22nd Mar 2010Posted in: Linguistics, Research 0
A Cognitive Approach to the Sense of Proper Names


Proper names have a number of intriguing properties that are not shared by common nouns such as book, apple or man. Syntactically, in many of the world’s languages, such as English, German and Hebrew, proper names typically do not and cannot take an article (cf. *a/the Thomas). They can neither be modified by a numeral (cf. *one Thomas), or in classifier languages, a classifier (cf. *yat go siu ming). Morphologically, they typically do not take the plural morpheme (cf. *Thomases). Semantically, they are typically referential expressions.

However, the most interesting question over proper names seems to be whether they have sense. This controversy has been extensively discussed by semanticists and philosophers. Some people argue that proper names are merely labels assigned arbitrarily to people, places or things. They do not describe the referents like common names do. In other words, they have extension, but not intension. Others argue that proper names are abbreviated descriptions. They are shorthand to designate the sum of all the properties of the referent, or the sum of certain properties, even when there is no referent in the real world at all (cf. Zeus).

Cruse hinted a further derivation of the latter view, although he did not explicate it, that proper names can describe some of the properties of the referent prototypically, although the reference of the name to a particular referent is not strictly determined by these descriptions. This explains why it is odd to name a girl John or The Old Mill (Cruse: 2000. 317). This is similar to Searle’s view that proper names are vague descriptions in some way.
If proper names are used prototypically to refer to objects that have certain properties, then these properties can be assessed through cognitive tests. The present study, therefore, is interested in evaluating this proposal from a cognitive approach, and argues that proper names do have sense in a vague way. Finally, we will also compare proper names and common nouns and point out their similarities.

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