What It All Means
Semantics for (Almost) Everything
How meaning works—from monkey calls to human language, from spoken language to sign language, from gestures to music—and how meaning is connected to truth.
We communicate through language, connecting what we mean to the words we say. But humans convey meaning in other ways as well, with facial expressions, hand gestures, and other methods. Animals, too, can get their meanings across without words. In What It All Means, linguist Philippe Schlenker explains how meaning works, from monkey calls to human language, from spoken language to sign language, from gestures to music. He shows that these extraordinarily diverse types of meaning can be studied and compared within a unified approach—one in which the notion of truth plays a central role.
“It's just semantics” is often said dismissively. But Schlenker shows that semantics—the study of meaning—is an unsung success of modern linguistics, a way to investigate some of the deepest questions about human nature using tools from the empirical and formal sciences. Drawing on fifty years of research in formal semantics, Schlenker traces how meaning comes to life. After investigating meaning in primate communication, he explores how human meanings are built, using in some cases sign languages as a guide to the workings of our inner “logic machine.” Schlenker explores how these meanings can be enriched by iconicity in sign language and by gestures in spoken language, and then turns to more abstract forms of iconicity to understand the meaning of music. He concludes by examining paradoxes, which—being neither true nor false—test the very limits of meaning.
“An exciting tour of the many ways meaning can be communicated without and within language. This book sparkles with fresh anecdotes and beautiful insights from Schlenker's own research. The masterly presentation of the current frontiers of linguistic research is obligatory reading for all language enthusiasts.”
Uli Sauerland, Vice Director, Leibniz Centre for General Linguistics (ZAS), Berlin
“An exceptionally clear introduction to the linguistic study of meaning and a remarkably bold proposal to broaden the horizons of the field beyond spoken languages. This ambitious and original book will change the way we theorize about meaning.”
Zoltán Gendler Szabó, John S. Saden Professor of Philosophy, Yale University
“A careful, captivating exploration of meaning in language and the natural world. Schlenker beautifully charts a vivid landscape of how meaning can be expressed. Cutting edge science at its finest.”
Pritty Patel-Grosz, Professor of Linguistics, University of Oslo
“Language has been at the heart of the 'cognitive revolution' for some 50 years now; perhaps no area of linguistic inquiry has grown more in depth and breadth than the study of meaning. The striking evidence is all in this book.”
Gennaro Chierchia, Haas Foundations Professor of Linguistics, Harvard University
“A compelling explanation for how auditory and visual signals (especially gestures and sign languages) are woven into a meaning-carrying fabric that enables communication. Required reading for scientific approach to meaning.”
Ronnie Wilbur, Professor of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences, Purdue University
"It's one of the best popular science books on linguistics I've ever read: a page-turner brimming with fascinating pieces of information, including Schlenker's own theories."
Marc van Oostendorp, Professor of Dutch and Academic Communication, Radboud University of Nijmegen