THE MEANINGS OF LANGUAGE: SEMANTICS
5.1. To understand language we have to know:
- The meanings of words and the
morphemes that compose them.
- We must also know how the meanings of words
combine into phrases and sentence meanings.
- Finally, we must interpret the meaning of
utterances in the context in which they are made. In other words, knowing a
language means knowing how to produce and understand sentences with particular meanings.
study of linguistic meaning of morphemes, words, phrases and sentences is
are several subfields of semantics:
i. Lexical semantics is concerned with the meanings
of morphemes and words and the meaning relationships among words.
Phrasal or sentential semantics is concerned
with the meaning of syntactic units
larger than the word, i.e. phrases
Pragmatics: the study of how context affects meaning in certain situations.
For example, how the sentence It’s cold
in here – could be interpreted,
in a certain context, as ‘Close the window’. Pragmatics will be dealt with in
5.2. LEXICAL SEMANTICS (WORD MEANINGS)
The meaning of words is part of
linguistic knowledge and is therefore a part of the grammar. Your mental
storehouse of information about morphemes and words is what has been called the
The function of lexemes
Chapter 2 dealt with the word, with its
origins. But is said nothing of the function of the word, of the lexeme.
Without a function a word is a mere sequence of sounds.
So what is the function of a word, of a
lexeme? In the sentence The daughter of
the terrorist has been caught we can
identify two distinct types of word.
While we can tell somebody what a
daughter or a terrorist is, we cannot tell them what a ‘the’ or an ‘of’ is, for
while the words daughter and terrorist denote something in the real
world, the words the and of do not. What these latter words do is
serve the others in some way, the by
specifying, of by indicating a
are content words; the and of are function words.
Lexical content words: in English, nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs make up the largest
part of the vocabulary. They are the content words of a language, which are
sometimes called the open class
words because we can and regularly do add new words to these classes. A new
verb, download, which means to
transfer information from one computer system to another, entered English with
the computer revolution. New adverbs like weatherwise
and saleswise have been added in
recent years, as well as adjectives like biodegradable.
Function words or grammatical words include
conjunctions, like and and or, prepositions, like in and of, the articles the and a/an, part of the class of determiners,
pronouns. They have been referred to as being closed class words. It is difficult to think of new conjunctions or
prepositions or articles or pronouns that have recently entered the language.
The use of content words changes as society changes but the use of function
words is much more stable; nouns and verbs may come and go for various reasons
but we rarely have reason to change articles and prepositions.
In this chapter our attention will be
focused on content words. Function words belong rather to the field of syntax.
5.2.2. The meaning of meaning
Semantics might be described as the study of meaning. But what do we mean by meaning? What is the nature of the relationship between our
utterances and the world around us?
Clearly words often specify something
in the world. The word daughter denotes
a younger female relative as opposed
to a younger male relative, an older male relative or indeed, a house. To use
terms employed by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand
de Saussure, the word daughter is
a signifiant, the thing that
signifies, and the category of relative concerned is a signifié, the thing
that is signified.
In their work entitled The Meaning of Meaning C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards maintained that the word, what they called the symbol, and the actual object, the referent, are linked only indirectly, by way of our mental
perception of that object, the thought
or reference (Ogden and I. A.
Richards, 1985: 10-12).
Ullmann suggested that we might use more common terms: name to denote the sequence of sounds that is the physical form of
the utterance, thing to denote the
object or event that is being referred to, and sense to denote the information that the name conveys to the hearer
(Ullmann, 1962: 57)
Other linguists have been loath to
accept an intermediate conceptual stage in the process of communication. John Lyons, for example, maintains that
there is no evidence to suggest that concepts are relevant to the construction
of a theory of semantics (Lyons, 1992: 137)
Indeed, seemingly in contravention of
their belief in the intermediary of mental perception, Ogden and Richards went
on to question the role of mental images:
There are good reasons why
attempts to build a theory interpretation upon
images must be hazardous. One
of these is the grave doubt whether in
some minds they ever occur or
ever have occurred (1985: 60).
In order to be able to deal with the world around us we have to put
labels on things. This has required us to divide the world up into categories
and to force an infinitely varied world into these categories. We have a
category labeled dog into which we put poodles and spaniels but not foxes and
wolves. We have to reach a compromise between having on the one hand an
unmanageable array of categories and on the other insufficient precision.
The trade-off between manageability and
precision clearly depends on how precise one has to be. Arabs may need to be
able to make finer distinctions between different types of camels and different
types of horses than Europeans do. Eskimos more words than others do to
identify different types of snow, for example words defining fine-grained
powdery snow, light snow etc.
Similarly, those who specialise in a
particular sphere of activity need to make finer distinctions in that sphere
than others do. For most of us the word horse
and a few others like mare and foal are all that we need to be able to
talk about horses, but those involved in horse racing need such terms as filly, yearling and gelding. We could, of course, refer to anything, if only by using
what seems more like a dictionary definition than a lexeme: we could denote a filly using the phrase young mare.
But the more significant an object or
concept is to a community, the greater the tendency to lexicalize the label used to denote it, to have a more succinct
The divisions that we draw in order to
define our categories are very haphazard.
The English use the same verb, play, to denote the very different
activities of a child amusing himself with his toys and a pianist performing at
a concert. And yet the person who supervises a cricket match is given a different
name from that given to supervisor of a football match, the one being an umpire and the other a referee.
When the English eat lambs they call
the meat lamb, but when they eat
calves they use a different word for the meat: veal.
The arbitrariness is clearly likely to be all the greater where there
is little natural distinctiveness in the subject area concerned. What the
English call a river can be denoted
by either fleuve or rivière in French (cf. fluviu or rau in Romanian), the genral view being
that the former flows into the sea while the latter flows into another river.
The colour spectrum would appear to be
a prime example of arbitrary division. Russian has two equivalents of blue: гoлубoй and cиний. The Welsh word glas equates
to blue but also overlaps with green, as it also denotes the colour of grass.
According to B. Berlin and P. Kay,
however, colour terminology is not random for a study by them suggested a
fairly universal hierarchy of terminology. If a language only has two colour
terms they will, they claimed be based on black and white; If it has three,
they will be based on black, white and red. The next distinction will be green
or yellow, and so on (Berlin and Kay, 1969).
The set of items that we identify by
means of a word or lexeme is the semantic range of that word or lexeme.
Such sets may be grouped with others with which they share a common feature to form
a semantic field.
Thus the semantic range of the English
word red is that part of the colour
spectrum that we denote with this word, a range considerably more restricted
than that of the corresponding term in a language that distinguishes only three
colours. The range of red together
with that of the other colour terms can be referred to as the semantic field of
5.2.4. Componential theory / analysis
Componential theory refers to the view that all
lexical items can be analysed using a finite set of components (semantic features).
Componential analysis developed from a technique devised by American
anthropologists in the 1950s for analyzing the kinship relations of American
Indians. Basic to the approach is the assumption that individual items can be
decomposed into what are termed semantic ‘primes’, or ‘primitives’. It is on
the basis of these that we organize our experiential world.
Morphemes and words have meanings. The meanings of
morphemes and words are defined in part by their semantic properties, whose
presence or absence is indicated by the use of semantic features. Suppose
The assassin killed Thomlison.
If the word
‘assassin’ is in your mental lexicon, you know that the individual to whom the
word refers is human, is a murderer
and is a killer of important people.
These pieces of information, then, are some of the semantic properties of the
word on which the speakers of the language agree.
The meaning of all nouns, verbs, adjectives
and adverbs – i.e. the content words - , and even some of the function words,
such as prepositions (e.g. over, with)
can, at least partially, be specified by such properties.
The same semantic property may be part
of the meaning of many different words. ‘Female’ is a semantic property that
helps to define:
aunt, girl, woman
The words in the second group are also
distinguished by the semantic property ‘human’ which is also found in:
doctor, bachelor, parent, baby, child
The meanings of the last two words are
also specified as ‘young’. That is, part of the meaning of the words baby and child is that they are ‘human’ and ‘young’.
The same semantic property may occur
in words of different categories: ‘Female’ is part of the meaning of the noun mother, of the verb breastfeed, and of the adjective pregnant.
