do not think that formal approaches to language, e.g. model-theoretical ones, are illegitimate. Like the structuralists, formal semanticists abstract away from
> individual speakers and contexts. They assign denotations to words (regarded as sets of individuals, or pairs of indivuals, pairs of events and individuals etc.), to sentences
> (denoting propositions/sets of worlds), etc. This implies a fair amount of simplification, and some of the work done in this tradition has the appearance of an intellectual
> exercise, but formal semantics has also brought to light fascinating results, e.g. in the domain of negative polarity items (just think of the impressive work done by W. Ladusaw,
> M. Krifka and many others). As a matter of fact, sentence semantics is an area in which typologists could learn a lot from formal semanticists. The treatment of negative polarity
> items in grammars is often disappointing. But in order to fully understand and model the often rather complex interactions of polarity items and their contexts, a certain amount of
> formal machinery is simply helpful. At the end of the day, the various approaches to linguistics should be judged against the value of their results, and I think it would be unfair
> to say that formal semanticists have only been wasting their time (and note that Martin Haspelmath's book on indefinites, one of very few typological studies dealing with matters
> of sentence semantics, is probably one of the most 'successful' typological publications beyond the typological community).
> Best,
> Volker
> _____________
> Prof. V. Gast
> http://www.uni-jena.de/~mu65qev
> On Fri, 1 Jun 2018, Randy J. LaPolla wrote:
>       Hi All,This whole discussion shows how problematic some of the a priori, non-empirical assumptions of the Structuralist approach are. The assumption that there is a
>       fixed association of
>       sign and signifier, and so words have meaning in some abstract universe divorced from context, and the assumption that language can be dealt with mathematically, and
>       the assumption that
>       communication happens through coding and decoding (on the computational model), and that the “real” word is the written, abstract, out-of-phonetic-context form, and so
>       phonology in
>       context can be ignored, and as there is only one “real” meaning to a word, the different uses in context , such as irony, can be simply ignored or treated as deviant.
>       The assumption that
>       there is a fixed system that has iron-clad rules, and that there are aspects of the system that are necessary for communication to occur. 
>       There is much literature showing how problematic these assumptions are, but somehow they are still in force in much of linguistics, as reflected in some of this
>       discussion.
>       My own view is that communication involves one person performing a communicative act in a particular place and time and to a particular addressee, and the addressee
>       abductively inferring
>       that person’s reason for performing that act in that particular context to that particular person at that particular time. So it is completely context dependent, as
>       Nick shows, and there
>       is no minimum morphosyntactic structure required, as David Gil has shown. No part of the communicative situation or act can be left out in terms of understanding the
>       meaning that the
>       addressee creates in inferring the communicator’s intention (as Mark shows in including gesture in his discussion, though it also includes non-conventionalised
>       behaviour, e.g. gaze and
>       body movements; and it is creation of meaning, not transfer of meaning, and so subjective and non-determinative). Language and other conventionalised communicative
>       behaviour (language is
>       behaviour, not a thing, and does not differ in nature from other conventionalised behaviour) emerges out of the interaction of the people involved.
>       So the question asked is like a Zen koan: you can’t answer it yes or no, as it is based on problematic assumptions.
>       Randy
>       -----Randy J. LaPolla, PhD FAHA (羅仁地)
>       Professor of Linguistics and Chinese, School of Humanities 
>       Nanyang Technological University
>       HSS-03-45, 14 Nanyang Drive | Singapore 637332
>       http://randylapolla.net/
>       Most recent book:
>       https://www.routledge.com/The-Sino-Tibetan-Languages-2nd-Edition/LaPolla-Thurgood/p/book/9781138783324
>            On 1 Jun 2018, at 7:42 AM, Nick Enfield <nick.enfield at sydney.edu.au> wrote:
>       In Lao:
>       1. The verb cak2 means ‘know’, and can be negated as in man2 bòò1 cak2 [3sg neg know] ‘S/he doesn’t know.’ But when used alone, with no subject expressed, often with
>       the perfect
>          marker (as in cak2 or cak2 lèèw4) it means “I don’t know.”
