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Jackendoffs Conceptual Structure Approaches Strengths And Weaknesses English Language Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 1810 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Conceptual Semantics is the means of understanding the way in which meaning is constructed in a person's mind, and explaining this framework in formal linguistic approach. Ray Jackendoff is the main pioneer of this concept and has written extensively on this topic (e.g. Jackendoff 1983, 1987, 1990, 1992). The Mentalist Postulate, as described by Jackendoff is 'meaning in natural language is an information structure that is mentally encoded by human beings'(Jackendoff 1988: 122), where describing meaning involves the description of mental representation. To Jackendoff, there is no distinction between meaning and conceptualisation, resulting in 'an overall psychological framework, integrating it not only with linguistic theory but also with theories of perception, cognition, and conscious experience' (Jackendoff 1990:2).

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Jackendoff argues that in order to explore conceptualization, a decompositional method is needed in order to analyse Conceptual Semantics. At the bottom of this level, it is the conceptual structure, the mental representation where it contains the regulation of the combinations and the primitive conceptual elements used to create meaning (with limitations). To Jackendoff, Conceptual Structure allows this theory to see meaning as not an object:

'Conceptual structure is not part of language per se-it is part of thought. It is the locus for the understanding of linguistic utterances in context, incorporating pragmatic considerations and "world knowledge"; it is the cognitive structure in terms of which reasoning and planning take place.' (Jackendoff 2002:417)

Jackendoff concludes that eventually 'layers of structure whose units cannot individually serve as possible word meanings' [1] are discovered, meaning that a set of technical primitives are necessary in order to understand Conceptual Semantics, as the natural language is not simplistic enough. Thus, Jackendoff identifies a set of universal semantic categories (section 1). [2] While there are advantages following this framework, there are also disadvantages (section 2), reflecting how meaning is constructed through Conceptual Semantics.

Section 1

In his work, Jackendoff indentifies a set of universal semantic categories where at the conceptual level, a sentence is built from these semantic categories due to the necessity to represent lexical semantic information to understand Conceptual Semantics. These include, but are not limited to: Event, State, Thing, Path, Place, Property and Time. These categories can be described as conceptual 'parts of speech', which forms the semantic content that the sentence expresses. [3] Consider the following sentence: Bill went into the house with a comparison between the syntactic structure (1a), and the conceptual structure (1b).

(Jackendoff 1992: 13)

[S [NP Bill] [VP [V went] [PP [P into] [NP the house]]]]


Similar to the parts of speech such as Noun, Verb and Adjective, the ontological categories can be constituted into major groups based on meaning. Additionally, each of the major syntactic categories can be aligned to the ontological categories; 'the NPs Bill and the house correspond to Thing slots in the conceptual structure, the verb went corresponds to the Event slot, the prepositional phrase into the house corresponds to the Path slot'. [4] 

Comparatively, it is similar to phonological analysis with Jackendoff drawing parallels to the two systems. [5] Within phonological analysis, words are decomposed into a tier of phonemes to phonological features. For his framework, Jackendoff argues that meaning can be obtained through by analysing it through the layers, with a result similar to phonological analysis. As these layers are needed to be understood deeper, the semantic components are developed similar to the analysis of phonology. [6] Event and State are the basic conceptual situations within the ontological categories, and (1b) is a basic example of an Event utterance. [7] These semantic categories can be classified into different formulaic rules, as seen below:

Figure : Source: Ray Jackendoff Semantic Structures p.42

These form the basis of how the Conceptual Structure operates. Jackendoff also notes that there are parallels to verbs go, be and keep (which falls under the ontological category of Event) and the

prepositions to and from which falls under State) and these falls under four sub-categories which Jackendoff dubs as semantic fields: spatial location, temporal location, property ascription and possession. There are also Jackendoff's semantic features, such as [±BOUNDED] which further demonstrates the decompositional process. It can be seen that Jackendoff pays close attention to the idea that 'sentence meaning is constructed from word meaning' [8] as attention is drawn upon lexical semantics.

Section 2

The Conceptual Structure is still relatively in its early stages of development, and thus is still a rather controversial theory. The framework allow interesting connections to be made between seemingly unrelated meanings, but it also draws attention to the arbitrary nature that the Conceptual Structure draws upon. It is difficult to say how effective the Conceptual Structure effectively captures the way in which humans create meaning. After all, Conceptual Semantics is a hypothesis; a proposed theory. As such, there will be arguments from both sides of the matter.

The main criticism of Jackendoff's Conceptual Structure is its primitives. They are highly abstract, and while they allow fascinating connections to be made, it is unclear to how cognitively believable these connections are. Gross argues in his critical piece 'The Nature of Semantics: On Jackendoff's Arguments' of Jackendoff's premise in Foundations of Language is that his mentalist approach to semantics is riddled with unfound philosophical assumptions. It is also unclear what the sufficient amount is, and whether there ever would be a final set of primitives. This is because it is very hard to justify and validate the required amount of the primitives and can result with the whole premise falling apart. Alternatively, one can simply choose to ignore these issues, but then be presented with several other issues. However Jackendoff argues that worrying about this issue should not be a matter as he states, giving an analogy to science:

'My answer is that one probably can't tell, but that should not be a matter for worry. The decomposition of all substances into ninety-two primitive elements was a major breakthrough at the end of the nineteenth century. But over the course of the twentieth century these primitives were further decomposed… Each level of decomposition explained more about the nature of matter and raised new questions of its own; and each step was cause for excitement, not discouragement.' (Jackendoff 2010: 14)

In Jackendoff's work, he does not deny the possibility that the primitives he proposed can be decomposed further into smaller conceptual units, 'such as the proposed decomposition of Path and Place into dimensionality and directionality features'. [9] To Jackendoff, if science allowed primitives to flourish, why should semantic primitives be treated any differently? Jackendoff also states:

'… an isolated primitive can never be justified; a primitive makes sense only in the context of the overall system of primitives in which it is embedded. With this provisco, however, I think a particular choice of primitives should be justified on the grounds of its capacity for expressing generalizations and explaining the distribution of the data. That is, a proposed system of primitives should be the subject to the usual scientific standards of evaluation.' (Jackendoff 2010: 13)

Another question is whether or not Conceptual Structure is universal, or if it is language-specific.

The systematic approach of Jackendoff's Conceptual Linguistics is its strongest point in displaying how effective it demonstrates meaning in utterances. Primitives are developed due to the similar domains it is derived from, and the semantic fields are used to represent the contextual information of the meaning.

The need of relating the formalist approach to utterances and the everyday language is also questioned as

This reply might not satisfy everyone, since it does not tell us which generalizations

are psychologically real and which are merely artefacts of the

analysis. One possible way of constraining the generalizations is to look for

ones for which there is some independent linguistic evidence. For example,

Jackendoff's proposal that verb iterativity as illustrated in (16) above and

nominal plurality are varieties of a single conceptual feature, PL, might be

supported by the fact that some languages instantiate this with an identical

morphological category. In Siraya, for example (Austronesian, Taiwan;

extinct), reduplication had these very functions (Adelaar 2000). Another

might be to look for psychological or perhaps neurological evidence to support

the analyses developed in Conceptual Semantics.

Section 3

Jackendoff does try to elaborate on the mental capacities of the brain through his extensive studies and research, creating a framework to support his ideas on the Conceptual Semantics.


The Conceptual Structure is still a blooming concept, with an intriguing outlook on meaning and how it relates to the construct of thought. Jackendoff uses


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