One way of
representing semantic properties is through the use of semantic features. Semantic
features are a formal or notational device for expressing the presence or
absence of semantic properties by pluses and minuses. Just as in the case of
semantic fields, componential analysis, which defines the range of a word in
terms of the presence or absence of particular components, is more easily
applied to some field than to others.
Words denoting family relationship lend
themselves to such a binary approach: words
like daughter, son and mother denote either a male person or a
female person, either an earlier generation or a later generation, and so on.
One of the commonest examples used by
linguists is the set of features which are said to compose the terms woman, bachelor, spinster, wife:
woman [+female] [+adult] [+human]
bachelor [+male] [+adult] [+human] [+unmarried]
spinster [+female] [+adult] [+human] [+unmarried]
wife [+female] [+adult] [+human] [+married]
Isolating the features of these terms
allows us to describe more precisely the conceptual sense of words, that is,
the stable, or core, meaning which is basic to their individual identity. As a
consequence, it enables us to define sense relations more closely.
In the case of hyponymy (inclusion), for example, we can see that spinster is a hyponym of woman because its feature specification
contains all the features of woman. This
can be expressed in the following way:
A lexical item P can be
defined as a hyponym of Q if all the features of Q
are contained in the feature
specification of P. (G. Finch, 2000:
can also be dealt with in a similar fashion. The terms spinster, bachelor, and wife are
all incompatible and if we look at their feature specification it is possible
to see why. In each case they differ
from each other in terms of one or more features, despite sharing others, or in
Lexical items are incompatible if they share a set of features but differ from
each other by one or more
contrasting features. (G. Finch, 2000: 156)
So spinster is incompatible with bachelor because of gender, and with wife because of marital status.
It’s important to realize, however, that componential
analysis doesn’t aim to capture the entire meaning of a word. It’s only
concerned with conceptual, not associative meaning. So the fact that spinster has a more negative social
meaning than bachelor, for example,
is irrelevant here.
Despite this, semantic primes are not
sufficient on their own to distinguish lexical items. There are, for example,
several senses to bachelor, not all
of which share the exact features above. In addition to the meaning ‘unmarried
male’, bachelor can also mean ‘one
who has the first or lowest academic degree’, and ‘a young seal without a mate
in the breeding season’.
To cope with this the linguists J. J. Katz and J. A. Fodor (1963) make a distinction between semantic markers and distinguishers.
markers are meant to reflect ‘systematic’ relations between an item and the
rest of the vocabulary. Distinguishers,
on the other hand, reflect what is ‘idiosyncratic’ about an item. In the case
of bachelor, for instance, we could
separate out the feature basis of the different senses by listing the markers
for each sense followed by the particular distinguisher (as all the senses
share ‘adult’ we can omit this feature here):
(human) (male) [one who has never
(human) [one who has the first or lowest
iii. (animal) (male) [young seal without a
mate in the breeding season]
We could also set this out in a tree diagram:
[one who has [one who has [young seal without a
never married] the lowest degree] mate in the breeding
In the diagram below the ranges of the words
aunt, mother, son and daughter are defined by giving each one
a positive sign or a negative sign in respect of maleness, previous generation
and relationship by birth. This is enough to give each word a unique
Male Previous generation Related by birth
Aunt - + -
Mother - + +
Son + - +
Daughter - -
For example, the lexical entries for words such as father, girl, mare, stalk, would appear as follows:
father girl mare stalk
+male +female +female +motion
+human +human -human +slow
+parent +young -young
… … +equine
difference between nouns may be captured by the use of the feature [+/-count].
Nouns that can be enumerated – one book,
two books -, or can be preceded by the quantifier many: - many books – are called count
such as information, bread which cannot
be enumerated or preceded by the quantifier many
are called mass nouns. They may
be distinguished in the lexicon with one feature [+/-count].
As usual, complications can arise. What
components would one identify to define the semantic range of the word terrorist? There is no predetermined
system of categories; one keeps identifying distinguishing components until one
has a set unique to each word unless one believes that one is dealing with true
synonyms or that the difference is one of style, formality, attitude, and so on
rather than denotation.
are people who use force to achieve a certain aim. But then the same could
be said of soldiers and bank robbers. So what other components can we adduce to
distinguish between them? Perhaps +authorized for soldiers and - authorized for
terrorists in so far as soldiers operate within a framework established by
their government whereas terrorists do
not. Perhaps other components could be +political for terrorists and -political
for bank robbers, thereby reflecting the aims of their actions.
Identifying the semantic features of
nouns is easier than for verbs, where
there is no actual entity for the process of decomposition to focus on. Most
analysis of verbs proceeds by separating them into different semantic classes
based on the constructions they allow and then isolating the features which are
said to define them. So, for example, B.
Levin (1993) isolates the following elements of meaning which material, or
action, verbs are said to contain:
(change) (motion) (contact)
If we take the verbs cut, break, touch, and hit, it is possible to put them into
various sets in respect of which components they possess. Thus, B. Levin
analyses them in the following way:
cut (cause) (change)
break (cause) (change)
hit (contact) (motion)
We can test for the existence of these
components by using sample sentences and seeing whether verbs with particular features
will fit. In the case of cut, touch, and
hit, all of which possess the feature
‘contact’, we can say John cut / touched /
In addition, cut and hit are also
verbs of motion and allow John cut / hit at Mike (but not * touched at).
And finally, cut can also be
used in constructions which cause a change of state, as in This bread cuts easily (but not *touches / hits easily). In
this respect it is similar to break. Levin summarises this by saying:
Touch is a pure verb of contact, hit is a verb of contact by motion, cut is a
verb of causing a change of
state by moving something into contact with the
entity that changes state,
and break is a pure verb of change of
this classification other verbs can be similarly assigned:
touch verbs: pat, stroke, tickle
verbs: bash, kick, tap
cut verbs: hack, saw, scratch
(iv) break verbs:
crack, rip, shatter
‘Cause’ is the semantic property of some
verbs, such as, darken, kill, uglify, etc:
darken: cause to become dark
kill: cause to die
uglify: cause to become ugly
Other semantic properties of verbs are
shown in the following table:
Semantic property verbs
motion bring, fall plod, walk,
sense see, feel, hear…
For the most
part, no two words have exactly the same meaning, as we shall see in the section
dealing with Synonymy. Additional
semantic properties make for finer and finer distinctions in meaning. Thus, plod is distinguished from walk by the semantic property ‘slow’,
i.e. to walk with heavy steps.
The underlying concern of componential
analysis is to arrive at a universal
inventory of semantic features which are structurally present in all language.
Arguable the most consistent proponent of this has been Ray Jackendoff who, in a series of works, has developed a
decompositional theory of meaning which he calls conceptual semantics. Jackendoff identifies a number of structural
categories, including: Event, State,
Thing (or Object), Path, Place and
Loosely speaking, ‘event’ and ‘state’
tend to be categories present in verbs; ‘thing /object’, in nouns; ‘path’ and
‘place’, in prepositional and adverbial constructions; and ‘property’, in
adjectives. These categories can all be sub-categorised by reference to
specific semantic components. The event category, for instance, can be broken
down to include those features of cause, motion, change and contact which we
have already identified.
Similarly, ‘thing’ can be
sub-categorised in terms of the features [ + bounded]. This will
distinguish between count nouns such
as table and chair and mass nouns like
music and water. Nouns which are bounded are basically conceived of as units.
If we dismantle a chair we can’t call the individual pieces a chair. Mass nouns, however, are thought
of as substances. If we only hear a few bars of a sonata we have still heard music. This is reflected in the grammar
so that mass nouns, for example, cannot go into the plural, e.g. *musics, whereas count nouns can, e.g. chairs.
Note: Music has recently developed a plural form, albeit of a restricted
the phrase new musics to describe the range of
available in modern
music. (G. Finch, 2000: 110)
Conceptual semantics is a complex and sophisticated attempt to identify universal
semantic categories and map them onto syntactic operations and structures. But
in so far as it relies on componential analysis it has inevitably had its
critics. A principal difficulty with componential analysis is in the
identification of the semantic primes, or markers. Pinning down the sense of
words is not easy, even for common items. Also, distinguishing between features which are markers and those
which are distinguishers is not unproblematic. How can we be sure that we have
enough features, or that they are necessarily the right ones? Consider, for example,
the semantic components of chair which
Katz (1972: 40) gives as:
(physical), (non-living), (artifact), (furniture), (portable)
(something with legs),
(something with a back), (something with a seat),
(seat for one)
Clearly some of these features are open
to question. Do chairs have to be portable? Is it essential they have legs, or
seat only one? Does this analysis cover all
chairs or only prototypical ones? Once we begin decomposing, it becomes
increasingly difficult to be sure about what counts as a prerequisite feature.
