From Semantics to Syntax

C. George Boeree

Our minds are filled with concepts, derived from our experience dealing with the world and other people. This is the realm of the cognitive psychologist and related scientists.

Semantics is the first layer of language (moving "downward" from concepts toward speech). It involves preparing concepts for syntax by placing them into categories that the rules of syntax can use to in turn prepare sentences for expression.

Although there are an infinite number of ways to classify concepts, several are particularly relevant to language:

1. Individuals
2. Classes (a collection of qualities, relations, etc, that allow one to treat several individuals similarly)
3. Movements (inc. change and the absence of movement or change)
4. Effects (wherein a change of one something results in a change of another, etc)
5. Qualities (and quantities)
6. Relations (spatial, temporal, etc)
7. Miscellaneous (vague, mixed, ephemeral things)

Each of these is related to a classification within syntax called the parts of speech. Parts of speech are actually defined by their functions within a sentence, i.e. their relation to each other, which in turn provides us with the possible sequences we can place them.

1. Names (Proper nouns, pronouns, and determiners)
2. General nouns
3. Intransitive verbs ("I-verbs")
4. Transitive verbs ("T-verbs")
5. Adjectives (including numbers and most adverbs)
6. Adpositions (prepositions, postpositions, and conjunctions)
7. Words otherwise difficult to classify

At its simplest, syntax is a matter of a more significant word - usually referred to as the head of a phrase - and a less significant word - the dependent to the head. For example:

* Names and general nouns can serve as the subject (head) of a verb, adjective, or adposition, as well as the object (dependent) of a t-verb or an adposition
* An i-verb can serve as the dependent of the subject
* An t-verb can serve as the dependent of the subject, as well as the head of an object
* An adjective can serve as the dependent of a noun, verb, or other part of speech
* An adposition can serve as the dependent of a noun, verb, or other part of speech; the object is the dependent of the adposition

A sentence is minimally a subject, a verb, and (if required) an object. However, subjects and objects are often implied or represented by a pronoun. Adjectives and Adpositions are used to provide extra detail to the other components of a sentence. They may be "raised" to the level of verbs by the use of copulas such as "to be" and so used to make basic sentences, although some languages don't require that.

Obviously, I have set out these categories to match up nicely with the categories of concepts. Understand that, in real language, things can get considerably messier.

* Individuals > Names
* Classes > Nouns
* Movements > I-verbs
* Effects > T-verbs
* Qualities > Adjectives
* Relations > Prepositions

One place at which things get messier is that we are quite capable of taking a movement and using a noun to describe it: "Dance" is a movement, but we can talk about "the dance" if we want to. Or we can take a quality and use a noun: "Beautiful" is an example. Many languages have what is called a static verb instead of or in addition to adjectives, so that, instead of "she is pretty", they would say something like "she pretty", as if "pretty" was some kind of movement. The same kind of thing can happen with adpositions: instead of "he is in the house", some languages would say "he in the house", with "in" used as a verb. English does something similar when we say "he enters the house" instead of "he goes into the house". Basically, "enter" combines the movement of "go" with the relation of "in" to form what is a t-verb. It's enough to make you dizzy.

As I mentioned above, the parts of speech, although they are loosely associated with a particular category of concept, are actually defined in terms of how they relate to each other. This is then what allows the rules of syntax to linearize what we have in mind so that it can be, eventually, spoken or written.

© 2015 George Boeree