Against monosemy, pt 4: Moving Greek letters

As I continue to prepare my paper on the semantics of compounding, I realized that I had a mostly finished review of Charles Ruhl’s (1989) On monosemy:  A study in linguistic semantics that I had never posted. This will be appearing in (now) six parts over the next two weeks. I’ll provide a full bibliography in the final post, but hyperlinks for each citation appear at first reference. The goal here is to (1) present my thoughts about monosemy as a theoretical construct and (2) maintain a regular posting schedule while I am also devoting more of my time to getting my SBL paper finished on ὑδροποτέω and compounding. This is going to be a deep dive.

So the agenda of Ruhl’s monosemy is predicated on generative goals. It is an extension of Chomsky’s (1965) conception of syntactic structure of innate to humanity that is then applied to an undetermined set of highly abstract semantic categories.

The generative background that Charles Ruhl builds upon for his theory of semantics is far more overt than what I have noted thus far, however. For Ruhl, the highly abstract single sense of a lexical item is the semantic equivalent of Move α for Government and Binding Theory:

My point of view [of semantic modularity] parallels modular conceptions in the tradition of Transformational Grammar [TG], particularly current Government-Binding [GB] theory. The transformational rules of Classical Transformational Grammar [CTG i.e., those modelled on Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (Chomsky (1965)] were, like dictionary definitions, highly specific and detailed; but there were general properties of the transformations that were missed and implicitly denied by the formulations. Now, in GB, there is one general transformation (“Move Alpha”), that is less informative; the details of CTG transformations are distributed among various other modules of the grammar.

The parallel is also practical: the word meanings I will propose or point toward in this book are often highly abstract and remote from practical usefulness, just as the GB model now is remote for those who once thought that transformational insights could be applied to tasks like teaching. Dictionaries are limited by practicalities, sensitive to the demands of (relatively) easy understanding. So were CTG transformations; though their formalism discouraged many mathophobes, they provided insights that could have been captured with little practical loss in prose.

CTG transformations often missed generalizations, especially the most elusive and important: those that provide insight not merely into one specific language, but into language capacity in general. I am assuming, like GB theorists, that a basic task for linguistic theory is to discover what is universal, and possible innate, in human language capacity. (Ruhl 1989, 7-8).

For the uninitiated, CTG is here “Classical Transformational Grammar”, the syntactic theory expressed in Chomsky’s  (1965) Aspects. The model for syntactic transformations that Chomsky envisioned, required a separate syntactic movement/transformation rule for each operation in the process of going from the syntactic deep structure of a sentence to its surface structure. In Government and Binding Theory, all these rules were tossed aside, and the more elegant single schematic rule replaced them all. You can perhaps see the pattern here. The multiplications of senses in the lexicon is like the multiplication of syntactic rules in Classical Transformational Grammar, the single abstract sense of Ruhl monosemic model is his move-α.*

*I would be remiss, at this point, if I did not direct potentially bored readers toward a delightful satirical article in the Speculative Grammarian entitled, “Moving Greek letters,” where we also get the title of this post.

In this sense, the Monosemic Bias feels quite a bit like the semantic equivalent to: all languages are SVO underlyingly (Kayne 1994).

Given Ruhl’s linking of his theory to the theoretical trendline of generative syntax and that as of 2002, Chomsky himself no longer views move-α as part of the language faculty and considers Universal Grammar to consist only of recursion, should we assume that eventually Monosemy will eventually go by the way side, as well? In this day and age Move-α in its high level of abstraction seems very remote today, not only from practical usefulness, but theoretical usefulness. Perhaps the trendline will continue.

That Ruhl views his proposals for semantics as corresponding to similar theoretical constructs in generative syntax has a significant implication for understanding what Ruhl’s theory actually is. The goal of generative grammar isn’t to describe a single language’s grammar. On this his quite clear. Ruhl fully understands the theoretical program that Chomsky set before the world, both in Transformational Grammar and in also Government & Binding.

GB is not really about language: that is, not about the diversity found in actual languages, but about what is common to all languages, and thus innate. More concretely, we have the differences which make different languages (where “a language” is admittedly a highly variable thing), yet no language is ever totally differentiated from other languages (145).

Nor, in turn, is the goal of Ruhl’s monosemy to describe the meaning of words. Rather, On monosemy has as its grand aim to form a model for discovering what is innate to the human mind relative to meaning, as laid out so clearly in his statement in the preface, quote previously.

I hope to show that the most functional part of our linguistic resourcefulness is a highly abstract, formal and autonomous collection of categories that seem overwhelmingly baffling and unreal to our conscious understanding (Ruhl 1989, xiv).

This is Ruhl’s theory of semantics and it has a far different goal than merely presenting a descriptive method.