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LEXICAL MEANING AND SEMANTIC STRUCTURE OF ENGLISH WORDS




3.1 DEFINITIONS

The branch of linguistics concerned with the meaning of words and word equivalents is called semasiology. The name comes from the Greek sēmasiā signification (from sēma sign sēmantikos significant and logos learning).

In the present book we shall not deal with every kind of linguistic meaning. Attention will be concentrated on lexical meaning and semasiology will be treated as a branch of lexicology.

This does not mean, of course, that no attention will be paid to grammatical meaning; on the contrary, grammatical meaning must be considered because it bears a specific influence upon lexical meaning (see 1.3). In most present-day methods of lexicological analysis words are studied by placing them, or rather considering them in larger units of context; a word is defined by its functioning within a phrase or a sentence. This means that the problem of autonomy of lexicology versus syntax is now being raised and solved by special study. This functional approach is attempted in contextual analysis, semantic syntax and some other branches of linguistics.1

The influence of grammar on lexical meaning is manifold (see 1.3) and will be further discussed at some length later. At this stage it will suffice to point out that a certain basic component of the word meaning is described when one identifies the word morphologically, i.e. states to what grammatical word class it belongs.

If treated diachronically, semasiology studies the change in meaning which words undergo. Descriptive synchronic approach demands a study not of individual words but of semantic structures typical of the language studied, and of its general semantic system.

The main objects of semasiological study treated in this book are as follows: semantic development of words, its causes and classification, relevant distinctive features and types of lexical meaning,

1 The problem is not new. M. Bréal, for instance, devoted much attention to a semasiological treatment of grammar. A German philologist H. Hatzfeld held that semasiology should include syntax, and that many of its chapters need historical and cultural comments.

The problem has recently acquired a certain urgency and a revival of interest in semantic syntax is reflected in a large number of publications by Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev scholars.


polysemy and semantic structure of words, semantic grouping and connections in the vocabulary system, i.e. synonyms, antonyms, terminological systems, etc. The present chapter does not offer to cover all of this wide field. Attention will be centred upon semantic word structure and semantic analysis.

An exact definition of any basic term is no easy task altogether (see 2.1). In the case of lexical meaning it becomes especially difficult due to the complexity of the process by which language and human mind serve to reflect outward reality and to adapt it to human needs.

The definition of lexical meaning has been attempted more than once in accordance with the main principles of different linguistic schools. The disciples of F. de Saussure consider meaning to be the relation between the object or notion named, and the name itself (see 2.2). Descriptive linguistics of the Bloomfieldian trend defines the meaning as the situation in which the word is uttered. Both ways of approach afford no possibility of a further investigation of semantic problems in strictly linguistic terms, and therefore, if taken as a basis for general linguistic theory, give no insight into the mechanism of meaning. Some of L. Bloomfields successors went so far as to exclude semasiology from linguistics on the ground that meaning could not be studied objectively", and was not part of language but an aspect of the use to which language is put. This point of view was never generally accepted. The more general opinion is well revealed in R. Jakobsons pun. He said: Linguistics without meaning is meaningless."1 This crisis of semasiology has been over for some twenty years now, and the problem of meaning has provided material for a great number of books, articles and dissertations.

In our country the definitions of meaning given by various authors, though different in detail, agree in the basic principle: they all point out that lexical meaning is the realisation of concept or emotion by means of a definite language system. The definition stresses that semantics studies only such meanings that can be expressed, that is concepts bound by signs.

It has also been repeatedly stated that the plane of content in speech reflects the whole of human consciousness, which comprises not only mental activity but emotions, volition, etc. as well. The mentalistic approach to meaning treating it only as a concept expressed by a word oversimplifies the problem because it takes into consideration only the referential function of words. Actually, however, all the pragmatic functions of language communicative, emotive, evaluative, phatic, esthetic, etc., are also relevant and have to be accounted for in semasiology, because they show the attitude of the speaker to the thing spoken of, to his interlocutor and to the situation in which the act of communication takes place.

