Unit 4 Lexicology


You will need Dennis Freeborn (1995) A Course Book in English Grammar (2nd edition), Basingstoke: Macmillan, to proceed through this Unit and beyond. You might like to read Chapter 2 of this book now, to refresh your memory on words and morphemes, and to begin to see how grammar and meaning are interlinked. (If you are using the older, first edition of Freeborn, then the chapter references I give in this Unit will not match up - you can usually tell from the content where to look, but as a rough guide, Freeborn inserted an extra chapter 1 into his new edition, so the chapter references will be one or two out of sequence).

Under the heading of lexicology we can cover several dimensions of linguistics. Fundamentally we are concerned here with the element of the word. However, we have already seen that words are composed of one or more morphemes, and a single word does not always correspond exactly with a single lexeme. Furthermore, words are the constituent parts of phrases which form clauses and sentences, so we must consider their syntactic dimension. And words are also the constituent parts of meaningful processes and propositions, so we must consider them in the light of semantics. For all these reasons, the next three Units are especially strongly linked.


Word Classes

Most words are lexical words. This means that they have a meaningful content. There are so many of these words because they are constantly being added to with new words and new derivations, and so they can be said to be an 'open' class of words. Some words, however, are function words. Their purpose is simply to hold the clause together grammatically. Examples of function words include 'and,' 'to', 'from', 'a', and 'itself'. This class of words rarely changes and innovations are very unusual (for example, the last innovation in pronouns was the invention of 'it' 500 years ago), so these are a 'closed' class of words.

The main classes of lexical words, or 'parts of speech' are as follows:

For detailed discussion of these, with examples, you should now read Chapter 3 of Freeborn (1995). Make sure you also read the activities that appear in the book, and decide for yourself what your answers would be for each of them.


Function Words


For detail and discussion of these, you should now read Chapter 4 in Freeborn (1995). Again, make sure you are confident that you understand this material before you proceed.

You will have realised by the end of Freeborn's chapter that it is essential to talk about the environments in which individual classes of words occur. For example, prepositions and conjunctions can hardly be discussed without mentioning phrases and clauses. These issues will be taken up again in Unit 5 on syntax.


Lexical Relations

Lexical choices often create systematic links across sentences and texts. This aspect of textuality is known as cohesion, and it is the relationship between lexemes that establish cohesive links in language. There are various types of cohesive link. Most obviously, cohesion can be indicated explicitly using a conjunctive adverb or a simple conjunction:

however, therefore, consequently, firstly, secondly, finally
and, then, so, but, because, with

Secondly, reference is a source of cohesion. Typically, co-reference between lexemes is carried by pronouns, possessives and demonstratives. Consider the co-reference in these children's rhymes:

Three blind mice, three blind mice.
See how they run! See how they run!

Dr Foster went to Gloucester in a shower of rain.
He stepped in a puddle right up to his middle and never went there again.

Substitution is a third type of cohesive link. In the first of the following examples, a noun is substituted; in the second, a verbal element is substituted:

My computer is very old now. I must get a new one.

Do you know what to do? Everyone else does.

The final type of cohesive link is ellipsis. This is where some element is omitted altogether. Again, ellipsis can be nominal or verbal, or can omit a whole phrase:

Where did you put the milk?
Back in the fridge.

I brought some cake and Barbara some fruit.

If there's any coffee left, I'd like some more.


Lexical Cohesion

The ways in which lexical items relate to each other in terms of their meaning also creates cohesion. The most obvious form of lexical cohesion is repetition. Consider these examples:

As the tyre burst he almost lost control of the car. When he finally stopped at the side of the road, the tyre was in shreds.

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps on this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way
To dusty death.

Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we are free at last!

Lexical cohesion is dependent on both collocation and the semantic field with which the word belongs. For example, all of these lexemes could be said to belong to the same semantic field:

muggy, weather, rain, cloudy, humid, precipitation, cold front, windy

You might expect some or all of these words to appear if the speaker was talking about the weather, and the fact that some or many of these words appear is one way in which the hearer can tell that the same topic is being maintained. Clearly there are differences in formality involved in some of these words: 'rain' is a casual, conversational word for the more formal, technical 'precipitation'.

The semantic relations between words create cohesion in this way. These lexical semantic relationships can be categorised as: synonymy, antonymy, and hyponymy, as follows.

Consider the following sets of words:

quick - rapid - fast - sharpish cry - weep - sob - roar
small - little - miniscule - tiny buyer - punter - purchaser - customer
lavatory - toilet - restroom - bog letter - line - epistle - correspondence
sidewalk - pavement - path biscuit - cookie
butty - sarnie - sandwich - cob - bap plimsoll - sandshoe - pump - dap

These sets each contain synonyms - that is, the words mean roughly the same thing. I use 'roughly' because there is really no such thing as a true perfect synonym. Though the denotation (strict 'dictionary' meaning) of 'cry,' 'weep,' 'sob' and 'roar' might be the same, these words vary in their connotations (associated meanings when the word is considered in actual usage). You might imagine different sorts of crying when someone 'weeps' or 'sobs', and you are likely to use 'roar' as a synonym of 'cry' if you are from Yorkshire - it is a regional dialect word.

In others of the sets (the 'lavatory' and 'letter' sets), the differences between the synonyms is largely one of formality. You might drop a line to a friend, but engage in correspondence if you are an important politician, or even compose an epistle if you are an 18th century English poet. Notice too how the verbs that typically accompany these words ('drop,' 'engage in,' 'compose') also match the level of formality. The combination of word-choice and syntactic form in this way is known as register.