>       2. The verb faaw4 means ‘to hurry, rush’, and can be negated as in man2 bòò1 faaw4 [3sg neg rush] ‘S/he doesn’t hurry/isn’t hurrying.’ But when used alone as an
>       imperative, with
>          no subject expressed, often repeated, or with an appropriate sentence-final particle (as in faaw4 faaw4 or faaw4 dee4) it means “Don’t hurry, Stop hurrying, Slow
>       down”.
>       3. Often, both positive and negative readings of verbs are available when the irrealis prefix si is used (with context or perhaps intonation doing the work); eg khaw3
>       si kin3 [3pl
>          irr eat] could mean ‘They will eat it’ or ‘They will definitely not eat it’ with a meaning similar to the colloquial English expression “As if they would eat it.”
>       The second
>          meaning is made more likely by insertion of the directional paj3 ‘go’ before the verb (khaw3 si paj3 kin3 [3pl irr go eat] ‘As if they would eat it.’).
>       Nick
>       N. J. ENFIELD | FAHA FRSN | Professor of Linguistics
>       Head, Post Truth Initiative https://posttruthinitiative.org/
>       Director, SSSHARC (Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre)
>       Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
>       Rm N364, John Woolley Building A20 | NSW | 2006 | AUSTRALIA
>       T +61 2 9351 2391 | M +61 476 239 669
>       orcid.org/0000-0003-3891-6973  
>nick.enfield at sydney.edu.au | W sydney.edu.au nickenfield.org
>       From: Lingtyp <lingtyp-bounces at listserv.linguistlist.org> on behalf of Mark Donohue <mark at donohue.cc>
>       Date: Friday, 1 June 2018 at 7:13 AM
>       To: David Gil <gil at shh.mpg.de>
>       Cc: "LINGTYP at LISTSERV.LINGUISTLIST.ORG" <lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org>
>       Subject: Re: [Lingtyp] Does bipolar polysemy exist?
>       In Tukang Besi, an Austronesian language of Indonesia, the verb 'know' is dahani; verbs are generally prefixed to agree with the S,A argument, thus
>       ku-dahani 'I know'
>       'u-dahani 'you know'
>       etc.
>       In some contexts (imperatives, emphatic generic (TAME-less) assertion), the prefix can be omitted.
>       dahani 'I/you certainly know'
>       Now, I've heard this (and only this) verb used, in the absence of any inflection, with exactly its opposite meaning
>       Dahani 'I don't know'
>       in what might be a sarcastic sense. Unlike the antonymic uses of many adjectives in many languages, including English, this use of dahani is actually a simple (though
>       emphatic)
>       negation of the verb's 'normal' meaning.
>       -Mark
>       On 1 June 2018 at 04:43, David Gil <gil at shh.mpg.de> wrote:
>            Yes, as Matti points out, negative lexicalization is not quite as rare as I was implying.  Yet at the same time, I suspect that it might not be as common as Matti
>       is
>            suggesting.  Looking at the examples that he cites in his Handbook chapter, I suspect that in some cases, the negative counterpart isn't "just" negative, but is
>       also
>            associated with some additional meaning components.
>            Matti doesn't list "good"/"bad" as being such a pair, though, citing work by Ulrike Zeshan on sign languages, he does mention other evaluative concepts such as
>       "not
>            right", "not possible", "not enough".  in English, at least, "bad" is not the negation of "good", it is the antonym of "good"; there's all kind of stuff in the
>       world
>            which we attach no evaluative content to, and which hence is neither good nor bad. (It's true that in English, in many contexts, the expression "not good" is
>       understood
>            as meaning "bad", which is interesting in and of itself, but still, it is not necessarily understood in this way.) While I have no direct evidence, I would
>       strongly
>            suspect that in languages that have lexicalized expressions for "not right", "not possible", and "not enough", the meanings of these expressions will be the
>       antonyms of
>            "right", "possible" and "enough", and not their negations.
