Heidi Harley
The Linguist List 11.1318
Publication year: 2000

This book, one of the useful series of Outstanding Dissertations published
by Garland, is an unmodified version of Cormack’s 1989
University College London doctoral dissertation. Some dissertations lose
their relevance if not read in the context of the theoretical trend du
jour; this is not one of them. Indeed, in some respects, it anticipates
discussion that followed in the subsequent decade; in others, it
addresses foundational questions that will remain relevant to any approach
to theoretical semantics and syntax. Before summarizing the material, let
me comment on two particularly surprising aspects of Cormack’s general
Cormack’s primary source of data, dictionary definitions,
is, to say the least, unusual if not unprecedented in a
theoretically-oriented dissertation. Upon initial reaction, dictionary
definitions qua semantic data felt tainted by my intuition that dictionary
definitions tell you only what is least theoretically
interesting about word meaning. Children, after all, learn the meanings of
words without ever consulting a dictionary, and I assume that in fact by
far the bulk of adult word-learning goes on without the help of a
dictionary either. From the point of view of theoretical linguistics,
then, it had seemed to me that there were more important things to worry
about than what a dictionary might say about a word. On the other hand, I
can see that there’s a crucial flaw in that stance: I use dictionaries
all the time, and I’m not the only one. There are even fields, including
theoretical syntax and semantics, where precise definition of terms is
crucial for theory-creation. Cormack (perhaps because of her background in
mathematics, where definitions are even more central than linguistics)
adopts the radical position that definitions actually do what they’re
supposed to: allow you to understand the meaning of a new term. Since the
sound-meaning connection is the essence of language, dictionary
definitions then ought to shed light on some questions that are pretty
central to linguistic investigation. Cormack was insightful enough to
recognize this, and gets a lot of mileage out of her otherwise
theoretically virginal data set.