Study sheet for semantics

1. Semantic relationships between words

      Modern studies of semantics are interested in meaning primarily in terms of word and sentence relationships.  Let's examine some semantic relationships between words:  

      Synonyms are words with similar meanings.  They are listed in a special type of dictionary called a thesaurus.  A regular dictionary lists words according to form, usually in alphabetical order; a thesaurus lists words  according to meaning.  Synonyms usually differ in at least one semantic feature.  Sometimes the feature is objective (denotative), referring to some actual, real world difference in the referents: walk, lumber, stroll, meander, lurch, stagger, stride, mince.  Sometimes the feature is subjective (connotative), referring to how the speaker feels about the referent rather than any real difference in the referent itselfdie, pass away, give up the ghost, kick the bucket, croak.  There tend to be very few absolute synonyms in a language.  Example:  sofa and couch are nearly complete synonyms, yet they differ in their collocability in at least one way:  one may say couch potato, but not *sofa potato.  

      One special type of partial synonym is called a paronym.  Paronyms are words with associated meanings which also have great similarities in form:  proscribe/ prescribe,  industrial/ industrious,  except/accept,  affect/effect.  Many errors in speech and writing are due to mixups involving paronyms.

      Antonyms are words that have the opposite meaning.  Oppositeness is a logical category.  There are three types: 

      Complementary pairs are antonyms in which the presence of one quality or state signifies the absence of the other and vice versa.  single/ married, not pregnant/pregnant  There are no intermediate states. (Joking aside, you can't really be "a little pregnant" or "kinda married.")

      Gradable pairs are antonyms which allow for a natural, gradual transition between two poles: good/bad, hot/ cold . It is possible to be a little cold or very cold, etc.

      Relational opposites are antonyms which share the same semantic features, only the focus, or direction, is reversed:   tie/untie, buy/sell, give/receive, teacher/pupil, father/son.

      Some concepts lack logical opposites that can be described in terms of any special word; colors are a good example:  the logical opposite of red is not red.   Such concepts may form relational antonyms, however, through symbolic systems of thinking.  For instance, in Cold War thinking, the relational opposite of American is Russian; in current US politics, the relational opposite of Democrat is Republican. These are cultural relational opposites.

      Homonyms are words that have the same form but different meanings.  There are two major types of homonyms, based upon whether the meanings of the word are historically connected or result from coincidence.

      Coincidental homonyms are the result of such historical accidents as phonetic convergence of two originally different forms or the borrowing of a new word which happens to be identical to an old word.  There is usually no natural link between the two meanings: the bill of a bird vs the bill one has to pay; or the bark of a dog vs the bark of a tree. 

      The second type of homonym, the polysemous [pAli∆si‡∆m´s] homonym, results when multiple meanings develop historically from the same word.  The process by which a word acquires new meanings is called polysemy [pAli∆si‡∆mi∆].  Unlike coincidental homonyms, polysemous homonyms usually preserve some perceptible semantic link marking the development of one meaning out of the other, as in the leg  of chair and the leg of person; or the face  of a person vs. the face of a clock.

      Sometimes it is impossible to tell whether two words of identical form are true homonyms (historically unrelated) or polysemous homonyms (historically related), such as ice scate vs. skate the fish: skate--fish (from Old English skata'ice skate (from Dutch schaat');  deer/dear are historically related (cf. darling, German Tier, animal.)

      Since polysemy is so difficult to separate from true homonymy, dictionaries usually order entries according to 1) the first recorded appearance of word or 2) frequency of meaning use.  This is a problem for lexicographers, the people who study words and write dictionaries.  

      There are universal tendencies in the directionality of polysemy.  studies of polysemy in a wide variety of languages generally find the following directions in meaning shift:  

   1) body part to part of object. (hands, face, lip, elbow, belly, vein of gold or of a leaf)  But:  appendix.

   2) animal to human for personality traits (shrew, bear, wolf, fox, quiet as a fish)   But:  my cat is a real Einstein.

   3) space to time (long, short, plural)

   4) spatial to sound (melt, rush,)

   5) sound to color (loud, clashing, mellow)  

   6) Physical, visible attribute to emotional or mental, invisible quality (crushed, big head, green with envy, yellow coward, sharp/dull, spark)  

      Directionality in polysemy seems to be logically motivated:  concrete meanings give rise to abstract ones (sharp knife --> sharp mind); mundane gives rise to the technical (chip of wood --> computer chip).

