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Ways of classifying lexicon. Types of semantic relations of lexical units. Structure of the English vocabulary


Ways of classifying lexicon


The lexicon in a dictionary is usually organized formally – lexical items are listed according to their written characteristics, usually alphabetically. Alphabetical arrangement is the most convenient form of presenting lexical units of a language that has an alphabet.


Yet, the lexicon in language structure is organized around totally different multilateral principles. Thousands of lexical units of all types (affixes, words and conventionalized word combinations as well as their derived senses) make up the lexicon – a structured system with its own principles of organization. And, in its turn, the meaning and value of each lexical unit is determined by its place in the lexicon as a whole.


The earliest (going back to Aristotle) attempt to classify the lexicon is classification of words into parts of speech– big classes having certain functional (part of speech) meaning, a system of grammatical categories characteristic of the class, specific syntactic functions, and specific types of form- and word building means. Words within a part of speech may be subdivided further according to the type of grammatical meaning they possess. Thus, nouns are subdivided into concrete and abstract, countable and uncountable; verbs are subdivided into transitive and intransitive.


Lexicologists classify lexical units of a language according to their lexical parameters: their etymology, their morphological and derivational structure, according to frequency of occurrence in speech, style register and other various formal or structural-semantic characteristics.


Semantic classification of lexical units, and first of all, of words is the most recent and fundamental one for understanding the lexicon. This classification is based on their semantic, or sense relations – different kinds of associative connections that make links between the words predictable.


Here we shall discuss the established principles of semantic classification and organization of words in the English language.


Major types of semantic relations of lexical units


All lexical units in the lexicon display certain types of semantic relationsto other lexical units based on common meanings that form a word-net. The principles of these relations have become the object of scientific studies quite recently.


F. de Saussure (1857-1913) was the first to demonstrate two major types of relationsbetween language units – syntagmatic and paradigmatic, and this classification is applicable to description of phonological, morphological, syntactical and lexical units.


Syntagmatic relations are the relations of mutual expectancy of combining elements, whether they are phonemes, morphemes or words. Syntagmatic relations are linear sequence relations of lexical or any other language units in speech that can be presented as a horizontal line:

un-comfort-able; to meet the demand/requirement; strong man/tea;

He feels happy/uncomfortable /good/bad/miserable.


Lexical substitution in a phrase is possible due to paradigmatic relations of certain lexical units. Paradigmatic relations are non-linear relations of language units based on their common function and similar meaning in a language system. For example, in a phrase John became uncomfortable the noun John may be substituted by the noun the person or the man as they have common semantic features [definite HUMAN, MALE], the verb became may be replaced bythe verb turned or grew as all of them denote [TRANSACTION],instead ofthe adjective uncomfortable the adjective uneasy or inconvenient may be used as they all denote the absense of quality of [RELIEF and CONSOLATION]. The words that are in paradigmatic relations and may be substituted in a phrase can be presented in a vertical line:

The person became uncomfortable

↕ ↕ ↕

The boy turned uneasy

↕ ↕ ↕

John grew inconvenient

Paradigmatic relations are the most fundamental for the organization of the lexicon and they are very diverse.



Paradigmatic relations of lexical units


There are two major groups of paradigmatic relations of lexical units, and namely words:

1. The relations of inclusion,or hierarchical relations (hyponymy, meronymyandserial relations);

2. The relations of compatibility (synonymy, antonymyand incompatibility).



1. The first, most obvious type of hierarchical semantic relationship between words is hyponymy,or hypero-hyponymic relations. Hyponymy is based on inclusion – the relation of words that can be described as ‘the kind of’ relation.Thus, since a tulip is a kind of flower, flower is a kind of plant, etc., the words tulip,flower and plant are in a hyponymic relationship:






Hyponymy is the most efficient way of explaining meaning in a dictionary. The noun canary, for example, may be defined as ‘a finch that is characteristically green to yellow and is bred for song’. Finch is ‘a songbird that is small and has a short bill’. Songbird is ‘a bird that utters a characteristic musical song’. And bird is ‘an animal that is warm-blooded, has feathers, wings, and a bill, and usually can fly’. Summing up the definitions we may arrive to the following hierarchy:


In this hierarchy the word at the bottom, canary, is subordinate to finch. It has a more specialized meaning and is a hyponym [Gk ‘under’+name] to finch. In its turn, finch is a hyponym of song-bird, and song-bird is a hyponym to bird.

This hierarchy may be read not only from the bottom to the top (this hierarchy should be called hypo-hyperonymic) but also from the top to the bottom (it will be called hypero-hyponymic then). In this case the word at the top bird is the superordinate – the lexeme with a general meaning, or a hyperonym [Gk ‘above’+name]for songbird; songbird is a hyperonym for finch and finch is a hyperonym for canary. (The terms hyperonym and hyponym werefirst used by John Lyons /Lyons 1963: 69-71/).


Hyponymy is the most pervasive type of semantic word relationship structuring large parts of the lexicon. It is observed in various parts of speech but most typical hyponymy is in concrete nouns.