None the less, despite these
reservations about componential analysis as a theory of meaning, many linguists
use its vocabulary and methodology as a way of examining the linguistic
organization of words into groups such as semantic fields and sets.
5.2.5. Sense relations
Sense relations refer to the semantic
relationships which words contract with each other within the linguistic system
on the basis of their sense. The principal relationships are synonymy,
antonymy, polysemy, homonymy, hyponymy, meronymy and incompatibility.
Synonymy refers to a sense relation that exists between words which have
a similar meaning, or sense, for example, drunk
/intoxicated, mad /insane. When two words have the same or nearly the same
meaning but different sounds they are synonyms.
The semantic range of a word can be
defined with the assistance of another word that means the same thing, a synonym or a word that means the opposite, an antonym. Thus it can help us to use the word large if we know that it means much the same as the word big or that it means the opposite of the
English is particularly rich in synonyms because of the influx into it
of words from a variety of languages. Royal,
regal and kingly, for example,
are synonymous terms which have derived from French, Latin, and Anglo-Saxon
theoretically, it is possible for two words to be completely synonymous, that
is to say, identical, it is very rare for this to happen. Total synonymy would
mean that words were interchangeable in all linguistic environments. Such is
the nature of language, however, that there is invariably some difference.
frequently differ stylistically. Steed and nag have the same conceptual sense but belong to different styles
of English: the first is poetic and rather archaic, the second slang.
Connotational differences are also
fairly common. Hide and conceal, obstinate and stubborn, tight and stingy, are all synonyms
but most people would feel that one term in each pair had a slightly stronger
meaning than the other.
synonyms also differ in their collocational
range, that is, the words with which they can co-occur.
It has been said that there are no perfect
synonyms, that is, no two words ever have exactly the same meaning. Still, the
following pair of sentences have very similar meanings:
He is sitting on the sofa.
sitting on the couch.
Some individuals prefer to use sofa instead of couch, but if they know the two words, thy will understand both
sentences and interpret them to mean essentially the same thing.
The degree of semantic similarity
between words depends to a great extent on the number of semantic properties they share.
Sofa and couch refer to the same
type of object (piece of furniture) and share most of the semantic properties.
There are words that are neither
synonymous, nor near synonyms yet, have many semantic properties in common: Man and boy both refer to male humans; the meaning of boy includes the additional semantic property of youth, whereby it
differs from the meaning of man.
A polysemous word may share one of its
meanings with another word, a kind of partial
synonymy. For example, deep and profound mean the same when applied to thought, but only deep can modify water.
Due in large part to the overlay of
Norman French onto Old English, the English language has an extensive
vocabulary. From Old English, for example, the English have the word hide and from Old French they have the
We can say
He was determined to hide the truth
and He was determined to conceal
Thus, as we can
use either in this sentence, we might call the words hide and conceal synonyms. But if we try to replace hide by conceal in the sentence
He was determined to hide
we find that we
do not get a satisfactory sentence,
the reason being that , unlike hide, conceal cannot serve as an intransitive
verb, cannot that is, be used without an accompanying object. Thus, the two
words are not complete synonyms as they cannot substitute for each other in all
circumstances. Thus, we can say that in the case of these two words hide and conceal the difference is one of syntax.
On the other hand, there a
difference of reference in the case of the words high and tall. Both may
be used to qualify buildings but only tall
can be used to refer to the height of people.
Antonymy implies a sense relation which exists between words which are
opposite in meaning or sense.
The meaning of a word may be partially defined by saying what it is not:
male means not female, dead means not
Antonyms have (share) the same semantic
properties except for the one that accounts for their oppositeness. Beautiful
and tall are not antonyms; beautiful and ugly or tall and short are.
semantic property they do not share is present in one and absent in the
other. In the case of antonyms we have
to consider different types of relationship. The words tall and short are
opposites, antonyms, as are the words alive
and dead. There is, however, a
fundamental difference between these two pairs, for while one person can be
shorter than another, one person cannot be more dead than another. Thus, tall and short are termed gradable antonyms and alive and dead are termed
complementary antonyms. Different
again are pairs like buy and sell which denote, for example, two facets of an action: these are converse terms.
can take a number of forms:
i. Gradable antonyms are terms in which
the degree of opposition is said to be ‘gradable’, for example, wide and narrow, old and young, tall and
short, big and small, hot and cold, fast and slow, happy and sad. In
each of these pairs the opposition is not absolute. There are degrees of width,
age, height, etc., so that to say a road is not narrow doesn’t mean it’s wide,
and vice versa.
Also, our definition of wide, old, and
tall will vary according to the referent.
That is, the meaning of adjectives in gradable pairs is related to the object
they modify. The words themselves do not provide an absolute scale. Thus, a tall man is shorter than a tall building. Also, we know that a ‘small elephant’ is much bigger than a ‘large mouse’.
With gradable pairs, the negative of
one word is not synonymous with the other (as in the case of complementary
pairs). For example, someone who is not
happy is not necessarily sad.
Gradable antonyms are often found among sets of words that partition a
small – medium – large - huge - gargantuan
euphoric – elated – happy – so-so – sad – gloomy – despondent
characteristic of certain pairs of
gradable antonyms is that one item can be more widely used, or in linguistic
terms is unmarked, and the other is marked.
We can say someone is 3 months ‘old’
or 50 years ‘old’ without meaning that they are old, but we can really only
refer to them as ‘young’ if they are indeed young. In this case ‘young’ is more
marked than ‘old’.
unmarked member is the one used in questions of degree. We ask ordinarily, ‘How
high is the mountain?’ (Not ‘How low is it?’). Thus, high is the unmarked member of high
Similarly, tall is the unmarked member of tall
/ short, fast is the unmarked
member of fast / slow, etc.
Complementary antonyms are different
from gradable in that the opposition between them is absolute. Alive
and dead, present and absent, awake and asleep, married and single, etc. have an either / or relationship. They are complementary in that to
say someone is not alive means they are dead, and vice versa – unlike gradable antonyms there aren’t degrees in between.
Having said that, however, it’s
quite common to find colloquial instances of grading, for example, He’s very much alive.
iii. Relational antonyms or converse
They are also different
from gradable ones in that they are not susceptible to degrees of opposition.
However, unlike complementary
antonyms, they are not ‘either / or’ in character; we could say, for example,
that husband is the opposite of wife, but not to be a wife doesn’t mean
you are a husband. Relational antonyms exhibit reversibility: this is a logical relationship which allows us to
say that if I am your husband then you are my wife.
Similar pairs like give / receive,
buy / sell, teacher / pupil, employer / employee, above/ below, lend/borrow,
etc., are called relational opposites as they display symmetry in their
meaning. Thus, the pair give / receive: if
X gives Y to Z, then Z receives Y from X.
Or, the pair teacher / pupil: if X is Y’s teacher, then Y is X’s pupil.
Pairs of words ending in –er and –ee are usually relational opposites: if John is Tom’s employer, then Tom is John’s employee. Also, payer / payee are relational opposites.
sell are relational opposites because both contain the
semantic property ‘transfer of goods or services’ and they differ in only one
property, ‘direction of transfer’.
Comparative forms of gradable pairs of
adjectives often form relational pairs.
Thus, if :
Tom is taller than Ann, than Ann is shorter than Tom.
If a Cadillac is more expensive than a Ford, then a Ford is cheaper
When looking at
antonyms we should note that a word can have different antonyms in different
contexts: while the opposite of a short
person is a tall person, the
opposite of a short walk is not *a tall walk.
Polysemy refers to a sense relation in which a word,
or lexeme, has acquired more than one meaning.
That is to say, when a word has multiple (differing) meanings that are
related conceptually and historically, it is said to be polysemous.
For example, bear is polysemous, with meanings ‘to carry’, ‘to support’, ‘to
is also a homonym. Homonyms generally have separate dictionary entries: one bear is the polysemous verb just mentioned, the other bear refers to the animal.
The term flight can mean all of the
following: (i) the power of flying; (ii) an air journey; (iii) a series of
steps. These senses are clearly related and it is possible to see how they
might derive from the same word.
