Men, chocolate, and coffee: compositionality and the mapping problem

Linguists are sometimes accused of spending their time navel-gazing over sentences that are not realistic. The truth is that you don’t have to look any further than your daily life for real linguistic puzzles.

Sign on the wall of a Village Inn. Picture source: me.

Linguists and philosophers are sometimes accused of spending their time navel-gazing over sentences that are not realistic.  However, the truth is that you don’t have to look any further than your daily life for real puzzles, and sometimes for real challenges to linguistic theory.

Right at this moment, I’m sitting in a Village Inn.  If you’re French: that’s a restaurant chain that’s known for being somewhat déclassé (déclassé and other obscure English expressions explained below in the English and French notes), and for having great pancakes.  I’m somewhat déclassé, and it’s Saturday morning, so I’m sitting here treating myself to pancakes.  (Village Inn is not so redneck as to not have wifi.)  On the wall opposite me is the poster that you see at the beginning of this post.  It says:

Men, chocolate and coffee are all better rich.

Now: that is a joke.  It plays on multiple meanings of the word rich.  Something like this:

  • rich man: A man with a lot of money.
  • rich chocolate:  Containing a large amount of choice ingredients, such as butter, sugar, or eggs, and therefore unusually heavy or sweet: a rich dessert
  • rich coffee: Strong in aroma or flavor: a rich coffee (from

A reasonable native speaker could disagree with me over whether or not rich has different meanings in rich chocolate and rich coffee, but the essential fact about the example remains: rich has more than one sense in this sentence.

Who cares?  It’s like this.  One of the fundamental assumptions in the vast majority of approaches to understanding semantics (in the sense of the meaning of language) is something called compositionality.  Compositionality is the process of meaning being produced by something that you could think of as similar to addition (technically, it’s a more general “function,” but “addition” will work for our positions–linguists, no hate mail, please): the idea is that the meaning of Khani stole the butter is the adding together of the meanings of Khani, steal, butter, and the meaning of being in the subject position versus the object position of an active, transitive sentence.

That’s compositionality.  Another bit of background that we need: the mapping problem.  The mapping problem is the question of how the semantics of a sentence–its meaning–is related to the syntax of the sentence–the structure of the phrases of which the sentence is made up.  There are all sorts of problems here.  To give you one example: take a situation where my dog stole some butter.  The semantics are: there’s a dog, it’s my dog, there’s some butter, and the butter was taken, by the dog, without permission.  (You can’t believe how horrible the poo that I had to pick up over the course of the next 24 hours was.)  The syntax, though: there are multiple possibilities.  My dog stole the butter.  The butter was stolen by my dogs.  The meaning is the same–how do you account for multiple syntactic structures being usable for communicating that meaning?  I’m giving you a very simple example of a very complex and nuanced topic–again, no hate mail from linguists, please.

So: we have the mapping problem.  Your answer to it is probably going to involve compositionality.  Imagine this sentence:

Men are better rich, kind, and patient.

How do we map the semantics to the syntax via composition?  Let’s see:

  1. Take the significance of the subject position and the adjective relative to that verb in a declarative sentence…
  2. …add the meaning of to be, and
  3. …add the meaning of men…
  4. …add the meaning of rich…
  5. …add the meaning of kind…
  6. …and add the meaning of patient.

No probs–sentence structure meaning + word meanings = the meaning of the assertion.  Now let’s go back to the sign on the wall:

Men, chocolate and coffee are all better rich.

How do we map the semantics to the syntax via composition?  Let’s see:

  1. Take the meaning of to be and the significance of the subject position and the adjective relative to that verb in a declarative sentence…
  2. …add the meanings of men, chocolate, and coffee
  3. …and add the meaning of rich.

Ooooh–what the hell??  We have the one word rich, but we have three meanings.  We’ve been mapping one word to one meaning–how the hell can we get three meanings out of one word?  This works as a joke, versus just a simple statement, precisely–and only–because you can have that single word rich contributing three different meanings to the “utterance,” as we linguists say (énoncé in French).  Myself, though: I can’t for the life of me see how to reconcile it with linguistic theory.  That’s not a problem–it’s a good thing.  Personally, I am pretty happy with the notion that science gets pushed forward by finding problems with theories, not by showing how they work.  Something fun to think about while I listen to the hum of Berber, Spanish, and some very stigmatized dialects of English around me as I eat my redneck, Saturday-morning pancakes…

Native speakers of French: I’d love a similar example in the language of Molière–do you have one for me?

Postscript: the sentence that is the topic of this post contains the word and.  The word and is (believe it or not) actually one of the toughest problems in computational linguistics, and I have glossed over it in this discussion deliberately, despite the fact that it is crucial to the nature of the problem.  Another time, perhaps.  English and French notes below.

English notes:

  • déclassé: having inferior social status.  It can also have a similar meaning to the French meaning–fallen or lowered in class, rank, or social position,” per Merriam-Webster–but, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard it used in that sense.  How it appears in the post: That’s a restaurant chain that’s known for being somewhat déclassé, and for having great pancakes
  • redneck: from Merriam-Webster: a white person who lives in a small town or in the country especially in the southern U.S., who typically has a working-class job, and who is seen by others as being uneducated and having opinions and attitudes that are offensive.  It can also be an adjective, which is how I used it in the post.  How it appears in the post: Village Inn is not so redneck as to not have wifi.  Note: this can be a very offensive term if you are not yourself a redneck, and if you are not a native speaker, I recommend that you never use it.

French notes:

  • déclassé: downgraded, relegated, demoted.
  • le déclassé: dropout (societally, not from school)
  • gaulois: redneck, among other things.  See above for the definition of redneck; I don’t actually know whether or not the French word is offensive.

9 thoughts on “Men, chocolate, and coffee: compositionality and the mapping problem”

  1. You really wonder about some sorts of things … Not sure if anybody thought in this way before you .
    Two things . You ask for a similar example in the language of Rabelais, I’d say we can keep the example in Chaucer’s language, for “riche” in French has the same exact meanings, for a man, chocolate and coffee . If it were in Spanish there would be more : une chica rica es una chica guapa, une pellicula rica es muy buena, etc…

    “Gaulois” is not redneck at all . In modern times, after the first French revolution , it became a synonym of “rabelaisien” . My dictionary says something like “bawdy” but I think maybe there is not one exact English translation for this Gallic spirit production . Gaulois always comes within cheerfulness, jokes or loud songs, and always has a sexual connotation, but not necessarily crude, although it can be borderline .

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My husband and I are both frantic semantors so this notice would have drawn your attention too. I actually concur that rich chocolate and rich coffee though similar are different and that the word ‘rich’ covers both differently and appropriately. I would however insert the word ‘hick’ rather than ‘redneck’ as the descriptor for Village Inn

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Semantics are actually a bit beyond me, but I enjoy your explanations. When dealing with this type of problem with students, I usually try to drum in that I can’t answer their question (specially for words in English) “what does X mean?” if they don’t give me … context, context, context.

    Liked by 1 person

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