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Questions

  1. What does Semasiology study?

  2. In what way does the referential approach describe the meaning?

  3. How does the functional approach define the meaning?

  4. What is the operational approach based on?

  5. What are the components of the lexical meaning?

  6. What is the denotational meaning?

  7. In what way is the denotational meaning related to the inner form, the underlying concept and the referent?

  8. What does connotation reflect?

  9. What does the pragmatic meaning consist of?

  10. What does the pragmatic aspect of meaning reflect?

1.5 Variability of lexical meaning

The structure of the lexical meaning, the process of nomination, and the ways of assimilating borrowings to the system of a different language show that meaning is flexible and adaptable and not fixed once and forever.

One of the sources of meaning variability is suggested by the process of nomination itself. This is the dynamic correlation between lexical meaning and the object of concrete reality and the ability of the given name to be applied to a new class of objects similar in one way or another to the class of objects the name refers to.

Though lexical meaning is different from concept and referent it retains ties with the objects denoted. It follows that any characteristic feature or the peculiarities of things, processes and phenomena may be discussed with reference to their existing names, and there is no necessity to invent new names each time something new is discovered about the nature of the things denoted. However, every time meaning changes slightly, admitting new features or giving prominence to the already present in the denotatum but obscure ones. For instance, the phrase “The cat is characterized by …” in a lecture on Zoology would refer not to “a small animal with soft fur and sharp teeth, usually kept as a pet or to catch mice and rats” but to an animal of the species Felis Catus; “my cat” will be different from “your cat”, though the same word is used, and the statement “In general I hate cats, but I like this one” upon closer examination is likely to seem contradictory. Similarly, the complaint that “There are strangers prowling under my windows like cats” will suggest among other things that cats prowl and are very soft-footed, and the phrase “Cats are noisy” will imply that cats can produce shrill and unpleasant sounds.

Such implications are based on associations, i.e. attitudes of the additional, “non-criterial” properties of the referent which are also important in shaping meaning variability. Associations may vary from age to age and from society to society. It is obvious that associations will vary, to some extent, from individual to individual within the same language community. There are, however, associations which are relatively stable. In the word “woman” it is “weakness”; in the word “man” it is “strength”.

Thus, it is possible to say that the concept, the referent and the associations, connected with them in the given language, help to form variability zone around the lexical meaning of the word.

The ability of applying the name to several classes of objects if certain similarity is observed results in acquiring more than one meaning of the given name. The objects denoted by the given name may be almost entirely different.

Thus, the word “cat” is applied to name:

  1. A small animal with soft fur and sharp teeth and claws (nails), often kept as a pet or in buildings to catch mice and rats;

  2. Any of various types of animals related to this, such as the lion or tiger;

  3. (derog.) A nasty woman;

  4. A strong apparatus used to lift heavy objects, esp. anchors onto a ship.

This source of meaning variability is called polysemy. According to S. Ullmann “polysemy is an essential condition of language efficiency; if it were not possible to attach several senses to one word, this would mean a crushing burden on our memory: we would have to possess separate terms for every conceivable subject we might wish to talk about. Polysemy is an invaluable factor of economy and flexibility in language.”

The word “polysemy” is of Greek origin and means “many signs”. A word is called polysemantic if it has a set of meanings registered in dictionaries within one article. The comparison of different language systems suggests that polysemy is a purely linguistic phenomenon and not the reflection of the obligatory ties between the objects of reality which would have resulted in a similar set of meanings for correlated words in different languages. The English word “floor” is polysemantic and has the following meanings:

  1. Lower surface of the room; part on which one walks;

  2. Number of rooms, etc on the same level in a building;

  3. Bottom of the sea, of a cave, etc;

  4. Part of an assembly hall, e.g. the Houses of Parliament, Congress, where members sit;

  5. (opp. of ceiling) lower limit (of prices).

The Russian word “пол” is monosemantic and possesses the meaning “в доме, помещении: настил, по которому ходят”.

Different meanings of a polysemantic word form the lexico-semantic variants of the word.

The set of meanings a word possesses is not rigidly fixed and may change. Changes in meaning can be brought about by an infinite multiplicity of causes, implying mainly extralinguistic motives. S. Ullmann lists the following ones:

  1. Historical causes – the natural consideration of the language which tends to retain the names of objects, institutions, ideas, scientific concepts though the underlying notions change. Thus, the word “geometry” once meant “the art of measuring ground”.

  2. Social causes – the transition of a word from ordinary language into a specialized sphere, which is usually accompanied by the restriction or the specialization of meaning, and the transition of a word from a specialized sphere into general use which results in the generalization of meaning. The word “disease” once denoted any kind of discomfort (not necessarily illness). Now it is more specialized in its meaning. The word “camp” originally was used as a military term and meant “the place where troops are lodged in tents”. Now it belongs to the general layer of the vocabulary.

  3. Psychological causes – the influence of human imagination or prejudice bringing about figurative and colourful slangish meanings or euphemistic senses originating from different kinds of taboos. Slangish meaning can be observed in “beetle” – “to move off quickly”; euphemistic meaning of the word “lavatory” is “restroom, cloakroom”.