Many nouns acquire new meanings by having a
literal and a metaphoric meaning, for example, parts of the body, eye, leg, hand, foot, applied to needle, chair, clock, and bed. And some nouns acquire a concrete
and an abstract sense. So, thesis can
be used to refer to a specific item, as in I’ve
had my thesis bound, or to a more general one, as in I agree with your thesis.
is polysemous: it means ‘well behaved’ in good child and ‘sound’ in good
Context, indeed, plays
a very important part in the definition of the meaning of words. If somebody
tells us that a chair is yellow we
think of a particular colour; if they tell us that a man is yellow we may think of cowardice.
If they tell us that the chair is comfortable we understand
that we would feel relaxed if we sat on it, but if we are told that a man is comfortable we are unlikely to
conclude that it would be relaxing to sit on him.
When two words have the same sounds (identical pronunciation) but
different meanings, they are homonyms (spelling is not relevant, only
Examples of homonyms are bear and bare [bεə]
Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland abounds in homonyms:
“Mine is a long and sad tale” said the Mouse, turning to Alice and sighing.
“it is a long tail, certainly”, said Alice,
looking with wonder at the Mouse’s tail,
“but why do you call
Homonyms are good candidates for humour
as well as for confusion, as in the passage from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:
“How is bread
“I know that’ Alice said eagerly. You take some flour.”
“Where do you pick the flower?” the White Queen asked. “In a garden or in
“Well, it isn’t picked at all”, Alice explained, “It’s ground.”
“How many acres of ground?” asked the White Queen.
The humour of the passage is due to the
two sets of homonyms:
flower and flour and the two meanings of ground. Alice means ground as the past tense of grind, whereas the White Queen is
interpreting ground to mean ‘earth’.
The use of homonymy may result in ambiguity which occurs when an
utterance has more than one meaning. A word or a sentence is ambiguous if it
can be understood or interpreted in more than one way. The sentence:
I’ll meet you by the bank
may mean ‘I’ll meet you by the financial institution’ or
‘I’ll meet you by the riverside’.
The ambiguity is due to the two words
bank with two different meanings.
Sometimes additional context can help to disambiguate the sentence:
I’ll meet you by the bank, in
front of the automated teller machine.
I’ll meet you by the bank. We can go skinny-dipping.
The meaning of
the word bank becomes clear when it
is preceded by either savings or gravel. The context, then, can do much to determine the meaning of a word.
linguists have concluded that one knows a word by the company that it keeps (J.
R. Firth) or that the meaning of a word is its use in the language (Ludwig
126.96.36.199. Problems of analysing Homonymy and Polysemy
As we have seen, for convenience we force a uniformity on the world
around us. The word dog can denote
quite different animals. The word lamb
can denote an animal or a dish. A person’s body
can similarly be alive or dead. The
word play can denote a piece of
writing intended to be performed by actors at a theatre, the activity of a
pianist and that of a child.
Thus, the question arises of how
extensive the semantic range of a word or lexeme has to be before we feel that
we are dealing with two separate words that have the same form rather than with
one word that denotes a variety of things.
In the case of lamb we can consider the animal and the dish to be different
referents of the one lexeme.
In the case of sound in the sense of something that one hears and sound in the sense of a narrow stretch
of water, on the other hand, we are likely to consider that we are dealing with
two distinct lexemes that happen to have the same form. In the case of one
lexeme with a variety of referents we have an example of polysemy. Two or more lexemes with the same form are homonyms.
polysemic items, lexicographers will treat homonyms as different items, giving
each one the status of a separate headword.
As so often, however, the real world
does not fall neatly into our categories. There can be little doubt that in the
case of the two referents of the word sound
that we referred to we are dealing
with different lexemes: one is of Latin origin and the other is of Germanic
So, too, the word bill denoting an account or invoice and that denoting the beak of a bird must be deemed to be
different lexemes, the former, a cognate of the French word billet, being of Latin origin and the
latter being of Germanic origin.
What about grow used intransitively, as in Your
tomatoes won’t grow well there, and
grow used transitively, as in He grows tomatoes? The Italian
equivalents (NB. the Romanian equivalents, too), for example, are distinct in
this case: crescere (creste) and cultivare (cultiva), respectively.
Such cases leave the lexicographer with
the problem of deciding whether to arrange words under one or several
Etymology is not always a good guide; as
Mott points out, the word bank denoting a financial institution and that
denoting the shore of a river, two items that are semantically very distinct,
are etymologically related (Mott 1993: 119)
The Definition of Semantic Range: Presented with a colour chart or a box
of paints we can select a colour that most people would accept as being red.
But there may be disagreement about whether something is red or orange.
Similarly, few of us would deny that a
crow is a bird for it is and does what we expect a bird to be ad do; it has two
legs and feathers, it flies, it builds a nest and it lays eggs. But there are birds that do not fly and there
are creatures such as bats that do fly but are not birds, creatures such as
snakes that lay eggs but are not birds.
Thus we need a way of determining the boundaries of the semantic range
of the words red, bird or any other
word if we are to be able to judge when it is appropriate to use it.
We can define a word in terms of what
it is not or in terms of what it subsumes. Thus, we can define the semantic
range of the word dog either by
saying that it is any animal that is not a wolf, a cat, a goat, and so on or by
saying that it is any animal that is either a poodle, a terrier, a spaniel, and
so on. We can be assisted in this by a hierarchical diagram like the one below:
cat dog wolf
poodle terrier spaniel
Such a relationship between words whereby
more specific terms are arranged under their more general superordinate terms
is known as hyponymy.
refers to a hierarchical sense relation which exits between two terms in which
the sense of one is included in the other. Terms such as daisy, daffodil and rose
all contain the meaning of flower.
That is to say, they are all hyponyms
of flower. The more general term is
called the superordinate or hypernym.
Much of the vocabulary is linked by
such systems of inclusion: red is a hyponym
of colour, flute of musical instrument,
and hammer of tool.
Sometimes a word may be superordinate
to itself in another sense. This is the case with animal, as shown in the diagram below. The first occurrence,
opposed to vegetable, is the sense
contained in the phase ‘the animal kingdom’. The second occurrence is
synonymous with mammal, and the third
Hyponymy is a vertical relationship which is fundamental to the way in
which we classify things. Most dictionaries rely on it for the provision of definitions
(’a chair is a type of furniture’, ‘a flute is a type of musical instrument’,
and so on)
The set of terms which are hyponyms of
the same superordinate term are co-hyponyms,
for example, red, black, and yellow, in the colour system.
Another way of describing the
relationship is to say that the individual colours are sisters of the parent term
colour. As such they exhibit incompatibility. That is, something
cannot be all red and all green, a flute cannot be a violin, or an apple a
The word poodle is a hyponym of the
word dog, which in turn is a hyponym
of the word mammal, and so on. One
can compare this arrangement to the natural history classifications by class,
order, family, genus and species; the dog and the wolf both belong to the genus
Canis, the dog being the Canis familiaris
and the wolf the Canis lupus. The
hyponyms of a word define its semantic range. A superordinate like mammal or animal can serve to designate a semantic field.
This meaning relation can also be
illustrated by the following set of
words: red, white, blue,
etc. These are ‘colour’ words, that is,
their lexical representations have the feature [+colour], indicating that all
belong to the same class. Such sets of
words are called hyponyms.
Similarly, lion, tiger, leopard, lynx have the feature [feline].
The relationship of hyponymy is between
the more general term such as colour and
feline and the more specific
instances of it, such as red, white; or lion, tiger, etc. Thus, red is
a hyponym of colour, and lion is a hyponym of feline, or equivalently, colour has the hyponym red, and feline has the hyponym lion.
Complications can, however, arise.
Consider the following figure:
Firstly, as the figure shows, we may ascribe
different meanings to a word with the result that that word appears at
different points on the diagram: we use the word dog to indicate gender as well as to denote the species in general.
