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1 Lexicological description of the vocabulary

1.1 Lexical units and their characteristics

Lexicology as a linguistic science has its own object of investigation, i.e. lexicon – the word-stock of the language system. The word lexicon is of Greek origin that means “saying words or said words”. Besides Lexicology the term lexicon is used in Lexicography and Cognitology. As Lexicography is a science of compiling dictionaries, the term lexicon in its framework is used to denote all the words of a certain language with their meanings listed in alphabetical way. The other way of using the word lexicon is the name of the dictionary itself.

In cognitive science the term lexicon is used in respect to a very complicated, diversely and specifically organized part of a language structure we keep in our mind. Usually it is called mental lexicon which is thought to be a part of people’s language competence.

In Lexicology the term lexicon is understood as a synonym for lexical system, or the vocabulary of a language. Thus the object of Modern English Lexicology is the lexicon of the present-day English language. The main aim of the course in Modern English Lexicology is to give a systematic description of the English vocabulary of current usage which implies the characterization of the origin of English words, their morphological structure, means of word creation, semantic features of English lexical units, their relations to one another and possible combinations in a flow of speech. The existence of two major variants of English, i.e. British and American makes it necessary to describe the differences between Standard English and Standard American. As the study of the vocabulary presupposes much work with dictionaries, it is only logical to give at least general review of Lexicography and its problems and traditions.

The course in Modern English Lexicology is directed at synchronic description of the English lexicon. Nevertheless, some comparison with other languages and the data of the diachronic study are made use of for better understanding of the reasons and consequences of the processes and laws under discussion.

Lexicon consists of lexical units. Among those studied in Lexicology are words, morphemes and phraseological units. Generally a linguistic unit is defined as a two-faceted (having meaning and form), ready-made, registered in a dictionary and reproducible in speech item.

The smallest lexical unit of the kind is a morpheme. Lexicology studies derivational or word-building morphemes with the help of which new words are created. In the English language morphemes look like autonomous, independent units. This is because of a very limited number of functional or form-building morphemes. As morphemes are considered the smallest two-faceted units, they are the last stage of sentence segmentation. Thus, the sentence I often eat fish resolves into four components which cannot be segmented further without the meaning of each part being ruined. That is why many linguists believe that morphemes are the central units of the language. If it were so, the term morpheme would have been used differently in languages with synthetical, agglutinating or incorporating grammatical structure. As the term morpheme is used to denote identical units in all the languages, it should be recognized as a dependent, not autonomous lexical unit in the English language as well. On the other hand, a large amount of one-morpheme words in English makes it possible to recognize them as coinciding with morphemes.

The central unit of lexicon is considered a word. Words are most typical two-faceted ready-made lexical units which are easily recognized psychologically and perceptually even by illiterate people. Though the words are easily singled out from a flow of speech some problems still remain. One of such a kind is the boundaries of a word. Such combinations in English as in dependence and independence or without going and with outgoing sound identically. The question arises: how do we deduce them in a flow of speech? What a word is?

One of the problems of Lexicology is that it is not enough to be able to recognize words and to be able to use them in everyday life. For the purposes of the scientific description of the language a definition is needed. But for today there is no adequate operational definition of the word. There were many attempts made to define a word. But each time the definition gave prominence to only one feature of the word not mentioning others.

Word was defined not only in Linguistics. One of the earliest definitions belongs to the great Russian physiologist I.P. Pavlov, who named the word a universal signal able of substituting of any other signals from the environment in evoking a response in a human organism. In Logics the term was equaled to a notion. In Semiotics it is called a sign.

In ancient periods of language investigation the word was thought to be a name. Later there appeared orthographic, morphological, conceptual and other definitions.

Ferdinand de Saussure, the Swiss linguist, underlined that the word corresponds to a deeply rooted intuition. H. Sweet defined the word as “a minimum sentence”, while L. Bloomfield called it “a minimum free form”.

The matter is that none of the existing definitions is satisfactory enough. Some of them are used in separate and rather restricted spheres. For example, the recognition of the word as any sequence of letters between spaces comes to be convenient for machine-translation. In Linguistics it can hardly be accepted as spelling registers. Besides, in languages like Chinese such a definition would fail all together.

The treatment of the word as a minimal free form fails to give a clear understanding what a free form itself is, especially in English compound words. As for the correspondence of a word to a particular concept, the analyses show that it does not work with polysemantic words or in cases of various expressions of one concept as in to die, to pass away, to join the majority, to kick the bucket and the like.

The term word is somewhat ambiguous. Very often such forms as go and went, think and thought are referred to as words. It may seem reasonable in reference to early stages of the existence of the language when the estimation of the action on the time axis was felt as different kind of activity. Nowadays such items are treated as grammatical forms of one and the same lexical unit.

To avoid misunderstanding and ambiguity for lexicological purposes the term lexeme is used.

The largest ready-made two-faceted lexical unit that is studied in Lexicology is a phraseological unit. Sometimes such units are referred to as set expressions or idioms. A phraseological unit is made up of at least two lexemes whose meanings are different from that of the whole expression: head over heels, for instance. The meaning of the whole expression is not connected either with the meaning of the lexeme head or heels taken separately.

Morphemes, lexemes and phraseological units fulfill alike and different functions in the language. Morphemes are the main language means of creating new words. Lexemes serve as constituent parts of phraseological units. Lexemes and set expressions are capable of naming the concepts. Both lexemes and idioms are autonomous units while morphemes are dependent ones. Lexemes are the smallest autonomous units while set expressions are the largest.

It should be borne in mind, however, that there is no clear distinguishing line between lexical units. One of the features of the English language is that any of lexical unit may coincide with another one if not in meaning than in form. That is why one of the concerns of Lexicology is to establish the rules according to which the lexicon is formed and organized.

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