One should also mention quasi-hyponymy,a relationship which takes place between some nouns and especially between some adjectives and verbs when the real hyperonym is missing in the language system. Thus, a word cutlery is a quasi-, or pseudo-hyperonym for knife, fork and spoon as it in contrast to them it belongs to a different lexico-grammatical class: the class of non-countable nouns. Coloured is a quasi-hyperonym for colours of spectrum green or yellow,or red because it includes black which can hardly be called the colour of the spectrum.


The second, less studied type of hierarchical relations between words is more difficult to describe. It is meronymy therelations of parts to the whole (in some works these relations are called partonomy). Meronymy is a second major type of lexical hierarchy. The division of the human body into parts serves as a prototype for all part-whole hierarchies, where finger is a meronym of hand, and hand is a meronym of arm:




finger, etc.

These relations are diverse (cf. the relations between a finger and a hand – visible, more or less clear-cut, but non-detachable;a handle and a door – visible, clear-cut and detachable;a chin and a face – not clearly cut, non-detachable.


Words having meronymic relations can be described with a frame ‘A has B’: ‘a body has an arm’, ‘an arm has a hand’ a hand has fingers’; ‘a car has wheels; a book has pages’; ‘a saw has teeth’, etc. But due to ambiguity of the word to have this frame is too general. It includes different attributes:

A car has wheels (‘includes as its detachable part’),

A woman has a husband (‘acquires but hardly has a possession of’),

A sound has a pitch of voice (‘is characterized by’).

Another frame describing meronymy is ‘something is a part of something’. But this is also too wide because other types of conceptual relations that are not meronymic may be described with this frame. For example, Changing diapers is part of being a mother.


Only proper meronyms satisfy both frames. In a case of meronymy it is possible to say:

A car has wheels and

A wheel is part of a car.

In relations between words similar to meronymy, called meronym-like, or quasi-meronymical, only one of the criteria may be used. Thus, it is impossible to say

*A husband is a part of a woman or

*Being a mother has changing diapers.

Quasi-meronymical relations that can be described with only one of the frames, often occur between non-concrete entities as in France – Europe (France is part of Europe but not *Europe has France).


The third very specific type of hierarchical relationship is serialbut it can hardly be called inclusion. Serial sense relations have variations – graded and cyclical series. The commonest example of a graded series is military ranks (Private, Lance Corporal, Corporal, Sergeant, Staff Sergeant, Warrant Officer 2nd Class, Warrant Officer 1st Class, 2nd Lieutenant, Lieutenant, Captain, Major, Lieutenant-Colonel, Colonel, Brigadier, Major-General, Lieutenant-General, General, Field Marshal – are military ranks in the British Army). Another example is an open number system as in one, two, three … . The best example of cyclical serial relationsbetween lexemes, which, in contrast to graded series, are not open-ended, are seasons of the year (winter, spring, summer, autumn) or days of the week which repeat as soon as they end.



2. Alongside hierarchical relations between words, relations of compatibility – partial semantic overlapping of units on the same level of abstraction – are also considered to be the chief type of paradigmatic relations.


There are three major types of semantic relations of compatibility between words, they are a) synonymy, b) antonymy, c) incompatibility. All of them are based on some common semantic features, some ‘sameness’ of word meanings, while their other features do not clash. No inclusion is observed; words are on the same hierarchical level.


a) Synonymy is the most obvious type of compatibility. Synonymy presupposes a certain identity. If X is Z then Z is X, that is, for example, if eyeglasses are spectacles then spectacles are eyeglasses. To symbolize words’ mutual and symmetric implication of the words we may use the sign of similarity and state thateyeglassesspectacles. Yet many scholars point out that words rarely are 100 per cent similar and interchangeable. Words may share the basic componential features but be different along other lines.


b) Antonymy is a relation of semantic opposition that can be symbolized with the double-headed arrow .The term ‘opposition’ is rather vague. It includes reversible relationship of words (husbandwife, buysell), directional opposition (comego, arrivedepart), or complementary relationship (alivedead, malefemale). The most typical antonomy is observed in cases of polar opposition (coldhot, bigsmall).


c) Incompatibility() is the relation of mutual exclusiveness of a set of co-hyponyms –words under the same hyperonym, or co-meronyms– words under the same meronym.The words denoting the same whole but are neither synonyms nor antonyms. For example, the words catdoglionelephant within the major superordinate animal, or words denoting sister-parts of a whole like bathroom, bedroom, kitchen, sitting room, stairs, porch denoting different parts of a house are mutually exclusive, or incompatible.


So far we have discussed the basic primitive,orprimaryparadigmatic sense relations. More distant paradigmatic relations,derived by logical inference, occur between such words as horse and oat, tea and kettle.


It should be stressed that one and the same word may demonstrate different types of relations of hierarchy and compatibility towards different words in the lexicon as demonstrated with the word eyeglasses, which isas a node in a word-net:

Optical device


mirror monocle eyeglasses spectacles

side side joint lens


All these types of semantic relationship of words provide the basis for uniting them into various lexical-semantic groups and groupings.



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