[b-hebrew] Contextual Semantic Domains

Reinier de Blois r.de.blois at solcon.nl
Mon Nov 24 15:54:43 EST 2003

Dear Karl,
I just subscribed to this list and would like to comment on some of the
things you say about the distinction between lexical and contextual
semantic domains. This distinction is not artificial at all but is based
on insights from cognitive linguistics.
Let me attach something I have written about this distinction elsewhere:

A lexical semantic domain corresponds to what cognitive linguistics
describes as a cognitive category. The minds of human beings tend to
assign everything that is perceived in the world around us to
categories. Most of this categorization process happens automatically
and unconsciously. We only become aware of this process in ambiguous
cases. Without categories we cannot function as human beings at all. One
of the first scholars to make categorization a subject for scholarly
discussion was Eleanor Rosch.

Categories are not universal but depend on the system of experiences,
beliefs, and practices of a particular social or ethnic group. Different
people may perceive the world around them in different ways which will
automatically reflect in a different categories.

.        Each category has a prototype, i.e. a mental representation, a
cognitive reference point for that category. Let us take the category
"bird" as an example. Whenever you hear the word "bird" you will be able
to conjure up an image in your mind of a typical bird, such as a sparrow
or a robin, depending on the area and culture where you come from. 

.        Each category has attributes, features that enable you to
identify members of that category. Some attributes for "bird" that most
languages and cultures will share are the following: (1) it has two
wings, (2) it has two legs, (3) it can fly, (4) it has a beak, (5)
feathers, and (6) it lays eggs. There may be cultures, however, where
other attributes play a role of significance. 

.        Every category has "good" (i.e. typical) and "bad" (i.e.
a-typical) members, including marginal examples whose category
membership is doubtful. Many of you will probably agree with me that a
"robin" is a typical example of the category "bird", but that an
"ostrich", a "penguin", or a "bat" is an a-typical member. This is
caused by the fact that the latter have less attributes in common with
the more typical members of that category. The ostrich, for example,
does not fly. Penguins do not fly either and have no feathers. Bats can
fly, but they do not lay eggs, have no beak, no feathers, etc. 

.        There are not always fixed boundaries between different
categories. Objects and events can be part of more than one category at
the same time. We have already seen that the bat is an a-typical member
of the category "bird". It also belongs to the category "animals",
however, and has a somewhat more prominent place there. 

.        Categories may consist of more than one level of subcategories.

SDBH uses the term lexical semantic domain to refer to cognitive
categories as described above. Terms as "lexical" and "semantic domain"
are well-known within the dicipline of lexicography and can be readily
understood by everybody that has some knowledge of this area of
research. It should not be forgotten, however, that SDBH is based on
insights from cognitive linguistics and that lexical semantic domains
are identical to cognitive categories.

Lexical semantic domains are used to describe the paradigmatic
relationship between one lexical item and other items that belong to the
same (sub)category. In addition to this, SDBH also makes use of the term
contextual semantic domain <outbind://9/#contextual> . This type of
semantic domain is discussed below.


A contextual semantic domain corresponds to what cognitive linguistics
describes as a cognitive frame or cognitive context. Whereas
<outbind://9/#lexical> lexical semantic domains deal with the
paradigmatic relations between a lexical item and other members of the
same category, contextual semantic domains focus on the syntagmatic
relationships between a lexical item and other lexical items that are
used in the same context or cognitive frame.

Words are used in context. A substantial part of the meaning of a
particular word is derived from the context in which it is used.
Whenever I mention the word "to hide" to an English speaker s/he will be
able to form a mental image of somebody hiding oneself or something
else. That picture, however, is not complete. At this level there is
still a lack of information that prevents the hearer from being able to
get the full scope on the meaning of this word. As soon as the hearer
hears this word used in context, however, the mental image is completed.
The following examples illustrate this:

.        The refugees hid themselves when they heard the footsteps of
marching soldiers.

.        The bandits were hiding behind the trees, ready to pounce upon
the passing merchant.

These two examples are illustrations of the use of "to hide" in two
different frames or contexts. There is no doubt that, without this
contextual information, no user will be able to get the full picture of
the meaning of this verb.

For that reason SDBH also includes a list of the cognitive frame(s) in
which a particular lexical item is used. SDBH uses the more generic
terms contextual semantic domain to refer to such a frame.

I have written a few articles on this that I'd be glad to share.

Best wishes,

Reinier de Blois

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