Secondly, we cannot put dog and bitch alongside poodle,
terrier and spaniel as hyponyms
of dog, for, while being a poodle precludes being a spaniel, it does not preclude being a bitch: we are dealing with another
can be presented as a hyponym of emotion. But is it an immediate hyponym or is there
something else in between? Roget’s
Thesaurus, which adopts a hierarchical arrangement like hyponymy, has love as a hyponym of sympathetic affections, which in turn is
a hyponym of affections. How does love relate to loyalty or desire? Are
they related? If so, are they all on the same level or is one a hyponym of
Sometimes there is no single word in
the language that encompasses a set of hyponyms. Thus, clarinet, guitar, piano, violin,
etc. are hyponyms because they are ‘musical instruments’ but there isn’t a
single word meaning ‘musical instruments’ that has these words as its hyponym.
Clearly some semantic
fields lend themselves to arrangement by hyponymy more than others do.
Meronymy refers to a sense relation which describes a part-whole
relationship between the senses of words. Cover
and page, for example, are meronyms
of book. Meronymy is similar to hyponymy in reflecting
a hierarchical relationship between words. A typical system might be as shown
Wheel Engine Door Window Boot
Piston Valve etc.
Incompatibility refers to a sense relation which exists between words in
a semantic field where the choice of one excludes the other. So, for example,
it is a contradiction to say This
instrument is a piano and a violin, since the sense of piano excludes that of
violin. Similarly, in the field of fruit we cannot say This fruit is an apple and a banana, or, in colour, This colour is red and black.
Because these words are mutually
exclusive members of the same field they exhibit incompatibility. At the same
time, however, the exclusion is not a form of antonymy. Apple is
not the opposite of banana, nor red of black.
But there are occasions when the
distinction between antonymy and incompatibility is a fine one. The terms woman and man, for example, are commonly thought of to be opposites, but not
being a woman doesn’t necessarily mean you are a man. It is more correct to
label woman as incompatible with man.
What we are saying, then, is that antonymy will inevitably involve incompatibility,
but not the reverse. Senses can be incompatible without necessarily being antonymous.
Different words are homographs if they are spelt the same /identically
and possibly pronounced the same or differently.
Examples of homographs, i.e. words spelt
the same, possibly pronounced the same and having different meanings:
trunk: i. of an elephant
ii. for storing
pen: i. the writing implement
ii. the cage
are both homographs and
lead: i. [li:d] the verb
ii. [led] the metal
are homographs but not
homonyms (pronounced differently)
Also, another example of homograph is wind denoting a current of air and wind denoting tortuous movement: the two
lexemes may look alike but sound different.
words spelt the same, but pronounced differently and having different meanings, such as:
sow [sau], meaning ‘pig’
sow [sou], meaning ‘to scatter
Other heteronyms are:
dove [dʌv], meaning ‘bird’
dove [douv], the past tense of dive.
Also, bass, bow, lead, wind.
We can summarize these relations among
different words, i.e. words different in concept and historical origin:
Homonyms Homographs Heteronyms
Pronounced identically YES MAYBE NO
Spelt identically MAYBE YES
A metonym is a ‘substitute word, i.e.
a word used in place of another word or expression to convey the same meaning.
use of Rome
to refer to ‘the Catholic church’, or Moscow
to refer to ‘the Russian government’ are examples of metonymy.
crown is a metonym for ‘monarchy’, (the) brass is sometimes used as a
metonym for ‘military officers’ (especially in American English), the bottle is a metonym for ‘alcoholic
The Human Element of Meaning
So far we have been dealing with meaning as though there were a natural
association between word and thing. But, as we saw in section…The Meaning of
Meaning, it is widely held that the link between word and thing, between symbol
and referent, is routed by way of our minds. Certainly life has given each of
us a different set of experiences, a different set of attitudes, and these
colour our perception of the world around us, affect the impression left by an
To a child the lexeme guinea-pig is likely to suggest the
animal, while to a scientist it might suggest somebody who is subjected to an experiment.
Similarly, due to their cultural
backgrounds, Britons may think of Christmas when they hear the word turkey, Americans may think of
Here we are dealing with connotation, more subjective links, links of the kind that
result from word association exercises in which you are asked to say the first
thing that comes into your mind when you hear a particular word. While once
again we are not dealing with absolute categories, it is useful to think of the
word turkey as denoting a particular kind of bird and connoting a particular festival.
Somebody’s tenacious behaviour might be
called stubborn or obstinate by those who are obstructed by this behaviour,
while sympathizers might call it determined
or resolute. As we considered
with the word blond, do we attempt to
account for the difference as a componential feature, in this case perhaps
–good and +good.
Our attitudes towards some things may be
so strong that we are reluctant to refer to them directly. A word that we are
loathe to use may be called a taboo word
and its more acceptable substitute may be called a euphemism. In this way Americans are reluctant to refer to a
farmyard bird as a cock because of
its association with the male genitals and they use the word rooster instead.
We can differentiate between kill, murder and assassinate by reference to such components as +intentional and
+political, but what components can we adduce to differentiate between kill and do in? Here again, the difference might be seen to lie in another
dimension, in this case on an axis of formality. When in the play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw the
flower-girl Liza Doolittle, her speech not yet perfected by the phonetician
Henry Higgins, says ‘it’s my belief they done the old woman in’ it is not only
what she says that arouses some consternation but also how she says it, the
register that she uses.
Words, then, do more than identify
things in the world around us. Ogden and
Richards gave what they referred to
as a representative list of the main definitions of meaning, that list ranging
from ‘An intrinsic property’ to ‘that to which the Interpreter of a symbol (a)
Refers (b) Believes himself to be referring(c) Believes the User to be
referring’ (Ogden and Richards 1985: 186-7).
Leech presents a simpler breakdown of meaning into seven aspects (Leech,
The first is the fundamental denotative – or, as Leech refers to it,
the conceptual – meaning, that which
defines the meaning of a lexeme in terms of its constituent features. Thus, to
use the componential analysis introduced in section 4.2.2., the conceptual
meaning of the lexeme woman can be
defined in terms of such properties as +human, -male and +adult. Here, then, we
are dealing with a direct link between word and thing.
But, as we observed in section 5.2.2.,
the intermediary of the human mind often affects the nature of the semantic
range of a lexeme. Different people, having been subjected to different
experiences in life, have different mental images when they hear a lexeme. When
different people hear the lexeme woman such
qualities as beauty, compassion, practicality and emotion will feature with
differing relative significance. Moreover, the relative significance of features
will change as society changes; the association of housewife is much less
prevalent in our society than it was fifty years ago. Such association is
called connotative meaning by Leech.
A lexeme may be more appropriate in a
particular style. To draw from Leech’s examples again, cast is associated with literary style while chuck is colloquial. This is stylistic
up in the sense of being quiet similarly has stylistic meaning, being
colloquial, but in so far as it is indicative of a disrespectful attitude on
the part of the speaker it also has affective
Our response to one sense of a lexeme
may be affected by another sense of that lexeme. We can for example, scarcely
use the word gay in its older sense
of merry as it now invokes homosexuality. This is reflected meaning.
may have a collocative meaning,
requiring that they are used together with certain other lexemes but not with
others. Sometimes collocation may be
so restrictive that we can guess which word will follow a given word. We can
refer to a flock of sheep but not a flock of cows. In some cases the
association is so close that we may well be able to anticipate it. Most of us
would, for example, expect She has blond…to
be followed by hair.
Finally Leech refers to thematic meaning, to the emphasis that
attaches to a lexeme as a result of the speaker’s choice of grammatical
structure or his use of stress. If in saying the sentence John broke the vase the speaker stresses the name John we understand that the question to
be resolved was who broke the vase, whereas if he stresses the word vase we understand that the question was
what it was that John broke.
5.3. PHRASAL AND SENTENTIAL SEMANTICS
(PHRASE AND SENTENCE MEANING)
5.3.1.Words and morphemes are the smallest
meaningful units in language. We have been studying their meaning
relationships and semantic properties as lexical
the most part, however, we communicate in phrases
and sentences. The meaning of a phrase and sentence depends on
both the meaning of its words and how these words are combined structurally.
of the semantic relationships we observed between words are also found between
For example, just as two words may be
synonyms, similarly, two phrases may be paraphrases. This is possible because:
- they contain
She lost her handbag. / She lost her purse
-the structural differences do not affect
They ran the bill up. / They ran up the bill.
Similarly, words may be homonyms, hence
ambiguous when spoken.
Sentences may be ambiguous because:
- they contain homonymous words, as in:
to buy a pen for Tom.
- or due to
their structure, as in the sentence:
saw the man with the telescope.