The second group of words ('sidewalk' to 'dap') feature synonyms that vary mainly because of different regional usage - again, they show dialectal variation. If you want a sandwich here in Nottingham you ask for a 'cob'. Americans walk on the 'sidewalk' while British people use the 'pavement' or, in a more everyday 'colloquial' style, the 'path'.

Words and phrases can work synonymously to give a sentence coherence. For example:

Paris is lovely in the spring. It's also easier to walk around the French capital without the crowds.

This blessed plot..., this earth, this realm, this England.

Here, a word or phrase is used synonymously to avoid stylistic repetition (which can often sound clumsy) in the first example. In the second, from John of Gaunt's speech in Shakespeare's Richard II, a whole list of synonyms is used to refer to 'England', and the over-use of repetition can be read as evidence of the character's verbosity.

Antonymy refers to the use of words with opposite meanings to create cohesion. Antonyms fall into three types:

The contrary of a gradable antonym does not necessarily entail the other word: saying someone is 'not cowardly' does not necessarily mean that they are 'brave'.

Lastly, lexical cohesion is carried by hyponymy. This is a term that covers both superordinacy and subordinacy. For example, consider the following diagram:

Here, words that are more general are 'superordinates' and words that are more specific are 'subordinates'. 'Animal' is a superordinate hyponym of 'dog', while 'trout' is a subordinate hyponym of 'fish'. texts and utterances often combine hyponyms to maintain cohesion and avoid clumsy repetition. For example:

A Jaguar came speeding round the corner. The car skidded and crashed into a tree.

Furniture Sale! All beds, wardrobes and tables half price!


Semantic Categories

It is worth at this point pre-empting some of the discussion from Unit 6 Semantics, while we are concerned with the meanings of words. There seems to be a sense of 'basicness' in hyponymic structures. In other words, in any particular situation there will be an appropriate level of specificity. Consider these utterances, which are over-specific and under-specific respectively:

[Mother to son:]
Get in the Ford Ka special edition 1.4.

[Two people at the dog-show Crufts:]
Do you know what won the 'best of breed' this year?
A dog.

The more appropriate 'basic' elements required here would be 'car' and 'Yorkshire terrier', respectively. Of course, deliberately using the non-expected hyponymic term can generate certain effects and meanings. The mother in the first example could be teasing her son for his overdeveloped interest in all things technical. The speaker at the dog show could be being sarcastic. Similarly, the following speaker could be simply being evasive:

What's that in your pocket?
A fruit

Finally, it seems that our categorisation of semantic fields works as a sort of 'network' structure. Some elements are central to the field, others are secondary, and many elements are peripheral. The organisation of these networks is, of course, both culturally-specific and a result of an individual's experience. For example, whenever British students are asked to name an example of a fruit, the first thing they alwasy say is either 'apple' or 'orange'. These can be said to be prototypical examples of fruit for a British person. Asking them to suggest 10 more examples of fruit usually produces 'pears', 'bananas', 'strawberries', 'peaches', 'nectarines' and so on - all commonly available in British shops. However, asking the students to name another 30 fruit causes them problems. They begin to name fruit which are very unusual in a British context: 'mango,' 'guava,' 'pomegranate,' 'starfruit' and then even 'semi-fruit' such as 'tomato'.

The point here is that we should not speak of category members as being either 'in' or 'out' of the category, but should rather describe items as good and less good examples of the category. Thus, 'apple' is a very good example of a fruit. 'Guava' - while still being a fruit - is a less good example. This means that a 'potato' can be described as being such a bad example of a fruit that most people do not consider it a fruit at all. The fact is, though, that even non-fruit can be graded as examples of fruit. To test this, if you ask someone to say which is more 'fruity', a potato or a table, they will almost always say that it is the potato. It isn't as simple as saying that potatoes and tables are just not-fruit; they are both bad examples of fruit, and 'table' is an even worse example than 'potato'. The same pattern applies to all categories.



Try to decide which of the following are acceptable to you, and which are somehow strange. Can you account for the strange examples on the basis of a lexical semantic description?

I grow apples and pears.
I grow apples, pears, oranges and bananas.
I grow apples and some grape varieties, potatoes and tulips.
I grow apples, cabbages, chickens and cows.
I grow apples, cabbages, tables and chairs.
I grow apples, tables, computers, students and glass.

Can you imagine a context in which each of these utterances are appropriate?

Similarly, decide why the following are strange and try to account for the deviance using a lexical semantic description:

The German capital is lovely. I do like Paris.
I'd like to make three points: a, we don't want it, second, it's unnecessary, and 3 it's ugly.
Please do not drop litters on the grass.
Death, where is thy sting?
On the train he made up the time and a lie about his day.
You are requested to attend the tribunal pretty sharpish.
My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen, excuse me while I nip to the bog.
Well, the answer is yes and no.
All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.

Again, try to construct an imaginary context in which these utterances might really be heard or seen.


Further Reading

Aitchison, Jean (1994) Words in the Mind: An Introduction to the Mental Lexicon, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Carter, Ron (1987) Vocabulary, London: Allen & Unwin.

Freeborn, Dennis (1995) A Course Book in English Grammar (2nd edition), Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Halliday, M.A.K. and Ruquaiya Hasan (1976) Cohesion in English, London: Longman.

Jackson, Howard (1988) Words and their Meaning, London: Longman.

Nattinger, J.R. and J.S. De Carrico(1992) Lexical Phrases and Language Teaching, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ungerer, F. and H-J Schmid (1996) An Introduction to Cognitive Linguistics, London: Routledge.

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