Review of Language, Cohesion and Form

Margaret Masterman (1910-1986)
Edited by Yorick Wilks, University of Sheffield

Cambridge University Press (Studies in natural language processing, edited by Steven Bird and Branimir Boguraev), 2005, x+312 pp; hardbound, ISBN 0-521-45489-1, $95.00, £55.00; eBook, ISBN 0-511-13318-9, $76.00

Reviewed by John F. Sowa
Originally published in Computational Linguistics, vol. 32, no. 4, December 2006, pp. 551-553.

Margaret Masterman was one of six students in Wittgenstein’s course of 1933-34 whose notes were compiled as The Blue Book (Wittgenstein 1958). In the late 1950s, she founded the Cambridge Language Research Unit (CLRU) as a discussion group, which evolved into one of the pioneering centers of research in computational linguistics. In her will, she requested that Yorick Wilks edit a collection of her papers for publication. The result is this book, which is important for its historical perspective on the development of computational linguistics. It consists of 11 of her reports and articles from the late 1950s to 1980 and includes a 17-page introduction and commentary by Wilks. Karen Spärck Jones also wrote a commentary on one of the papers she had coauthored.

As a student of Wittgenstein, Masterman was also deeply concerned about the foundations of theoretical linguistics. Around the same time that Chomsky was developing his syntactic theories and Montague was advocating a logic-based alternative, she was proposing a "Neo-Wittgensteinian" view, whose organizing principle was a thesaurus of words classified according to the "language games" in which they are used. Although no single paper in the book formulates a succinct summary that could be called a theory, the following principles are discussed throughout:

Unlike the a priori formalisms of Chomsky or Montague, this approach is based on data about actual language use. In the commentary, Wilks noted that Masterman's work contained "the germ of what was later to be called EBMT or example-based translation (Nagao 1989), which is now perhaps the most productive current approach to MT world-wide, and I have heard Professor Nagao refer to [her] in this connection in a lecture" (p. 279).

As a whole, the book presents a cognitive view of language that has strong similarities to the Cognitive Linguistics by Croft and Cruse (2004). Croft's radical construction grammar, Cruse's dynamic construal of meaning, and Lakoff and Johnson's work on metaphor (1980) are compatible with and to some extent anticipated in Masterman's papers. The multiplicities of context-dependent word senses discussed in the first paper of the book could be aptly characterized by the term microsense, which was coined by Cruse (2000). Although most of the papers are forty years old or older, the goal of implementing the ideas in a computable form has forced a greater attention to detail and precision than is found in some of the more recent work on cognitive linguistics.

The age and origin of most of the papers as unpublished memos is evident in their rather disorganized structure, but the book contains many intriguing insights that still seem fresh today. Among them are her penetrating criticisms of Chomsky's fixation on syntax: 

My quarrel with [the Chomsky school] is not that they are abstracting from the facts. How could it be? For I myself in this paper am proposing a far more drastic abstraction from the facts. It is that they are abstracting from the wrong facts because they are abstracting from the syntactic facts, that is, from that very superficial and highly redundant part of language that children, aphasics, people in a hurry, and colloquial speakers, quite rightly, drop. (p. 266)
As an alternative, she discussed the writings of the phoneticist Peter Guberina (1954), who had worked in a school for the deaf: 
A large part of Guberina's daily life is spent in developing electronic techniques for helping the deaf to speak. This means that, for him, what is being talked about — that is, the actual subject of any piece of discourse, and the linguistic elements that carry it — is vastly more important than what is said about it. If the deaf man can once pick up the subject of conversation, three-quarters of this problem is solved, even if he cannot hear all that is said about it. If, on the other hand, he clearly hears some one thing that is clearly said about some basic subject of discourse, while the actual subject of discourse remains unknown to him, very little of the deaf man's problem is solved; he has only heard one thing. (p. 228)
In summary, she said that "human communication consists of patterns of semantic interactions between ascertainably cognate subjects of discourse." By cognate subjects, she meant ones that originate from the same or similar language games and are grouped in the same area of a thesaurus. The semantic patterns led to the templates of Wilks' own theory of preference semantics, and they are closely related to the chunks, frames, scripts, and schemata of other systems.

We should be grateful to Wilks and the publisher for making these papers available, but the cost of the book and the limited selection underscores the difficulty of getting access to research from the years before World Wide Web. The eleven papers are a fraction of Masterman's more than eighty published and unpublished reports, memos, and manuscripts, not to mention the more than 200 CLRU memos by other authors. As Wilks noted, there was a great deal of duplication among the manuscripts, but even for those that were selected, much of the lengthy appendices, quotations, and diagrams had to be omitted. One of the papers that was not included (Masterman 1961) contained the first recorded use of the term semantic network. The old material is valuable for clarifying the historical record and for making available important, but long-forgotten insights.


Croft, William, & D. Alan Cruse (2004) Cognitive Linguistics, Cambridge University Press.

Cruse, D. Alan (2000) "Aspects of the micro-structure of word meanings," in Y. Ravin & C. Leacock, eds. (2000) Polysemy: Theoretical and Computational Approaches, Oxford University Press, pp. 30-51.

Guberina, Peter (1954) Valeur logique et Valeur stylistique des Propositions complexes, Editions Epoha, Zagreb.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson (1980) Metaphors We Live By, University of Chicago Press.

Masterman, Margaret (1961) "Semantic message detection for machine translation, using an interlingua," Proceedings of the First International Conference on Machine Translation of Languages and Applied Language Analysis, HMSO, London, pp. 438-475.

Nagao, Makoto (1989) Machine Translation. How far can it go? Oxford University Press.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1958) Preliminary studies for the "Philosophical investigations": generally known as the Blue and Brown books, Blackwell, Oxford.