Words have antonyms (opposites);
sentences can be negated to express opposites. Thus, the opposite of
He is alive – is both: He is dead – using
He is not alive – using
The study of how word meanings combine into
phrase and sentence meanings, and the meaning relationships among these longer
units, is called Phrasal or sentential semantics, to distinguish it from lexical semantics.
188.8.131.52. Although it is widely believed that
learning a language is merely learning the words of that language and what they
mean, there is more to it than that. We comprehend phrases and sentences
because we know the meanings of individual words and we know rules for
combining their meanings. Languages have rules for combining the meaning of
parts into the meaning of the whole.
illustrate this with some semantic rules for adjective-noun combinations
(noun-centered meaning) and verb-noun phrase combinations (verb-centered
The semantic rules for adjective noun
combinations are complex.
For example, the phrase red balloon has
the semantic properties of balloon combined with the
semantic properties of red in an
additive manner. In other words, the semantic rule to interpret the combination
red balloon adds the property ‘redness’ to the properties of balloon. Also, a good friend
is a kind of friend, just as a red
balloon is a kind of balloon. In such examples, there is a merging of semantic properties.
some combinations are not always additive.
The phrase counterfeit dollar or a false friend does not simply have the semantic properties of dollar plus something else. Also, a false friend is not any kind of friend at all.
The semantic properties of dollar or friendliness are ‘cancelled out’ by the adjectives counterfeit, false. Thus, semantic
rules for counterfeit, false are
quite different from those for red, good.
Exemplars of class of adjectives Truth
of an adjective x is an x
good (A red balloon is a red balloon)
counterfeit, false, phoney false
Sense and reference
and sentences have sense, which is
part of their meaning. By knowing the sense of an expression, you can
determine its reference, namely what
it points to in the world. (The object pointed to is called its referent and the noun phrase is said to
meaningful expressions, for example The
present king of France have sense but no reference (France
has no kings).
the other hand, other noun phrases such as proper nouns have reference but no
all languages the verb plays a central role in the meaning and structure of
In English the verb determines the number of objects and limits the
semantic properties of both its subject and its object.
For example, find requires an animate subject and is subcategorized for one
formal, written English, a verb is necessary to have a complete sentence.
Languages of the world may be classified
according to whether the verb occurs initially, medially or finally in their
basic sentences. All this is evidence for the centrality of the verb.
5.3.3. Sentential meaning
Like noun phrases, sentences have sense, which is usually what we are referring to when we talk about
the meaning of a sentence. Some
linguists would also say that certain sentences have reference, namely ones
that can be true or false. Their reference, or extension,
is true if the sentence is true, and false if the sentence is false.
The ‘truth’ of sentences
The sense of a declarative sentence permits you to know under what
circumstances that sentence is true. Those ‘circumstances’ are called the
‘truth’ conditions of the sentence, that aspect of meaning that allows you to
determine whether the sentence is
true or false.
reference of a declarative sentence, when it has one, is its truth value,
either true or false.
‘truth’ conditions of a declarative sentence are the same as the sense of the sentence.
the world as we know it, the sentence
The declaration of Independence
was signed in 1776
is true, and
*The declaration of Independence
was signed in 1976
We know the meaning of both sentences
equally well and knowing their meaning means knowing their sense or truth conditions. We compare their
truth conditions with the real world or historical facts and thus say which one
is true and which one false. The truth or falsehood of these sentences is their
We can now give a formal definition of paraphrase. Two sentences are
paraphrases if they have the same truth conditions. The following sets of
sentences are paraphrases. Despite subtle differences in emphasis they share
the same truth conditions:
The horse threw the rider.
rider was thrown by the horse.
It is easy to play sonatas on this piano.
Sonatas are easy to play on this piano.
This piano is easy to play sonatas on.
Booth assassinated Lincoln.
It was Booth who assassinated Lincoln.
It was Lincoln who was assassinated by Booth.
The person who assassinated Lincoln was Booth.
The teacher gave the students some books.
teacher gave some books to the students.
Entailment is a logical relationship between two sentences such that the
truth of the second sentence necessarily follows from the truth of the first.
Sometimes knowing the truth of one
sentence entails or necessarily implies the truth of another (or the falseness
of another). For example, if you know it is true that
Corday killed Marat.
Then you know
that it is true that
It is logically impossible for the
former to be true and the latter false. Thus, the sentence Corday killed Marat - entails
the sentence Marat died.
The entailment here is a consequence
of the semantic relationship between kill
and die. We know that there are
various ways to die and that being killed is one of them.
In other words, an important part of
the sense of killed is contained
the sentence The brick is red - entails
the sentence The brick is not white.
Or: Smith is a bachelor –
entails: Smith is a male, and so on.
of what we know about the world comes from knowing the entailments of true sentences.
184.108.40.206. Contradiction is negative
entailment, that is, where the truth of one sentence necessarily implies the
falseness of another sentence. For example:
II is Queen of England.
/ Elizabeth II is a man.
Jane is a baby. / Jane is an
the first sentence of each pair is true, the second is necessarily false. The
relationship is called contradiction because the truth of one sentence
contradicts the truth of the other.
When SEMANTICS and SYNTAX meet
is concerned with how words are combined to form
phrases and sentences; semantics is
concerned with what these combinations mean.
The Theta criterion, discussed in a previous
section is an instance in which semantics and syntax interact. The semantic
constraint that no thematic role may occur more than once has the effect of
restricting the NPs and PPs that may follow the verb in a verb phrase.
We have seen that the same meaning may be
expressed syntactically in more than
one way – the phenomenon of paraphrases.
Thus, the semantic property of possession may b expressed by a word in the
genitive case such as England’s
queen or by an of-construct such
as the queen of England.
similar situation arises with certain semantic concepts such as ‘ability’
‘permission’ or ‘obligation’. These may be expressed:
- through auxiliary verbs:
can go / He may go / He must go
they may also be expressed
phrasally, without the auxiliaries:
able to go / He has the ability to go
He is permitted to go / He has
permission to go
He is obliged to go/ He has an obligation to
It is often possible to substitute a phrase
for a word without affecting the sense of the sentence:
is often possible to substitute a phrase for a word without affecting the sense
of the sentence:
saw Mary / John perceived Mary using his eyes.
The professor lectured the
class. /The professor delivered a lecture to the
Another common type of paraphrase is
represented by active – passive pairs:
child found the puppy. / The puppy was found by the child.
This relationship between actives and passives
is based on syntactic structure as we saw in the chapter on Syntax.
However, some active sentences do not have a
well-formed passive counterpart. For example:
The book cost ten dollars.
the passive transformation to give:
was resembled by Jim.
*Ten dollars was cost by the book.
when the subject of an active sentence is in a state described by the verb and direct object, there is no passive
paraphrase. Since Jim is in a state of resembling Bill – Jim doesn’t do
anything – the sentence fails to passivize. This shows how the semantics of
verbal relationships may affect syntactic relationships.
example of how syntax and semantics interact has to do with reflexive pronouns. The meaning of a
reflexive pronoun always refers back to some antecedent.
In Mary hit herself, herself
refers to Mary.
Syntactically, reflexive pronouns and
their antecedents must occur within the same sentence (in the phrase structure
If a noun phrase and a non-reflexive pronoun
occur within the same sentence, semantic rules cannot interpret them to be
co-referential, that is having the same referent. Thus, in
hit her – her refers to someone other than Mary.
5.3.5. WHEN RULES ARE BROKEN
are three kinds of rule violation in language that we will discuss:
i. Anomaly – a violation of semantic
rules to create ‘nonsense’.
ii. Metaphor - or non-literal meaning
iii. Idioms, in which the meaning of an
expression may be unrelated to the meaning of its parts.
Anomaly: No Sense and Nonsense
Anomaly occurs in many ways in
language. It may involve contradictory semantic properties, nonsense words,
violation of semantic rules, etc.
are anomalous when they deviate from certain semantic rules. Thus, the sentence
My brother is an only child.
conforms to all
the grammatical (syntactic) rules of the language. Nevertheless, the sentence
is strange, or anomalous: it is strange because it represents a contradiction:
the meaning of brother includes the
fact that the individual referred to is a male human who has at least one
sibling, and cannot sensibly be ‘an only child’.
semantic properties of words determine what other words they can be combined
with. One sentence that is used by linguists to illustrate this fact is
Colourless green ideas sleep furiously.