The complexity of the word meaning is manifold. The four most important types of semantic complexity may be roughly described as follows:

1 Note how this epigram makes use of the polysemy of the word meaning.


Firstly, every word combines lexical and grammatical meanings. E.g.: Father is a personal noun.

Secondly, many words not only refer to some object but have an aura of associations expressing the attitude of the speaker. They have not only denotative but connotative meaning as well.

E. g.: Daddy is a colloquial term of endearment.

Thirdly, the denotational meaning is segmented into semantic components or semes.

E.g.: Father is a male parent.

Fourthly, a word may be polysemantic, that is it may have several meanings, all interconnected and forming its semantic structure.

E. g.: Father may mean: male parent, an ancestor, a founder or leader, a priest.

It will be useful to remind the reader that the grammatical meaning is defined as an expression in speech of relationships between words based on contrastive features of arrangements in which they occur. The grammatical meaning is more abstract and more generalised than the lexical meaning, it unites words into big groups such as parts of speech or lexico-grammatical classes. It is recurrent in identical sets of individual forms of different words. E. g. parents, books, intentions, whose common element is the grammatical meaning of plurality. The interrelation of lexics and grammar has already been touched upon in 1.3. This being a book on lexicology and not on grammar, it is permissible not to go into more details though some words on lexico-grammatical meanings are necessary.

The lexio-grammatical meaning is the common denominator of all the meanings of words belonging to a lexico-grammatical class of words, it is the feature according to which they are grouped together. Words in which abstraction and generalisation are so great that they can be lexical representatives of lexico-grammatical meanings and substitute any word of their class are called generic terms. For example the word matter is a generic term for material nouns, the word group for collective nouns, the word person for personal nouns.

Words belonging to one lexico-grammatical class are characterised by a common system of forms in which the grammatical categories inherent in them are expressed. They are also substituted by the same prop-words and possess some characteristic formulas of semantic and morphological structure and a characteristic set of derivational affixes. See tables on word-formation in: R. Quirk et al., A Grammar of Contemporary English.1 The common features of semantic structure may be observed in their dictionary definitions:

1 Quirk R., Greenbaum S., Leech G., Svartvik J. A Grammar of Contemporary English. London, 1974.


management a group of persons in charge of some enterprise,

chorus a group of singers,

team a group of persons acting together in work or in a game.

The degree and character of abstraction and generalisation in lexico-grammatical meanings and the generic terms that represent them are intermediate between those characteristic of grammatical categories and those observed on the lexical level hence the term lexico-grammatical.

The conceptual content of a word is expressed in its denotative meaning.1 To denote is to serve as a linguistic expression for a concept or as a name for an individual object. The denotative meaning may be signifiative, if the referent is a concept, or demfistrative, if it is an individual object. The term referent or denotatum (pl. denotata) is used in both cases. Any text will furnish examples of both types of denotative meaning. The demonstrative meaning is especially characteristic of colloquial speech where words so often serve to identify particular elements of reality. E. g.: Do you remember what the young lady did with the telegram? (Christie) Here the connection with reality is direct.

Especially interesting examples of significative meaning may be found in aphorisms, proverbs and other sayings rendering general ideas. E. g.: A good laugh is sunshine in the house (Thackeray) or The reason why worry kills more people than work is that more people worry than work (Frost) contain words in their significative meanings.

The information communicated by virtue of what the word refers to is often subject to complex associations originating in habitual contexts, verbal or situational, of which the speaker and the listener are aware, they give the word its connotative meaning. The interaction of denotative meaning and its pragmatic counterpart connotation is no less complicated than in the case of lexical and grammatical meaning. The connotative component is optional, and even when it is present its proportion with respect to the logical counterpart may vary within wide limits.

We shall call connotation what the word conveys about the speakers attitude to the social circumstances and the appropriate functional style (slay vs kill), about his approval or disapproval of the object spoken of (clique vs group), about the speakers emotions (mummy vs mother), or the degree of intensity (adore vs love).