  4. Foreign influence – borrowing results in emergence of new meanings. Thus, the English word “to engage”, originally a French borrowing, developed in the 18th century the meaning “to invite” under the influence of the similar meaning of the French verb “engager” (engage for a dance).

  5. The need for a new name – in case of discovery or scientific breakthrough. The word “torpedo” once meant “crampfish”.

  6. Linguistic causes – change in meaning due to the associations which words contract in speech, as habitual collocations may permanently affect the meaning of words. For example, to unleash dogs – (fig.) to unleash the dogs of war – to unleash war.

Semantic changes result in specialization, generalization, metaphor, metonymy, elevation, degradation, hyperbole and litotes.

Specialization is a gradual process when a word passes from a general sphere to some special sphere of communication, e.g. “case” has a general meaning “circumstances in which a person or a thing is”. It is specialized when used in law (a lawsuit), in grammar (a form of a paradigm of a noun), in medicine (a patient, an illness). The meaning of a word can specialize because of the conflict between two absolute synonyms. The English verb “starve” was specialized in its meaning after the Scandinavian word “die” was borrowed into English. The verb “die” became the general word because in English there were the noun “death” and the adjective “dead” beginning with the same consonant. The verb “starve” got the meaning “to die of hunger”. Another way of specialization is the formation of proper names from common nouns, e.g. Oxford – a University town in England (which was built near the place where oxen could ford the river). Still another way of specialization is ellipsis, i.e. the drop of an attribute before a noun which can get the meaning of the whole word-group. The word “room” originally meant “space” (as in roomy, no room for, to take room). The meaning of the word “room” was specialized as it was often used in the combinations “dining room, sleeping room” which meant “space for dining, space for sleeping”.

Generalization is a contrary to specialization process: the words become more general in their meaning. The transfer from a concrete meaning to an abstract one is most frequent. The word “ready” originally meant “prepared for a ride”, now it means “prepared for anything”; the French borrowing “journey” came into English with the meaning “one day trip” (jour means a day in French), now it means “a trip of any duration”. All auxiliary verbs are the cases of generalization of their lexical meaning because they developed a grammatical meaning, e.g. “I have several books by Austin” (possession) and “I have read several books by Austin” (Present Perfect).

Metaphor is a transfer of the meaning on the basis of comparison. Metaphor can be based on similarity of shape, e.g. head (of a cabbage), bottleneck, teeth (of a saw, a comb); on similarity of position, e.g. foot (of a mountain, of a page), head (of a procession, of an army); similarity of function, e.g. whip (an official in the British Parliament whose duty is to see that member were present at the voting), bookworm (a person who is fond of books); similarity of colour, e.g. orange, chestnut.

Metonymy is a transfer of the meaning on the basis of contiguity: the material of which an object is made may become the name of the object, e.g. a glass, an iron; the name of the place may become the name of the people or of an object placed there, e.g. the House (members of Parliament), Fleet Street (bourgeois press); names of musical instruments may become names of musicians, e.g. the violin, the saxophone; the name of some person may become a common noun, e.g. boycott (which was originally the name of an Irish family who were so much disliked by their neighbours that they did not mix with them); names of inventors very often become terms to denote things they invented, e.g. watt, roentgen; some geographical names can also become common nouns, e.g. china (porcelain), astrakhan (a sheep fur).

Elevation is a transfer of the meaning when it becomes better in the course of time, e.g. knight originally meant a boy, then a young servant, then a military servant, then a noble man; queen originally meant a woman.

Degradation is a transfer of the meaning when it becomes worse in course of time, e.g. villain originally meant working on a villa, now it means a scoundrel.

Hyperbole is a transfer of the meaning when the speaker uses exaggeration, e.g. not to see somebody for ages, a thousand pardons. Hyperbole is often used to form phraseological units, e.g. to make a mountain out of a molehill, to split hairs.

Litotes is a transfer of the meaning when the speaker expresses the affirmative with the negative or vice versa, e.g. not bad, no coward.

The ability of words to vary and even to change their meaning causes the problem of distinguishing between polysemy and homonymy.

Homonyms are words which are identical in their form and different in meaning. There are several types of homonyms. Homonyms proper are words similar in their sound and graphic form and different in meaning, e.g. yardenclosed or partly enclosed space near or round a building or group of buildings and yardunit of length. Homophones are words similar in their sound form and different in their graphic form and meaning, e.g. siteplace where something was or is to be (a building site), sightpower of seeing, citegive or mention as an example. Homographs are words which have similar graphic forms and different in their meaning and pronunciation, e.g. tear [ie]a drop of salty water coming from the eye and tear [ea]to pull sharply apart or to pieces.

It is homonyms proper that are to be distinguished from the cases of polysemy. The difficulty is that the divergence of meanings of a polysemantic word may be one of the sources of homonymy, e.g. soleflat sea-fish with a delicate flavour and soleunder surface of a human foot or of a sock, shoe, etc were originally different meanings of the same word.

Linguists recognize the case of polysemy if the meanings concerned are related or correlated. The correlation between the meanings corresponding to one and the same sound-form makes up the unity of meanings which is known as the semantic structure of the word.

There are two main procedures of establishing the semantic ties between lexico-semantic variants: logical or, rather, psychological correlation between the constituent meanings which is possible on the synchronic level and historical ties between the meanings.

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