(N. Chomsky: 1965)
sentence seems to obey all the syntactic rules of English: the subject is colourless green ideas and the predicate
is sleep furiously. It has the same syntactic structure as the sentence
Dark green leaves rustle furiously.
is obviously something wrong
semantically with the sentence. The meaning of colourless includes the semantic property ‘without colour’ but it
is combined with the adjective green,
which has the property ‘green in colour’. Other such semantic violations also
occur in the sentence.
English sentences make no sense at all because they include ‘words’ that have
no meaning - nonsense words. They are uninterpretable.
L.Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’ is probably the most
famous poem in which most of the content words have no meaning – they do not
exist in the lexicon of the grammar. Still, all the sentences ‘sound’ as if
they should be or could be English sentences:
billig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe.
violations in poetry may form strange but interesting aesthetic images, as in
Dylan Thomas’s phrase a grief ago. Ago is
ordinarily used with words specified by some temporal semantic feature:
ago, a month ago, a century ago.
But not: *a table ago, *a dream ago.
Dylan Thomas used the word grief with
ago he was adding a durational
feature to grief for poetic effect.
in the poetry of e.e. cummings there are phrases like
The six subjunctive crumbs twitch
Children building this rainman out of snow.
these phrases violate some semantic rules, we can understand them; it is the
breaking of the rules that creates the imagery desired.
Sometimes the breaking of semantic rules can be used to convey a particular
Many sentences have both a literal and a
non-literal or metaphorical interpretation (which can give rise to ambiguity).
For instance, Walls have ears: in
some sense the sentence is ambiguous, but the literal meaning is anomalous. It
is so unlikely that we stretch our imagination for another interpretation: the
sentence can be interpreted as meaning ‘you can be overheard when you think
nobody is listening.
‘stretching’ of our imagination is based on semantic properties that are
inferred or that provide some kind of resemblance. Such non-literal
interpretations of sentences are called metaphor.
literal meaning of a sentence such as
My new car is a lemon.
anomalous (e.g. the new car which may
be a miniature toy carved out of a piece of citrus fruit - a lemon). The more
common meaning, however, would be metaphorical and interpreted as referring to
a newly purchased automobile that breaks down and requires constant repairs.
The imagination stretching in this case may relate to the semantic property
‘tastes sour’ that lemon possesses.
are not necessarily anomalous when taken literally. Thus, the sentence:
John is a snake in the grass.
interpreted literally to refer to a pet snake on the lawn named John.
Metaphorically, the sentence has nothing to do with a scaly, limbless reptile. It
means ‘someone you cannot trust’, a hidden, treacherous enemy’.
interpret metaphors we need to understand both the literal meaning and facts
about the world. Thus, to understand the metaphor: Time is money
it is necessary
to know that in our society we are often paid according to the number o hours
or days worked. This metaphor is interpreted as ‘time should not be wasted
because you lose money as a result.’
metaphor can be defined as
“a semantic mapping from one conceptual domain
to another, often using
anomalous or deviant
language” (D. Crystal: 249)
kinds of metaphors can be identified:
a conventional metaphor is one which
forms a part of our everyday understanding of experience and is processed
without effort, such as: a ray of hope, a storm of indignation, a
shadow of a smile, floods of tears, to lose the thread (of an argument) etc.
a poetic metaphor combines everyday
metaphors, especially for literary purposes and this is how the term is
traditionally understood, in the context of poetry.
metaphors are those functions in speakers’ minds which implicitly condition
their thought processes, for example, the notion that ‘Argument is war’
underlies such expressed metaphors as: I
attacked his views.
The term mixed metaphor is used for
a combination of unrelated or incompatible metaphors in a single sentence, such
is a virgin field, pregnant with possibilities
According to G. Finch, metaphor is
‘a process in which one
semantic field of reference is carried over, or
transferred, to another’ (G.
Finch, 2000: 169).
So, for example, in the sentence The ship ploughed the water, the field
of farming is transferred to that of sailing. In traditional literary criticism, the field
being described, in this case ‘sailing’, is referred to as the target, and the field being used for
the comparison, ‘farming’, is referred to as the source. Other, more
traditional terms are tenor and vehicle.
are two main positions on the role of
metaphor in language.
(1)The first, often called the classical view, can be traced back to
Aristotle. Basically, this sees metaphor as a kind of decorative addition to
ordinary language. Metaphor is regarded as something outside normal language,
requiring special forms of interpretation. A version of this is often adopted
in the literal language theory.
According to this, metaphor is a form of anomaly, or deviation, which a hearer
recognizes as such before employing strategies to construct the figurative, or
non-literal meaning. These usually involve lifting the selection restrictions
The difficulty for linguists following
this approach, however is to describe the set of rules which governs when and
how selection restrictions may be lifted. One of the most influential of such
attempts is that provided by S. Levin
(1977). Levin bases his account of metaphor on the work carried out by Katz and
Fodor into semantic primes. Taking as his example The stone died, he argues that the anomaly of this sentence lies in
the incompatibility of the features
for stone and die. In the case of stone
and for die:
process with result, namely,
that some living entity x ceases to
[adapted from Levin]
The semantic features which are
incompatible here are ‘non-living’
and ‘living’. What happens in the case of metaphor, Levin argues, is that one
feature transfers across and neutralises the other so allowing us to provide an
acceptable interpretation. If ‘non-living’ transfers to die it produces the interpretation ’The stone ceased to be’,
whereas if ‘living’ transfers to stone, it produces the interpretation ‘The
natural physical object died’. Levin develops a number of what he calls
‘construal’ rules, which he argues govern when and how such feature transfers
can occur. These typically employ processes of disjunction, conjunction, or
(2) The second approach, often called romantic, views metaphor not as an
anomaly requiring special methods of interpretation, but as an integral part of
language and thought. Fro this standpoint there is no real distinction between
figurative and non-figurative language since all language is essentially metaphorical.
An extension of this view can be found in the work of cognitive semanticists, though they usually adopt a weaker version
of the romantic position in which some distinction is made between literal and
figurative language. Of principal importance here is the work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980), who see metaphor as a naturally occurring
feature of language and a consequence of the way in which we reason and think
about the world.
Lakoff and Johnson distinguish three
basic kinds of metaphors:
(i) The first consists of structural metaphors of the sort ‘X is
Y’, where one thing is experienced and understood ‘in terms of another’ (1980:
5). This is what most people conventionally understand as metaphor. They
illustrate this with various metaphors surrounding the concept of argument,
An argument is war, An argument is a building, An argument is a container,
and so on.
These metaphorical concepts, as they call them, develop through the mapping of
one kind of experience onto another. They underlie such expressions as
He defended his argument, His
argument is founded on…, and His
argument includes the idea that…
(ii) The second kind of metaphor is
called orientational. These are
concerned with the way in which we spatialise experience. They arise from our
awareness of our own bodies and the way they function in a predominantly
physical environment. So, for example, the fact that up is connected with things which are pleasant and good
His spirits rose, I’m in peak condition, Things are looking up,
and down with the reverse
He’s feeling down, Sales are down, That was a low thing to do,
sense of the importance we attach as physical beings to standing up as opposed
to lying down: the former being associated with activity and alertness, and the
latter with sleep and death.
Similar metaphorical correspondences are
constructed on the basis of our physical awareness of in/out, front/back, on/off and near/far.
These correspondences allow us to project our orientation onto situations and
things around us. We experience
ourselves as having an inside and an outside, a front and a back, and correspondingly
we talk of being on the inside of a
decision, or of some activity as a front
for something else.
(iii) The third kind of metaphor is ontological. These arise from our
experience of objects as ‘discrete entities or substances’ (Lakoff and Johnson,1980:
5). Ontological metaphors are
typically used to ‘comprehend events, actions, activities and states’ (: 30)
Knowing a language includes knowing the morphemes, simple words,
compound words and their meanings. In addition, it means knowing fixed phrases, consisting of more than
one word, with meanings that cannot be inferred from the meanings of the
individual words. The usual semantic rules for combining meanings do not apply.
Such expressions are called idioms.