>            Under lexicalized negatives in the domain of tense/aspect, Matti lists "will not", "did not", "not finished".  Well the one case that I am familiar with that falls
>       into
>            this category is that of the Malay/Indonesian iamative/perfect marker "sudah", which has a lexicalized negative counterpart "belum".  However, "belum" isn't just
>       "not
>            sudah"; it also bears a strong (if not invariant) implicature that at some point in the future, the state or activity that is not complete will be completed — in
>       fact,
>            just like the English expression "not yet".  (When people in Indonesia ask you if you're married, it's considered impolite to answer with a simple negation
>       "tidak";
>            you're supposed to say "belum" precisely because of its implicature that you will, in the future, get married.  By avoiding this implicature, the simple negation
>            "tidak" is viewed as a threat to the natural order of things, in which everybody should get married.)
>            I suspect that many if not all of the cases characterized by Matti as "lexicalized negatives" will turn out to be associated with some additional meaning component
>            beyond that of "mere" negation.
>       On 31/05/2018 20:06, Miestamo, Matti M P wrote:
>            Dear David, Zygmunt and others,
>            negative lexicalization is not quite as rare as David seems to imply. There is a cross-linguistic survey of this phenomenon by Ljuba Veselinova (ongoing work,
>            detailed and informative presentation slides available through her website), and Zeshan (2013) has written on this phenomenon in sign languages. There's also a
>            short summary in my recent Cambridge Handbook of Linguistic Typology chapter on negation (preprint available via the link in the signature below).
>            Best,
>            Matti
>            --
>            Matti Miestamo
>            http://www.ling.helsinki.fi/~matmies/
>                  Zygmunt Frajzyngier <Zygmunt.Frajzyngier at COLORADO.EDU> kirjoitti 31.5.2018 kello 17.23:
>                  David, Friends
>                  Related to David’s post, not to the original query.
>                  In any individual language, there may exist a few of ‘Not-X’ items.
>                  In Mina (Central Chadic) there is a noun which designates ‘non-blacksmith’.
>                  In several Chadic languages there exist negative existential verb unrelated to the affirmative existential verb.
>                  Zygmunt
>                  On 5/31/18, 5:52 AM, "Lingtyp on behalf of David Gil" <lingtyp-bounces at listserv.linguistlist.org on behalf of gil at shh.mpg.de> wrote:
>                      On 31/05/2018 13:37, Sebastian Nordhoff wrote:
>            On 05/31/2018 01:18 PM, David Gil wrote:
>            A point of logic.  "Not X" and "Antonym (X)" are distinct notions, and
>            the original query by Ian Joo pertains to the former, not the latter.
>       but is there any (monomorphemic) lexeme which expresses not-X which is
>       not the antonym of X?
>           But how many (monomorphemic) lexemes expressing not-X are there at all?
>           The only ones I can think of are suppletive negative existentials, e.g.
>           Tagalog "may" (exist) > "wala" (not exist). Even suppletive negative
>           desideratives don't quite fit the bill, e.g. Tagalog "nais"/"gusto"
>           (want) > "ayaw", which is commonly glossed as "not want", but actually
>           means "want not-X", rather than "not want-X" — "ayaw" is thus an antonym
>           but not a strict negation of "nais"/"gusto".
>           What is not clear to me about the original query is whether it is asking
>           for negations or for antonyms.
>           --
>           David Gil
>           Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution
>           Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History
>           Kahlaische Strasse 10, 07745 Jena, Germany
>           Email: gil at shh.mpg.de
>           Office Phone (Germany): +49-3641686834
>           Mobile Phone (Indonesia): +62-81281162816
>           _______________________________________________
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>       -- 
>       David Gil
>       Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution
>       Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History
>       Kahlaische Strasse 10, 07745 Jena, Germany
>       Email: gil at shh.mpg.de
>       Office Phone (Germany): +49-3641686834
>       Mobile Phone (Indonesia): +62-81281162816
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