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  1. What makes the meaning of the word adaptable and flexible?

  2. What is polysemy?

  3. What are the changes in meaning cause by?

  4. What are the results of the semantic changes?

  5. In what way do polysemantic words differ from homonyms?

  6. What kinds of homonyms are distinguished?

  7. What is the semantic structure of the word?

1.6 Semantic relations of words

Words as vocabulary units cannot and should not be considered in isolation, words are semantically and structurally correlated to form a system of language means serving the purposes of communication. The semantic correlation of words is usually viewed at two angles: comparing the semantic values of words or discussing their interchangeability in contexts. It is difficult to separate the two approaches which are complementary rather than incompatible as interchangeability alone does not yield plausible results in bringing out differences or sameness of meaning and the comparison of semantic values is usually followed by the consideration of their functional properties.

There are four main types of semantic relations: proximity, equivalence, inclusion and opposition.

“Sameness of meaning” is a reference to the semantics of different words both in text-books and in dictionaries where the cases of defining one word through another are by no means rare. Upon closer examination it becomes clear that words are seldom, if ever, are the same semantically, i.e. they are not identical in meaning and show a certain semantic difference as well as similarity. Meaning similarity is seldom complete and is nearly always partial which makes it possible to speak about semantic proximity of words and about the relations of semantic proximity, in general. The relations can be revealed by the semantic analysis of word definitions.

The word “swim” is defined as “to progress at or below surface of water by working arms, legs, tail, webbed feet, fins, flippers, wings, body, etc” which implies the activity of moving object and absence of any additional agent (usually a propellant) giving the object onward motion. The definition also shows that the action denoted by the word is directed (to progress – to move forward or onward) and the relation of the movement to the surface of the water is irrelevant (at or below surface of water).

The meaning of the word “float” is defined as “resting or moving on surface of liquid without sinking” which suggests the passive character of action, lack of a marked direction of movement and the absence of a propellant, but emphasizes the significance of the surface.

The word “drift” is described as “to be carried as by current of air or water, move passively, casually or aimlessly”. The analysis of the definition shows that the moving body is passive being carried by an independent active propellant – the current of moving liquid or gas which also determines the direction of movement. Whether the movement takes place at the surface of the liquid or below it is not specified, but casual and aimless character of movement is stressed.

The word “sail” defined as “(of vessel or person on board) to travel on water by use of sails or engine power, travel over or along” implies the presence of a propellant (sails or engine) as well as the marked direction of movement and the active agent which drives the moving object forward that makes the action active rather than passive.

Though standing somewhat apart from the mentioned words the lexeme “bathe” is related to them through the environment in which the action takes place – “to immerse oneself in water usually as a recreation”. The definition implies the active character of the action, irrelevance of the direction of movement and absence of the active propellant. Besides, the action cannot be carried out on the surface of the water (to immerse – to dip, to plunge in liquid).

Thus, semantic proximity implies that two (or more) words share certain semantic features while each unit is characterized by its own specific semantic properties not common to the other (lexemes) compared.

The degree of semantic proximity demonstrated by the words may be different. Any two words (or more) however different may be said to enter the relations of proximity. The words “red” and “green” share the semantic features of “colour”, “basic or rainbow colour”, “complementary colour” and the degree of proximity will be lower than in “red” verses “scarlet” or “green” verses “emerald”.

The degree of semantic proximity may be established not only by the number of the semantic features shared, but also with reference to the objects denoted by words. The words “red” and “green” denote different colours while the verbs “to swim, to float, to drift, to sail, to bathe” stand to signify different sides of one and the same phenomenon, i.e. movement in water.

The words may be graded in semantic proximity and classified in accordance with semantic features shared and similarity of the referential area. This makes it possible to assume the relations of proximity as the basic underlying principle of classifying the vocabulary on semantic grounds. A higher degree of semantic proximity helps to single out synonyms while a lower degree of semantic proximity provides for the description of broader and less homogeneous semantic groups. The words “table” and “chair” share the semantic features of “thingness, object, pieces of furniture” which forms the basis for grouping them together with other nouns denoting “pieces of furniture”.

The relations of semantic proximity reveal two extreme cases. The first is the case of sharing of only one semantic feature of the most general character. The words “sun”, “cat” and “beauty” share the feature of “thingness” or the “nominal character”. The words sharing one most general, i.e. categorical semantic feature form grammatical class of units such as nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives. That proves correlation between lexical and grammatical systems of the language.

The other extreme case of semantic proximity is encountered when two words are absolutely identical in meaning which is usually termed equivalence.

Semantic equivalence is very seldom observed in words and is claimed to be much oftener encountered in case of sentences. The phrase “She lives in Paris” may be considered equivalent to the phrase “She lives in the capital of France”. Things are different with words. S. Ullmann wrote: “It is perfectly true that absolute synonymy runs counter to our whole way at looking at language. When we see different words we instinctively assume that there must also be some difference in meaning, and in the vast majority of cases there is in fact a distinction even though it may be difficult to formulate. Very few words are completely synonymous in the sense of being interchangeable in any context without the slightest alteration in objective meaning, feeling, tone or evocative value.” At the same time he points out that it would be wrong to deny the possibility of complete synonymy.

