Mechanisms of Meaning

Prof Patrick Hanks will be visiting us on Tuesday May 8th to give a talk on word meaning (Mechanisms of Meaning, see details below).  The talk will start at 3:10pm in room 3.62.


Mechanisms of Meaning

Patrick Hanks


What is meaning, and how exactly does it work?

Word meaning is at best a very vague phenomenon – some lexicographers, including the present writer, have gone so far as to claim that word meanings do not exist. So how is it possible that people can achieve precision in the meaning of their utterances?  And how is it possible to use language creatively, to talk about new concepts or to talk about old concepts in new ways? The answer is surprising; it calls into question most previous work in computational linguistics on the so-called ‘word sense disambiguation problem’, which, I shall argue, is still unresolved because it is based on unsound theoretical assumptions. If word senses do not exist, they surely cannot be disambiguated (or processed in any other way).  The hypothesis explored in this paper is that meanings are associated with the phraseological patterns associated with each word in normal usage, rather than with words themselves. These patterns display a regularity that was largely undreamed of (except among a few Firthians) before large corpora started to become available at the end of the 20th century. The patterns have never been satisfactorily described for any language, but this could now be done, given adequate resources. A corpus-driven inventory of the normal patterns of usage of each word, linked to meanings, would clearly yield benefits in language teaching as well as in AI and computational linguistics. However, as we shall see, patterns of natural language are full of surprises and traps for the unwary.  Moreover, patterns of conventional phraseology in natural language tend to change slowly—very slowly—over time, but occasionally suddenly and unpredictably.  Some patterns are more stable than others.