Semantics, Compositional

"A language is compositional if the meaning of each of its complex expressions (for example, ‘black dog’) is determined entirely by the meanings its parts (‘black’, ‘dog’) and its syntax. . . . Whether human languages are in fact compositional, however, is quite controversial.” Richard (1998).


Linguists often understand the claim that a language is compositional as asserting an extremely tight correspondence between its syntax and semantics (see Syntax). A (simplified) version of such a claim is that (after disambiguating simple word forms), there is, for each (simple) word, a meaning and, for each syntactic rule used in sentence construction, an operation on meanings, such that the meaning of any sentence is mechanically determined by applying the operations on meanings (given by the rules used in constructing the sentence) to the meanings of the simple parts. (Often a host of extra restrictions are incorporated. For example: the operations may be limited to applying function to argument; the order in which operations are applied may be settled by the structure of the sentence.) Richard (1998).


Context sensitivity makes the formulation of PCs [principles of compositionality] a delicate matter. In some important sense, differing uses of ‘that is dead’ have like meanings and syntax. But obviously they may differ in truth; presumably such differences may arise even within one context. Richard (1998).



Ranganathan demonstrated that analysis, which is the process of breaking down subjects into their elemental concepts, and synthesis, the process of recombining those concepts into subject strings, could be applied to all subjects, and demonstrated that this process could be systematized. (Taylor pp 320-21; Foskett p 390). The phrase "analytico-synthetic classification" derives from these two processes: analysis and synthesis.






Foskett, A. C. (1982). The Subject Approach to Information. 4th ed. Hamden, Connecticut: Linnet Books.


Hanley & Belfus, Inc. 1997; 620-4. "Medical language is in essence highly compositional"


Peregrin, (2006?). Is compositionality an empirical matter? IN: M. Werning, E. Machery &  G. Schurz (eds.): The Compositionality of Concepts and Meanings. Frankfurt: Ontos.


Rassinoux, A.-M.; Miller, R. A.; Baud, R. H. & Scherrer, J-R. (1997).Compositional and Enumerative Designs for Medical Language Representation. Proceedings of the 1997 AMIA Annual Fall Symposium (Formerly SCAMC). Philadelphia,


Richard, M. (1998). Compositionality. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Version 1.0, London: Routledge.


Taylor, A. G. (1992). Introduction to Cataloging and Classification. 8th ed. Englewood, Colorado: Libraries Unlimited.


Werning, M.; Machery, E. & Schurz, G. (Eds.). (2006). The Compositionality of Meaning and Content. Volume I:  Foundational Issues. New Jersey: Transaction Publishers.


Werning, M.; Machery, E. & Schurz, G. (Eds.).  (2006). The Compositionality of Meaning and Content. Volume II: Applications to Linguistics, Psychology and Neuroscience. New Jersey: Transaction Publishers.







Birger Hjørland

Last edited: 05-06-2006