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The distinction between synchronic and diachronic treatment is so fundamental that it cannot be overemphasised, but the two aspects

1 Ideolect — language as spoken by one individual.

are interdependent. It is therefore essential after the descriptive analysis of synonymy in present-day English to take up the historical line of approach and discuss the origin of synonyms and the causes of their abundance in English.

The majority of those who studied synonymy in the past have been cultivating both lines of approach without keeping them scrupulously apart, and focused their attention on the prominent part of foreign loan words in English synonymy, e. g. freedom : : liberty or heaven : : sky, where the first elements are native and the second, French and Scandinavian respectively. O. Jespersen and many others used to stress that the English language is peculiarly rich in synonyms, because Britons, Romans, Saxons, Danes and Normans fighting and settling upon the soil of the British Isles could not but influence each other’s speech. British scholars studied Greek and Latin and for centuries used Latin as a medium for communication on scholarly topics.

Synonymy has its characteristic patterns in each language. Its peculiar feature in English is the contrast between simple native words stylistically neutral, literary words borrowed from French and learned words of Greco-Latin origin. This results in a sort of stylistically conditioned triple “keyboard” that can be illustrated by the following:


Native English words Words borrowed from French Words borrowed from Latin
to ask to question to interrogate
belly stomach abdomen
to gather to assemble to collect
empty devoid vacuous
to end to finish to complete
to rise to mount to ascend
teaching guidance instruction

English also uses many pairs of synonymous derivatives, the one Hellenic and the other Romance, e. g. periphery : : circumference; hypothesis : : supposition; sympathy : : compassion; synthesis : : composition.

The pattern of stylistic relationship represented in the above table, although typical, is by no means universal. For example, the native words dale, deed, fair are the poetic equivalents of their much more frequent borrowed synonyms valley, act or the hybrid beautiful.

This subject of stylistic differentiation has been one of much controversy in recent years. It is universally accepted, however, that semantic and stylistic properties may change and synonyms which at one time formed a stylistic opposition only may in the course of time become ideographically cognitively contrasted as well, and vice versa.

It would be linguistically naive to maintain that borrowing results only in quantitative changes or that qualitative changes are purely stylistical. The introduction of a borrowed word almost invariably starts some alteration both in the newcomer and in the semantic structure of existing words that are close to it in meaning. When in the 13th century the word soil (OFr soil,

soyil) was borrowed into English its meaning was ‘a strip of land’. The upper layer of earth in which plants grow had been denoted since Old English by one of the synonyms: eorþe, land, folde. The development of the group has been studied by A.A. Ufimtseva. All these words had other central meanings so that the meaning in question was with them secondary. Now, if two words coincide in meaning and use, the tendency is for one of them to drop out of the language. Folde had the same function and meaning as eorþe and in the fight for survival the latter won. The polysemantic word land underwent an intense semantic development in a different direction but dropped out of this synonymic series. In this way it became quite natural for soil to fill the obvious lexical gap, receive its present meaning and become the main name for the corresponding notion, i.e. ‘the mould in which plants grow’. The noun earth retained this meaning throughout its history, whereas the word ground in which this meaning was formerly absent developed it. As a result this synonymic group comprises at present soil, earth and ground.

The fate of the word folde is not at all infrequent. Many other words now marked in the dictionaries as “archaic” or “obsolete” have dropped out in the same competition of synonyms; others survived with a meaning more or less removed from the original one. The process is called synonymic differentiation and is so current that M. Bréal regarded it as an inherent law of language development. It must be noted that synonyms may influence each other semantically in two diametrically opposite ways: one of them is dissimilation, the other the reverse process, i.e. assimi1atiоn. The assimilation of synonyms consists in parallel development. This law was discovered and described by G. Stern. H.A. Trebe and G.H. Vallins give as examples the pejorative meanings acquired by the nouns wench, knave and churl which originally meant ‘girl’, ‘boy’ and ‘labourer’ respectively, and point out that this loss of old dignity became linguistically possible, because there were so many synonymous terms at hand.

The important thing to remember is that it is not only borrowings from foreign languages but other sources as well that have made increasing contributions to the stock of English synonyms. There are, for instance, words that come from dialects, and, in the last hundred years, from American English in particular. As a result speakers of British English may make use of both elements of the following pairs, the first element in each pair coming from the USA: gimmick : : trick; dues : : subscription; long distance (telephone) call : : trunk call; radio : : wireless. There are also synonyms that originate in numerous dialects as, for instance, clover : : shamrock; liquor : : whiskey (from Irish); girl : : lass, lassie or charm : : glamour (from Scottish).

The role of borrowings should not be overestimated. Synonyms are also created by means of all word-forming processes productive in the language at a given time of its history. The words already existing in the language develop new meanings. New words may be formed by affixation or loss of affixes, by conversion, compounding, shortening and so on, and being coined, form synonyms to those already in use.

Of special importance for those who are interested in the present-day trends and characteristic peculiarities of the English vocabulary are the synonymic oppositions due to shift of meaning, new combinations of verbs with postpositives and compound nouns formed from them, shortenings, set expressions and conversion.

Phrasal verbs consisting of a verb with a postpositive are widely used in present-day English and may be called one of its characteristic features. (See p. 120 ff.) Many verbal synonymic groups contain such combinations as one of their elements. A few examples will illustrate this statement: choose : : pick out; abandon : : give up; continue : : go on; enter : : come in; lift : : pick up; postpone : : put off; quarrel : : fall out; return : : bring back. E.g.: By the way, Toby has quite given up the idea of doing those animal cartoons (Plomer).

The vitality of these expressions is proved by the fact that they really supply material for further word-formation. Very many compound nouns denoting abstract notions, persons and events are correlated with them, also giving ways of expressing notions hitherto named by somewhat lengthy borrowed terms. There are, for instance, such synonymic pairs as arrangement : : layout; conscription : : call-up; precipitation : : fall-out; regeneration : : feedback; reproduction : : playback; resistance : : fight-back; treachery : : sell-out.

An even more frequent type of new formations is that in which a noun with a verbal stem is combined with a verb of generic meaning (have, give, take, get, make) into a set expression which differs from the simple verb in aspect or emphasis: laugh : : give a laugh; sigh : : give a sigh; walk : : take a walk; smoke : : have a smoke; love : : fall in love (see p. 164). E. g.: Now we can all have a good read with our coffee (Simpson).

N.N. Amosova stresses the patterned character of the phrases in question, the regularity of connection between the structure of the phrase and the resulting semantic effect. She also points out that there may be cases when phrases of this pattern have undergone a shift of meaning and turned into phraseological units quite different in meaning from and not synonymical with the verbs of the same root. This is the case with give a lift, give somebody quite a turn, etc.

Quite frequently synonyms, mostly stylistic, but sometimes ideographic as well, are due to shortening, e. g. memorandum : : memo; vegetables : : vegs; margarine : : marge; microphone : : mike; popular (song) : : pop (song).

One should not overlook the fact that conversion may also be a source of synonymy; it accounts for such pairs as commandment : : command] laughter : : laugh. The problem in this connection is whether such cases should be regarded as synonyms or as lexical variants of one and the same word. It seems more logical to consider them as lexical variants. Compare also cases of different affixation: anxiety : : anxious- ness; effectivity : : effectiveness, and loss of affixes: amongst : : among or await : : wait.


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