[b-hebrew] Contextual Semantic Domains

Trevor Peterson 06PETERSON at cua.edu
Fri Nov 21 07:53:50 EST 2003

>===== Original Message From CS Bartholomew <jacksonpollock at earthlink.net> 
>Rope has a prototypical set of semantic features which require minimal
>context to activate. It is an artifact, long, flexible, made of some fibrous
>substance, etc. As an artifact rope has a place in the lexical semantic
>taxonomy of English where it occupies a position different from but related
>to string or twine or thread or cable.

OK, but even this is somewhat vague. Suppose I have a line of braided hemp an 
inch thick--rope, right? What if it's a half-inch? Still a pretty good rope. 
What if it's a quarter-inch? When does it become twine? (Maybe there is a 
technical definition that has to do with the way the material is put together, 
but in ordinary usage I suspect that it's mostly an issue of size. But where 
it stops being rope and starts being twine or string may be a fuzzy area.) If 
I'm a foreigner trying to learn English, and I see the thick, serpentine thing 
used to tie up the ship on which I came over, and hear someone call it "rope," 
I begin to get an idea of what "rope" means. I won't necessarily think the 
same term applies to the thinner, more colorful, differently shaped rope a 
climber uses. But once I hear someone yell "rope" and see it come falling over 
the side (and hopefully not land on me because I didn't know what the yell 
meant in context), I might put two and two together and figure out that this 
too is rope. So now I know that rope comes in different sizes, shapes, and 
colors. Well, that accounts for a lot of what I originally thought defined 
rope, but at least I'm left with some common features. And you move on from 
there. Sometimes it can get pretty tricky, though, to figure out how terms are 
distinguished in a foreign language, and it might take me quite a while to 
nail down what distinguishes rope from twine, string, etc. I do this, though, 
primarily through hearing the term in various contexts and re-adjusting my 
perceptions of what the word means.
>Now the same word, rope, also has a place in the contextual semantic
>taxonomy of English. When a climber on Mt. Rainier is about to cross a snow
>bridge over a crevasse he may ask to be given some rope or he may say "up
>rope" or some similar expression. When a supervisor is dressing down a
>subordinate in the work place, you might here the expression "give him some
>rope" or "cut him some slack." Here we have two similar but different
>instantiations in the English contextual semantic taxonomy for the entry

Personally, I've never heard the term "give him some rope" used in this way. 
If I heard it in such a context, I might suspect that it meant roughly the 
opposite of "cut him some slack," i.e., give him more rope to hang himself 
with. But yes, we do have figures of speech whereby language is taken from one 
arena into another. When you give a climber slack, you give him more freedom 
to move. If he falls, he's going to swing around quite a bit more and possibly 
hurt himself, but he also has more flexibility to find the best route. When 
you give an employee slack, you relax your hold on him and give him more 
freedom to make mistakes. The image fits, and so we make reasonable sense out 
of it. But typically this type of thing goes over the head of a foreigner who 
hears it for the first time, so in some sense it almost has to be learned as a 
new lexical item.
>In the '60s pop single "Hey Joe" or the novel "In Cold Blood" rope takes on
>yet a different contextual meaning.
>It seems to me that there is a clear difference of kind between these sets
>of relationships:
>lexical relationships
>rope - twine - cable -thread
>contextual relationships
> "up rope" - 'give him some rope" - "ain't no hangman gonna put a rope
>around me."

The problem with these examples, though, and maybe it's just that the example 
of "rope" isn't the best, is that the different contextual meanings depend in 
part on different collocations. As I said, "Cut him some slack" is familiar to 
me, while "give him some rope" is not. The former is a fixed expression that 
has appeared in wide enough usage that it has its own meaning. Yes, it can 
still be used in a literal sense, but now it becomes a choice between lexical 
items (or something close to it). Suppose you were belaying a climber (you're 
the one holding the rope in case he falls). He does something stupid and gets 
himself into a situation where he's likely to fall. At this point, your first 
reaction is to make sure the rope is tight and set, so that if he falls, he 
won't fall very far. Next, you start berating him for his stupid move. A 
bystander says to you, "Cut him some slack--it's his first time climbing." Do 
you (a) let out more rope, resulting in a further fall (which will teach him 
some valuable lessons, to be sure), or (b) stop criticizing him and coach him 
out of the situation? The context is not the problem (except that there are 
only so many situations where both options would be viable and one could 
result in serious injury). The problem is that two different uses of this 
expression have arisen, and you have to choose between them.

Similarly, "up rope" is a technical term in climbing. (A lot of new climbers 
make the mistake of saying "take slack," which at a distance can be 
ambiguous--he said "slack"--does he want more or less?) "Rope" by itself is 
also a technical term. Not that rope stops meaning what it always means, but 
when you hear someone shout it from up above, you should watch out for falling 
rope. These are accepted conventions that make communication under adverse 
conditions easier for the speaker and the hearer. They don't really affect the 
meaning of the word "rope," but they do make statements that could not be made 
in this way under other circumstances. If I were standing on the street and 
saw a rope falling out of the sky, yelling "rope" to a passerby would be only 
marginally effective. He will know what the word means, but he won't 
understand the information I'm trying to give him.

OK, enough about English and rock climbing. I still think what I said 
before--that we determine what words mean by experiencing them in contexts. In 
the examples we've been discussing here, we do the same thing with larger 
expressions, particularly when we're dealing with technical or figurative 
language. But when we're dealing with ancient texts, I don't know how far this 
gets us. We look at the contexts where a word appears, and we try to collect 
the common features. Someimes it's hard to find a common denominator that 
accounts for all the possibilities, and the closest we can come to a core 
meaning is to keep before us the several possible meanings that we can 
observe. But whatever we boil down is a meaning derived from contexts; and 
whenever we see variations on this core in a given context, it is usually 
(perhaps always) intertwined with unique contextual features that affect the 
whole utterance, not just the word by itself.

Trevor Peterson

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