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II. Groups of words based on several types of semantic relations


In order to classify the entire vocabulary on the basis of conceptual relations scholars have offered different theories.


W.Humboldt’s idea of a vocabulary is that it is an organism where all parts are conceptually related to one another.


In the 19th century when the interest in taxonomies, the idea of structure and method of dividing everything into smaller parts, dominated all branches of sciences, the first unconventional dictionaries like Roget’s Thesaurus appeared in the linguistic arena. Dr Peter Mark Roget, a physician and a scholar who worked on diverse projects such as a calculating machine and a pocket chessboard, published his pioneering dictionary in 1852. Influenced by natural sciences, he tried to work out a taxonomy for the English lexicon and divided all the words into six main groups standing for appropriate conceptual areas: abstract relations, space, the material world, the intellect, volition, and sentiment/moral powers. Their further subdivision gave rise to about 1,000 semantic categories.


Later in the 20th century R. Hallig and W. von Wartburg divided all the concepts into just three groups, the Universe, Man, and Man and Universe, each having numerous subdivisions that provide further classifications of lexemes representing them and including the entire vocabulary. This classification of vocabulary into smaller domains according to common concepts was further worked out by Professor I.Trier and is known as classification into semantic (orlexical) fields.



Now we may say that large groups of words in the lexicon are the result of complex sense-relations between words. The most important of them are lexical-semantic groupsand lexical-semantic fields. Both of them are based on two types of semantic relations: hierarchyand compatibility,thatlead tohierarchical branching:

Words of the same part of speech standing for a common concept are usually referred to as lexical-semantic groups (LSG),for example,the lexical-semantic group of FEELINGS(affection, calmness, contempt, excitement, indifference, relief, restlessness, thrill). Other examples of lexical-semantic groups are KINSHIP, COLOUR, FLORA, FAUNA, MILITARY RANKS, EVALUATION. The most typical LSG are taxonomies of natural kinds of animals, plants and kinship.


Lexical-semantic fieldis a group of words of different parts of speech for a common concept. The concept of TEMPERATURE, for example, may be lexicalized in English by such adjectives, adverbs, verbs and nouns as hot, hotly; cold, to cold, coldly; heat, to heat, heated and some others that make up the lexical-semantic field of TEMPERATURE.


On the whole, field theory holds that the meanings of words in the lexicon are interrelated and form clusters, groups and fields, which in their turn form clusters of larger structures until the entire language is encompassed.


The idea of semantic fields and lexical-semantic groups has become widespread. Yet, it has its restrictions, and is quite problematic.


The borderlines of a semantic field are vague. It is not clear, for example, how detailed the lexicon structure should be. Words are not sharply separated from one another in a semantic field, as demonstrated by the group of colour terms. Some polysemantic or ambiguous lexemes may belong to different lexical-semantic groups, and establishing a borderline between them is not always easy.


And then, some semantic fields have a problem with a common denominator (unique beginner): they may not have a name for it, hence, they display a lexical gap. Thus, in the Russian language there is no common denominator equivalent to the English term meal for завтрак, обед, полдник, ужин. Lexical gaps may also be observed on the level of hyponyms or meronyms. There are, for example, three joints in a human finger, but there is only one name knuckle for one of their types.


Lexical-semantic fields and groups can hardly be called rigorous and systematic, their branching hierarchies are neither symmetric nor full, and have many lexical gaps. Though there is not an agreed criterion for singling them out, the idea of these groupings is very fruitful for understanding the structure of the lexicon. When a word is considered not in isolation but within its nearest context, paradigmatic or syntagmatic, lots of information about its inner characteristics is revealed. And then, classification of words on semantic principles into large classes like fields or groups sharing some common semantic space provides an idea of the structure of the multi-thousand word vocabulary.


Semantic relations are also of special interest to psycholinguists, who study mental lexicon – representation of lexical knowledge in the mind. The results obtained by lexicologists about sense relation of lexical units in the language system are very important for them, as the mental lexicon along with specific characteristics of their own has similar principles of organization.



Differences in the structures of lexicons in different languages


Lexical systems of different languages differ greatly along many lines.


The differences become especially obvious in languages with different part-of-speech structure.While nouns and verbs are universal and can be found in any language, the number of other parts of speech differs from language to language. For example, in some languages there are no articles, or even adjectives or adverbs. Similar concepts may be lexicalized by words of different parts of speech (cf.: I am thirsty (prn+v+adj) in English and Я хочу пить (prn+v+v) in Russian).


The organization of all lexical-semantic groupings (synonyms, antonyms, lexical-semantic groups, lexical semantic fields) is different in different languages. Languages differ even in basic lexical divisions, and lexical-semantic fields and groups. For example, kinship, colour, temperature or parts of the body terms divide semantic space differently in different languages.


There are qualitative and quantitative differences between correlative lexical-semantic fields and groups. Some notions have more names in one language and fewer names in another, which makes correlation between the words in different languages only approximate. For example, the words for footwear, clothes and commercial colours are more numerous in English; the words for basic colour terms, the state of the mind and mood are more numerous in Russian, names for snow are more numerous in the Eskimo, and names for holes are more various in the language of Australian aborigines and this leads to semantic differences between correlative words in different languages. In Japanese there is one word denoting the colour range between blue and green, that is why its meaning is different from both ‘green’ and ‘blue’ in English.


These differences cause hot debates on the problem of relations between the structure of lexical-semantic groups (fields) and the structure of conceptual fields in the minds of people speaking different languages, the problem of relations of language and thought in linguistics and philosophy. There is a question of whether there are universal concepts that exist independently of a language, or whether language imposes a conceptual framework on our thinking without our noticing it. “We dissect nature along the lines laid down by our native languages”, said Benjamin Lee Worf, and his arguments along with those of Edward Sapir, led to the development of a position known as the Sapir-Worf hypothesis, which, however, has not yet been proven.



Further readings


Вердиева З.Н. Семантические поля в современном английском языке. – М.: Высшая школа , 1986.

Завражнова С.И. Системное описание лексики. – M.: МГПИ им.В.И.Ленина, 1985.

Уфимцева А.А. Опыт изучения лексики как системы.—M.: Изд-во АН СССР, 1962.

Crystal, D.A. The Structure of the Lexicon // The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. – Cambridge, CUP, 1996 (reprinted).

Cruse, D.A. Lexical semantics. – Cambridge: CUP, 1991 (reprinted).

Lyons, J. Structural Semantics. – Oxford: Blackwell, 1963.


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