The emotional overtone as part of the words communicative value deserves special attention. Different approaches have been developing in contemporary linguistics.2

The emotional and evaluative meaning of the word may be part of the denotational meaning. For example hireling a person who offers his services for payment and does not care about the type of work'

1 There are other synonymous terms but we shall not enumerate them here because terminological richness is more hampering than helpful.

2 See the works of E.S. Aznaurova, T.G. Vinokur, R.H. Volpert, V.I. Maltzev, V.N. Mikhaylovskaya, I.A. Sternin, V.I. Shakhovsky and many others.


has a strong derogatory and even scornful connotation, especially when the name is applied to hired soldiers. There is a considerable degree of fuzziness about the boundaries between the denotational and connotative meanings.

The third type of semantic segmentation mentioned on p. 39 was the segmentation of the denotational meaning into semantic components. The componential analysis is a very important method of linguistic investigation and has attracted a great deal of attention. It is usually illustrated by some simple example such as the words man, woman, boy, girl, all belonging to the semantic field the human race and differing in the characteristics of age and sex. Using the symbols HUMAN, ADULT, MALE and marking them positively and negatively so that -ADULT means young and -MALE means female, we may write the following componential definitions:

man: + HUMAN + ADULT + MALE

woman: + HUMAN + ADULT MALE

boy: + HUMAN ADULT + MALE

girl: + HUMAN ADULT MALE

One further point should be made: HUMAN, ADULT, MALE in this analysis are not words of English or any other language: they are elements of meaning, or semes which can be combined in various ways with other similar elements in the meaning of different words. Nevertheless a linguist, as it has already been mentioned, cannot study any meaning devoid of form, therefore these semes are mostly determined with the help of dictionary definitions.

To conclude this rough model of semantic complexities we come to the fourth point, that of polysemy.

Polysemy is inherent in the very nature of words and concepts as every object and every notion has many features and a concept reflected in a word always contains a generalisation of several traits of the object. Some of these traits or components of meaning are common with other objects. Hence the possibility of using the same name in secondary nomination for objects possessing common features which are sometimes only implied in the original meaning. A word when acquiring new meaning or meanings may also retain, and most often retains the previous meaning.

E. g. birth 1) the act or time of being born, 2) an origin or beginning, 3) descent, family.

The classification of meanings within the semantic structure of one polysemantic word will be discussed in 3.4.

If the communicative value of a word contains latent possibilities realised not in this particular variant but able to create new derived meanings or words we call that implicational.1 The word bomb,

1 See on this point M.V. Nikitins works.

See also the term epidigmatic offered by D.N. Shmelev for a somewhat similar notion of the elements of meaning that form the basis for semantic and morphological derivation and characterise the similarities and differences of variants within the semantic structure of one word.


for example, implies great power, hence the new colloquial meanings great success and great failure, the latter being an American slang expression.

The different variants of a polysemantic word form a semantic whole due to the proximity of the referents they name and the notions they express. The formation of new meanings is often based on the potential or implicational meaning. The transitive verb drive, for instance, means to force to move before one and hence, more generally, to cause an animal, a person or a thing work or move in some direction, and more specifically to direct a course of a vehicle or the animal which draws it, or a railway train, etc., hence to convey in a vehicle and the intransitive verb: to go in a vehicle. There are also many other variants but we shall mention only one more, namely the figurative to mean, as in: What can he be driving at? (Foote)

All these different meanings can be explained one with the help of one of the others.

The typical patterns according to which different meanings are united in one polysemantic word often depend upon grammatical meanings and grammatical categories characteristic of the part of speech to which they belong.

Depending upon the part of speech to which the word belongs all its possible meanings become connected with a definite group of grammatical meanings, and the latter influence the semantic structure of the word so much that every part of speech possesses semantic peculiarities of its own.


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