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A good deal of work being published by linguists at present and dealing with semantics has to do with componential analysis.1 To illustrate what is meant by this we have taken a simple example (see p. 41) used for this purpose by many linguists. Consider the following set of words: man, woman, boy, girl, bull, cow. We can arrange them as correlations of binary oppositions man : : woman = boy : : girl = bull : : cow. The meanings of words man, boy, bull on the one hand, and woman, girl and cow, on the other, have something in common. This distinctive feature we call a semantic component or seme. In this case the semantic distinctive feature is that of sex — male or female. Another possible correlation is man : : boy = woman : : girl. The distinctive feature is that of age — adult or non-adult. If we compare this with a third correlation man : : bull = woman : : cow, we obtain a third distinctive feature contrasting human and animal beings. In addition to the notation given on p. 41, the componential formula may be also shown by brackets. The meaning of man can be described as (male (adult (human being))), woman as (female (adult (human being))), girl as (female (non-adult (human being))), etc.
1 See the works by O.K. Seliverstova, J.N. Karaulov, E. Nida, D. Bolinger and others.
Componential analysis is thus an attempt to describe the meaning of words in terms of a universal inventory of semantic components and their possible combinations.1
Componential approach to meaning has a long history in linguistics.2 L. Hjelmslev’s commutation test deals with similar relationships and may be illustrated by proportions from which the distinctive features d1, d2, d3 are obtained by means of the following procedure:
As the first relationship is that of male to female, the second, of young to adult, and the third, human to animal, the meaning ‘boy’ may be characterised with respect to the distinctive features d1, d2, d3 as containing the semantic elements ‘male’, ‘young’, and ‘human’. The existence of correlated oppositions proves that these elements are recognised by the vocabulary.
In criticising this approach, the English linguist Prof. W. Haas3 argues that the commutation test looks very plausible if one has carefully selected examples from words entering into clear-cut semantic groups, such as terms of kinship or words denoting colours. It is less satisfactory in other cases, as there is no linguistic framework by which the semantic contrasts can be limited. The commutation test, however, borrows its restrictions from philosophy.
A form of componential analysis describing semantic components in terms of categories represented as a hierarchic structure so that each subsequent category is a sub-category of the previous one is described by R. S. Ginzburg. She follows the theory of the American linguists J. Katz and J. Fodor involving the analysis of dictionary meanings into semantic markers and distinguishers but redefines it in a clear-cut way. The markers refer to features which the word has in common with other lexical items, whereas a distinguishes as the term implies, differentiates it from all other words.
We borrow from R. S. Ginzburg her analysis of the word spinster. It runs as follows: spinster — noun, count noun, human, adult, female, who has never married. Parts of speech are the most inclusive categories pointing to major classes. So we shall call this component class seme (a term used by French semasiologists). As the grammatical function is predominant when we classify a word as a count noun it seems more logical to take this feature as a subdivision of a class seme.
1 Note the possibility of different graphical representation.
2 Componential analysis proper originates with the work of F.G. Lounsbury and W.H. Goodenough on kinship terms.
3 Prof. W. Haas (of Manchester University) delivered a series of lectures on the theory of meaning at the Pedagogical Institutes of Moscow and Leningrad in 1965.
It may, on the other hand, be taken as a marker because it represents a sub-class within nouns, marks all nouns that can be counted, and differentiates them from all uncountable nouns. Human is the next marker which refers the word spinster to a sub-category of nouns denoting human beings (man, woman, etc. vs table, flower, etc.). Adult is another marker pointing at a specific subdivision of living beings into adult and not grown-up (man, woman vs boy, girl). Female is also a marker (woman, widow vs man, widower), it represents a whole class of adult human females. ‘Who has never married’ — is not a marker but a distinguisher, it differentiates the word spinster from other words which have other features in common (spinster vs widow, bride, etc.).
The analysis shows that the dimensions of meaning may be regarded as semantic oppositions because the word’s meaning is reduced to its contrastive elements. The segmentation is continued as far as we can have markers needed for a group of words, and stops when a unique feature is reached.
A very close resemblance to componential analysis is the method of logical definition by dividing a genus into species and species into subspecies indispensable to dictionary definitions. It is therefore but natural that lexicographic definitions lend themselves as suitable material for the analysis of lexical groups in terms of a finite set of semantic components. Consider the following definitions given in Hornby’s dictionary:
cow— a full grown female of any animal of the ox family calf— the young of the cow
The first definition contains all the elements we have previously obtained from proportional oppositions. The second is incomplete but we can substitute the missing elements from the previous definition. We can, consequently, agree with J. N. Karaulov and regard as semantic components (or semes) the notional words of the right hand side of a dictionary entry.
It is possible to describe parts of the vocabulary by formalising these definitions and reducing them to some standard form according to a set of rules. The explanatory transformations thus obtained constitute an intersection of transformational and componential analysis. The result of this procedure applied to collective personal nouns may be illustrated by the following.
e. g. team → a group of people acting together in a game, piece of work, etc.
Procedures briefly outlined above proved to be very efficient for certain problems and find an ever-widening application, providing us with a deeper insight into some aspects of language.1
1 For further detail see: Арнольд И.В. Семантическая структура слова в современном английском языке и методика ее исследования. Л., 1966.
Chapter 4 SEMANTIC CHANGE