The phonetic terms “stops” and “plosives” are used to denote English sounds [b, d, g, t, k]. The meaning of the word “stop” is defined as “consonant sound made by closure of organs followed by audible release of air as g, k, t, p, etc”, while the meaning of the word “plosive” is defined through the meaning of the word “stop”. Both words in the given meaning are semantically identical and may be used interchangeably. Words characterized by the semantic relations of equivalence are called full or absolute synonyms.

Semantic equivalence in words is highly unstable; it tends to turn into the relations of semantic proximity. This pronounced tendency to semantic differentiation may be viewed as a realization of the economy principle in the language system which “does not need” words different in form and absolutely similar in meaning. The English language provides vast information on the process involved. For historical reasons in English there are countless pairs of synonyms where a native word has a correspondence in the one borrowed from French, Greek, or Latin, e.g. inner – internal, sharp – acute, to answer – to reply, to buy – to purchase, help – aid, world – universe and so on. There are triplets as well, e.g. to begin (start) – to commence – to initiate, to end – to finish – to conclude, kingly – royal – regal, etc.

The analysis of the latest borrowings shows that to avoid identity in meaning the semantics of the borrowed words start to change so as to differentiate themselves from the already functioning units in the language. The French word “boutique” means “a small shop” but in English it has come to imply “a place where they sell up-to-date clothes and other articles of the newest kind”.

Another type of semantic relations is the relationship of inclusion which exists between two words if the meaning of one word contains the semantic features constituting the meaning of the second word. The meaning of the word “plant” is “a living thing that has leaves and roots, and grows usually in earth, especially the kind smaller than trees”. The meaning of the word “tree” is described as “a tall plant with a wooden trunk and branches that lives for many years’. The meaning of the word “flower” is “the part of a plant, often beautiful and colourful, that produces seeds or fruit”. The word “grass” means “various kinds of common low growing green plants whose biades and stems are eaten by sheep, cows, etc, on hills and in fields”. Thus, the words “tree, flower, grass” are described through the more general notion of a plant that means the inclusion of the meanings of a tree, a flower, grass into the meaning of the plant.

Meaning inclusion is usually referred to as hyponymy. A more specific term (a tree, a flower, grass) is called hyponym; a more general term is called hyperonym. Hyponymic relations are always hierarchal. The hyponymic structures may consist of several layers. The word “tree” is a hyperonym to particular names of trees (maples, willows, oaks, chestnuts, pines, firs). Thus, the hyponymic relations are said to form vertical ties within vocabulary units.

The semantic relations of proximity, equivalence and inclusion are based on finding similarity in the features constituting the lexical meaning of lexemes. However, the semantic features may be contrasted. The contrast of semantic features helps to establish the semantic relations of opposition. Words characterized by the semantic relations of opposition are usually referred to as antonyms.

The relations of proximity imply that in most cases words are characterized by partial similarity of meaning but there are semantic features helping to distinguish one word from another. So, the shared semantic part shows the proximity of words while the individual semantic features are contrasted and may be taken as a basis for opposing one word to another.

The relations of opposition imply the incompatibility or exclusion of the meaning of one word by another. This means that the referential areas of the two (or more) words are different and opposed to each other. At the same time, the incompatibility of meanings does not imply absolute difference in the semantics of words. The meaning of the word “black” is defined as “opposite to white, colourless from the absence or complete absorption of all light” The meaning of the word “white” is “resembling a surface reflecting sunlight without absorbing any of the visible rays; of the colour of milk or fresh snow or common salt or common swan’s plumage”. As it is seen from the definitions two different physical phenomena (the reflection and the absorption of the light) result in the emergence of two different colours.

However, being opposed in meaning the words black and white share the semantic feature of “colour” and “the absence of bright colour”. That shows that the words characterized by the semantic relations of opposition reveal a certain degree of semantic proximity. Thus, the proximity or the opposition of referents helps to draw a distinguishing line between synonyms and antonyms which are differentiated not on purely semantic but on extralinguistic grounds as well.

There are two types of relations of semantic opposition: polar and relative oppositions. Polar oppositions are those which are based on one semantic feature uniting two linguistic units by antonymous relations, e.g. rich – poor, dead – alive, young – old, short – long, etc. Relative oppositions imply that there are several semantic features on which opposition rests. The verb “to leave” means “to go away from”; its opposite, the verb “to arrive”, denotes “reaching a place, especially the end of a journey”. It is obvious that the verb “leave” implies certain finality and movement in the opposite direction from the place specified. The verb “to arrive” lays special semantic emphasis on “reaching something”, i.e. attaining a point which is set as an aim and implies effort in achieving the goal. Thus, it is not just one semantic feature the presence of which accounts for the polarity in meaning, but a whole system of semantic features underlying the opposition of the two words (leave and arrive) in the semantic aspect.

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