Semantic Knowledge, Domains of Meaning and Conceptual Spaces

Peter Gardenfors

What Is Semantic Knowledge?

What is it that you know when you know a language? Certainly, you know many words of the language (its lexicon), and you know how to put the words together in an appropriate way (the syntax). More important, you know the meaning of the words (the semantics of the language). If you do not master the meaning of the words you are using, there is no point in knowing the syntax (unless you are a parrot). You can communicate in a foreign language with some success just by knowing some words and without using any grammar. In this sense semantic knowledge precedes syntactic knowledge. This chapter focuses on an aspect of semantic knowledge that has not been well studied, its organization into domains.

Children learn a language without effort and completely voluntarily. They learn new words miraculously fast. Teenagers master about 60,000 words of their mother tongue by the time they finish high school. In their speech and writing they may not actively use more than a subset of the words, but they understand all of them. A simple calculation reveals that they have learned an average of 9-10 words per day during childhood. A single example of how a word is used is often sufficient for learning its meaning. No other form of learning is so obvious or so efficient.

Nevertheless, the semantic learning mechanisms show some strong asymmetries. For instance, why is it easier to explain to a 4-year-old the meaning of the color terms chartreuse and mauve than to explain monetary terms like inflation or mortgage? The difference is not a matter of word frequency: The monetary terms are more frequent, but the 4-year-old masters the semantic domain of colors and thereby knows the meaning of many color words. Adding new color terms is just a matter of learning the mapping between the new words and the color space.

P. Gardenfors (*)

Department of Philosophy, Lund University Cognitive Science, Lund, Sweden e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

© The Author(s) 2017

P. Meusburger et al. (eds.), Knowledge and Action, Knowledge and Space 9, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-44588-5_12

For example, chartreuse is a kind of yellowish green, and mauve is a pale violet. On the other hand, the child is normally not acquainted with the domain of economic transactions. To the child, money means concrete things—coins and bills—that one can exchange for other things. Abstract monetary concepts are not within a child’s semantic reach. Grasping a new domain is a cognitively much more difficult step than adding new terms to an already established one. Once a domain is common to a group of potential communicators, various means (e.g., words, gestures, and icons) of referring to different regions of the domain can be developed. Conversely, if a domain is not shared, communication is hampered. The organization into domains speeds up language learning.

This chapter presents a model of such domain-oriented language learning, based on conceptual spaces. I illustrate the model with some of the semantic domains that a child acquires during the first formative years of life. I also present linguistic data supporting the hypothesis that semantics knowledge is organized into domains.

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