Idioms are phrases whose meaning is not the
combination of the meanings of the individual words. All languages contain many
idiomatic phrases, as in these English examples:
Cut it / that out – used for telling somebody to stop doing
something that you
Haul somebody over the coals – speak to somebody severely because
done something wrong
I’ll eat my hat / boots (if I’m wrong)! – a declaration of absolute confidence in
the correctness of one’s judgement
Let one’s hair down – to relax
completely and enjoy oneself
Put one’s foot in one’s mouth – to accidentally say something that
or that upsets or annoys somebody
Sell somebody down the river – betray somebody for some personal
are similar in structure to ordinary phrases except that they tend to be frozen in form and do not readily enter other combination or allow the word order to change. Thus,
(i) She put her foot in her mouth
has the same
put her bracelet in her drawer.
allows passive or relative transformation:
bracelet was put in her drawer.
drawer in which she put her bracelet was hers.
the other hand, the following sentences do not have the idiomatic sense of
was put in her mouth.
The mouth in which she put her foot
Nevertheless, the words of some idioms can be
moved without affecting the idiomatic sense:
The FBI kept tabs on radicals.
Tabs were kept on radicals by the FBI.
Radicals were kept tabs on by the FBI.
Idioms often violate co-occurrence
restrictions of semantic properties, i.e. they can break the rules on combining
semantic properties. Consider the idioms:
I’ll eat my hat, eat one’s heart out
The object of eat must usually be something with the semantic property ‘edible’,
but in these idioms this restriction is violated.
grammatically as well as semantically, have special characteristics. They must
be entered into the lexicon or mental dictionary as single items with their
meanings specified, and speakers must learn the special restrictions on their
use in sentences.
idioms may have originated as metaphorical expressions that established
themselves in the language and became frozen in their form and meaning.
Collocations and Idioms
When a word becomes closely associated
with a particular context to the exclusion of other words with a similar meaning
such that they form what is almost a set phrase, we have what linguists call collocation.
From a logical point of view we (the English)
could perhaps refer to a *complete moon
but we don’t, we refer to a full moon.
coffee is not white and black coffee is not black; it would seem that white
and black are being used to indicate polarity rather than to give an accurate
indication of colour.
We can refer to a flock of sheep or birds
but not a *flock of cows.
In some cases the association is so
close that we may well be able to anticipate it; most of us would, for example,
expect She has blond…to be followed
One might ask whether collocation should be dealt with within the
context of the semantic range of a word. As blond
can describe little more than hair,
should we include reference to hair in the definition of the semantic range of
the word (+colour, -dark, +hair, etc) or should the denotation of a word and
the environment in which it occurs be kept separate? Geoffrey Leech (1974: 20) refers to collocation as simply an
idiosyncratic property of individual words.
coffee and white wine are only
relatively white. In the case of white
lies and blue jokes the logical
link with a colour is less apparent still. With white coffee we are dealing with a set phrase where the meaning can
at least be guessed at on the basis of the two constituent words. Conceivably
the white in white lie suggests
purity of intention. In the case of blue
joke knowing what part of the spectrum is indicated by the word blue gives us not help in understanding
what a blue joke is.
When the phrase can only be understood
as an entity it is an idiom.
This independence of the meaning of
their constituent words gives idioms great freedom. As there is no reason for
smutty jokes to be blue, Spaniards
are equally justified in calling them
green (chistes verdes); in China
it is the colour yellow (huángsè) that is associated with such things.
often feature in idioms, usually unfavourably. Thus, while the English take French leave, the French filent a l’anglais.(cf. Romanian a o
Knowing a language means knowing how to produce and understand
sentences with particular meanings. The study of linguistic meaning is called semantics. Lexical semantics is concerned with the meaning of morphemes and words; phrasal semantics
with phrases and sentences. The study of how context
affects meaning is called pragmatics
Words may be divided into content words,
those which identify something in the world around us, and function words,
those which serve to specify, link, ad so on the content words. Semantics is principally concerned with content words. The set of objects, actions and so on that such a word
denotes is known as the semantic range of that
of morphemes and words are defined in part by their semantic
properties, whose presence or absence is indicated by use of semantic features.
range of a word can be defined by such techniques as hyponymy and componential
analysis, reference to synonyms and antonyms. Hyponyms are words that shre a
feature indicating they all belong to the same class. When two words have the
same meaning but different sounds, they are synonyms. Two words that are
opposite in meaning are antonyms. There are antonymous pairs that
are complementary, gradable and relational opposites.
Context contributes to the defining of
the range of a word. In some contexts the meaning of a word cannot be fully
determined without reference to a wider phrase. In such a phrase where there is
a conventional association between the constituent words we are dealing with
collocation. On the other hand, if the constituent words give little, if any,
indication of the meaning of the phrase then we are dealing with idiom.
Sentences are anomalous when they
deviate from certain semantic rules. Some sentences are uninterpretable because they contain nonsense words. Many
sentences have both a literal an a nonliteral or metaphorical interpretation.
Idioms are phrases whose meaning is not the combination of the meanings of the
individual words. Idioms often violateco-occurrence restrictions of semantic
It is not always clear whether two words
represent two different meanings of the one lexeme or are two different
lexemes. In the case of the former we are dealing with polysemy, in the case of
the latter with homonymy.
following diagram by (a) devising a category that distinguishes the word bus
from the word car, and (b) giving the
appropriate symbol against each component for the word motorcycle.
Powered Carries people Four-wheeled
Bus + + +
Car + + +
Van + - +
Bicycle - + -
2. Arrange the vehicles in the above exercise,
together with some appropriate
superordinates and hyponyms, in a hyponymy diagram.
3. How valid do
you consider the concept of synonym to be?
4. For each of
the following pairs of words, state the principal reason why they may
not be considered to be synonyms:
man – boy
pavement – sidewalk
toilet – loo
walk – run
5. Discuss the
problem of distinguishing between homonyms and polysemic
lexemes. Give an example of the practical
relevance of this distinction.
6. Indicate whether the following antonyms are
complementary, gradable or
bad; expensive – cheap; parent – offspring; beautiful – ugly; false –
pass –fail; lessor –lessee; hot –cold; legal – illegal; larger –smaller; poor
fast – slow; asleep – awake; husband – wife; rude –polite
following sentences consist of a verb, its noun phrase subject and various
objects. Identify the thematic role
(agent, theme, location, instrument, source,
goal, experience, causative, or possessor)
of each noun phrase.
Example: The boy took the books from the
cupboard with a handcart.
The boy = agent; the
books = theme; from the cupboard = source;
with a handcart =
Mary found a key in the house.
The children ran from the playground to the wading pool.
The hay was loaded on the truck by the farmer.
The farmer loaded hay with a pitchfork.
The farmer loaded hay onto the truck.
8. Explain the semantic ambiguity of the following
sentences by providing two or
more sentences that paraphrase the multiple meanings.
She can’t bear children. - can mean either
She can’t give birth to children.
She can’t tolerate children.
He waited by the bank.
Is he really that kind?
He saw that gasoline can explode.
d. The long drill was boring.
1. (a) One might distinguish between buses and
cars by introducing a category
such as ‘public (or, conversely,
(b) A motorcycle would be defined as +powered, +carries people, -four-wheeled,
hyponymy diagrams for these words include the following:
people carrying freight
carrying powered non-powered
bicycle motorcycle van bus car
van motorcycle bicycle
3. Your answer should show awareness of the variety of factors that may
words from being completely
interchangeable. We have seen that syntax
prevents hide and conceal being
considered synonyms. In one context we might
use either of two words but in
another context we might only be able to use one,
as we saw with high and tall.
Two words might be distinguished by social
register, one being more colloquial
than the other, by whether they are
associated with a positive or
negative point of view, and so on.
4. The words man and boy are
principally distinguished by age, the words walk
and run by speed. The principal distinction between the words toilet and loo is
one of social register. Determined
and stubborn are largely distinguished
attitude – a person reluctant to
give up is described as determined by
sympathise and as stubborn by
those who do not. The difference between the
words pavement and sidewalk is a matter of geography, the former being used
and the latter in America.
Two words with the same form may be different lexemes or may refer to
different elements of the semantic
range of the one lexeme. But it is often
difficult to decide which is the
case. One guide is the degree of similarity
between the sense of the two words
(consideration of foreign elements might
help). Another guide is etymology: if the two words
come from distinct sources
they are more likely to belong to
different lexemes. The decision of whether or
not two words belong to the same
lexeme is of practical significance to
lexicographers as it determines
whether the words should be presented under
the one headword or as separate