Minimal Semantic Instructions

Paul M. Pietroski

in The Oxford Handbook of Linguistic Minimalism

Published in print March 2011 | ISBN: 9780199549368
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics

Minimal Semantic Instructions


Chomsky's Minimalist Program (MP) invites a perspective on semantics that is distinctive and attractive. This article is organized as follows. Section 21.1 discusses a general idea that many theorists should find congenial: the spoken or signed languages which human children naturally acquire and use – henceforth, human languages – are biologically implemented procedures that generate expressions whose meanings are recursively combinable instructions to build concepts which reflect a minimal interface between the human faculty of language and other cognitive systems. Sections 21.2 and 21.3 develop this picture in the spirit of MP, in part by asking how much of the standard Frege–Tarski apparatus is needed in order to provide adequate and illuminating descriptions of the ‘concept assembly instructions’ that human languages can generate. It is suggested that we can make do with relatively little, by treating all phrasal meanings as instructions to assemble number-neutral concepts which are monadic and conjunctive. But the goal is not to legislate what counts as minimal in semantics. Rather, by pursuing one line of minimalist thought, it is shown how such thinking can be fruitful.

Keywords: minimalist program; semantics; human languages; Frege; Tarski

Article.  13151 words. 

Subjects: Linguistics ; Semantics

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