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THE THEORY OF OPPOSITIONS
This course of English lexicology falls into two main parts: the treatment of the English word as a structure and the treatment of English vocabulary as a system. The aim of the present book is to show this system of interdependent elements with specific peculiarities of its own, different from other lexical systems; to show the morphological and semantic patterns according to which the elements of this system are built, to point out the distinctive features with which the main oppositions, i.e. semantically and functionally relevant partial differences between partially similar elements of the vocabulary, can be systematised, and to try and explain how these vocabulary patterns are conditioned by the structure of the language.
The theory of oppositions is the task to which we address ourselves in this paragraph.
Lexical opposition is the basis of lexical research and description. Lexicological theory and lexicological description cannot progress independently. They are brought together in the same general technique of analysis, one of the cornerstones of which is N.S. Trubetzkoy’s theory of oppositions. First used in phonology, the theory proved fruitful for other branches of linguistics as well.
Modern linguistics views the language system as consisting of several subsystems all based on oppositions, differences, samenesses and positional values.
A lexical opposition is defined as a semantically relevant relationship of partial difference between two partially similar words.
Each of the tens of thousands of lexical units constituting the vocabulary possesses a certain number of characteristic features variously combined and making each separate word into a special sign different from all other words. We use the term lexical distinctive feature for features capable of distinguishing a word in morphological form or meaning from an otherwise similar word or variant. Distinctive features and oppositions take different specific manifestations on
different linguistic levels: in phonology, morphology, lexicology. We deal with lexical distinctive features and lexical oppositions.
Thus, in the opposition doubt : : doubtful the distinctive features are morphological: doubt is a root word and a noun, doubtful is a derived adjective.
The features that the two contrasted words possess in common form the basis of a lexical opposition. The basis in the opposition doubt :: doubtful is the common root -doubt-. The basis of the opposition may also form the basis of equivalence due to which these words, as it has been stated above, may be referred to the same subset. The features must be chosen so as to show whether any element we may come across belongs to the given set or not.1 They must also be important, so that the presence of a distinctive feature must allow the prediction of secondary features connected with it. The feature may be constant or variable, or the basis may be formed by a combination of constant and variable features, as in the case of the following group: pool, pond, lake, sea, ocean with its variation for size. Without a basis of similarity no comparison and no opposition are possible.
When the basis is not limited to the members of one opposition but comprises other elements of the system, we call the opposition polydimensional. The presence of the same basis or combination of features in several words permits their grouping into a subset of the vocabulary system. We shall therefore use the term lexical group to denote a subset of the vocabulary, all the elements of which possess a particular feature forming the basis of the opposition. Every element of a subset of the vocabulary is also an element of the vocabulary as a whole.
It has become customary to denote oppositions by the signs: ---- , ÷
or ::, e. g.
The common feature of the members of this particular opposition forming its basis is the adjective stem -skilled-. The distinctive feature is the presence or absence of the prefix un-. This distinctive feature may in other cases also serve as the basis of equivalence so that all adjectives beginning with un- form a subset of English vocabulary (unable, unaccountable, unaffected, unarmed, etc.), forming a correlation:
In the opposition man :: boy the distinctive feature is the semantic component of age. In the opposition boy :: lad the distinctive feature is that of stylistic colouring of the second member.
The methods and procedures of lexical research such as contextual analysis, componential analysis, distributional analysis, etc. will be briefly outlined in other chapters of the book.
1 One must be careful, nevertheless, not to make linguistic categories more rigid and absolute than they really are. There is certainly a degree of “fuzziness” about many types of linguistic sets.