A note about spelling and semantics

      In a language like English where spelling often diverges widely from pronunciation, There is a special type of homonym called the homophone. Homophones have the same pronunciation but different spellings: meet/meat,  peace/piece, whether/weather, you, ewe, through/threw, to, two, too. cot/caught. flour/flower.  Homophones are usually are true homonyms in that they derive from completely unrelated sources. There are also occasional polysemous homophones: draft (into the army), draught (of beer), or the Russian voskresenie (Resurrection) --> voskresenye  (Sunday). 

      A language like English also has homographs, words spelled alike but pronounced differently in each of their meanings.  In English, most homographs are polysemous homographsuse (the noun vs. the verb), record (the noun vs. the verb).  But there are a few true homonyms that are homographs:  wind (a noun meaning moving air vs. a verb meaning what is done to a watch or clock).

      Polysemy may involve conversion of one part of speech to another.  Many verbs in English, especially monosyllabic verbs, can be nouns:  bend, drink, kill.  Many verbs can be transitive or intransitive:  walk, fly, burn, return .  So polysemy can result in new grammatical as well as lexical meaning. 

      In certain instances, polysemy acts as a regular, productive pattern which affects entire classes of words rather than single, isolated words.  In English, words with certain functions systematically have a secondary function.  For example:  the + noun in English may mean a) a single specific example (Thanks for letting me ride the horse (this specific horse) or b) a general type (example: The zebra is a relative of the horse.).  A new noun in English will combined with the automatically in these two different meanings:  the wug (may mean one particular wug already mentioned or a general category of beings called "wug").   Also, any verb in English can mean either single or multiple action:  He hit the table (maybe once or more than once).  If a new verb is created it automatically inherits these two meanings: He burbled the table (maybe once, maybe more than once).   Every language has examples of such regular, grammatical polysemy. 

      There are a few other minor semantic relations that may pertain between words.  The first involves the distinction between a category vs. a particular type or example of that category.  For example, a tiger is a type of feline, so feline is a category containing lion, tiger, etc.; color is a category containing red, green, etc, red, green are types of colors. Thus, feline and color are hyponyms, or cover words, and red, green, lion, tiger are their taxonyms

      The second involves a whole vs. part of the whole. A finger is a part of a hand, thus hand is the holonym of finger; and finger is a meronym of hand.  Similarly, family is the holonym of child, mother or father

      Remember semantic terms such as synonym, hyponym, meronym, etc.  are relational rather than absolute:  red is a taxonym in relation to the word color;  it is a relational antonym of the word green; finally red is a synonym of ruddy, etc.

      Now that we have discussed various semantic relations between words, let us try to categorize these relations in a more concise way.  Psychologically, it has been shown, the meanings of words or phrases are always related in one of two possible ways.

      The first way involves some relation based on similarity:  the two referents actually physically resemble one another in some way (iconicity):   face and hands of a clock, chip (of wood vs. potato chip).

      Certain figures of speech, or tropes, that is, words used in other than their literal meaning, are based on similarity relations:

      A metaphor is an implied comparison using a word to mean something similar to its literal meaning.  A contradiction arises between the literal meaning and the referent.  Metaphors can be fresh and creative or hackneyed (the eye of night for moon).  Metaphors that cease to tickle listeners with their creativity are called dead, or hackneyed, metaphors:  they simply become secondary meanings of words, polysemous homonyms.  We don't even sense the original creativity that went into the first usages of such historical metaphors as:  leg, handle.  Most compliments or insults contain metaphors, such as calling someone a pig , a worm, a big ox or a monster; or an angel.  

      A simile is a direct comparison using like or as:  Examples: quiet as a mouse, as mad as a hatter.  New similes can be created, but each language has its own particular store of accepted similes which function as collocations.  English:  healthy as a horse, quiet as a mouse.  Other languages have their own stock of well established similes:   Russians say healthy as an ox, Mongols say quiet as a fish. 

      The second type of meaning relation between polysemous words is based on contiguity.  Here the two referents do not resemble one another; rather they occur in the real world in some spatial proximity to one another (either as parts of a whole or as one item located next to another).  For instance, the mother has many mouths to feed, all hands on deck, to boot someone out of a place, London issued a statement (London here means the people governing England).

      A few figures of speech are based on contiguity relations.

      Metonymy:  Using a word to mean something existing in close physical proximity: "London" to mean the people who govern England. Also: TheWhite House said meaning The president said.

      Synecdoche:  Using a part to describe a whole:  all hands on deck (hands =whole people),  he has manymouths to feed (mouths = dependents). 

      Semantic relationships in all languages can be described based on similarity or contiguity.  This seems to stem directly from the structure of the human brain.  People who suffer brain damage affecting language usually experience impairment of either their similarity relations or their contiguity relations, depending upon precisely which area of the brain is damaged. We will take up this topic in detail during the last week of the course.