What do we talk about?

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Prof. Dr. Jürgen Lenerz from University of Cologne

We, i.e. adult and sound human beings, are able to talk about everything we want to talk about. But what do we want to talk about? We want to talk about our thoughts (feelings, experiences etc., i.e. about our mental states).

What are we able to think about? We think about situations in the world of our thoughts, – that may be the real world (whatever this is) or a world in our imagination. Worlds may be explained by means of set theory: a world consists of individuals, sets of individuals, sets of sets of individuals and some other sets (of sets) etc.

An individual (in the sense of logical semantics) is what we somehow conceive of as a separate object with certain properties. This is rather vague but close enough to the point. So, Barack Obama is an individual as well as the left front wheel of my car as well as my weight or my memory. As a rule, in English, we use noun phrases (my car, the weight of..etc.) when we want to refer to individuals. In semantics, we say that a noun phrase (in the singular) denotes an  individual.

We also think of properties of individuals. A property is described by the set of all and only those individuals which share this property. In English, adjectives or (intransitive) verbs denote such properties (soft, green, liquid,…to sleep, to work, to dance…).

We also think of relations between individuals: local, temporal or comparative relations etc. Prepositions are a good example The preposition on denotes the relation between an individual (the book) and a place, often referred to by another individual (the table): the book (is) on the table. Other expressions for such relations are comparative adjectives ( X (is) bigger than Y ) or some transitive verbs (John loves Mary).

These simple properties and relations may denote what we may call a state of something.

States are somehow stable for a certain period of time, but they may change. So, a flower may welt (i.e. be in the state of bloom first and then wilted)  or someone may fall in love(not be in love first and then be in love later). These are changes of states or processes (like the process of aging). So, processes are changes from one state to another. The relation BECOME relates both processes. In English, we find some transitive verbs (to welt, to grow, to dawn…) or more complex constructions in which the predicate BECOME is visible in the additional verb: to grow older, to fall in love, to become bald…).

States or processes may in turn be caused by some other state or process. We call that activities. We may say that  X CAUSES Y,  X being an individual or a state or a process and Y being a state or process which X brings about. If X brings about Y intentionally, we call X an agent,  and we may express this with an additional predicate X DO CAUSE Y.

(There are more finely grained distinctions, depending on the temporal structure of the event (aspect or lexical aspect etc.), but this is the general picture.)

The lexical semantics and the syntax of these concepts may be dealt with in a different blog.


Prof. Dr. Jürgen Lenerz, born 1945, was a professor for German Linguistics at the University of Cologne from 1985 until his retirement in 2011. His main interests are in the interaction of syntax, semantics, intonation and information structure in natural languages