05 English vocabulary as a system icon

05 English vocabulary as a system



Название05 English vocabulary as a system
Дата конвертации10.10.2012
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05 English vocabulary as a system

Learning objectives: after you have studied the lecture you should be able:

1. To define vocabulary as a system.

2. To speak about: a) morphological grouping;

b) lexico-grammatical grouping

c) thematic and ideographic organization;

d)synonymic grouping (including antonyms).

3. To describe the notion of semantic field, including terminology.

Literature to be studied:

1. Seminars in English lexicology. By Mednikova, pp. 51-53.

2. A course in Modern English lexicology. By Ginzburg R. and others.

  1. The English Word. By Arnold I.V. pp. 199-213.


Some foreign scholars claim that in contrast to Grammar, the vocabulary of a language is not systematic, but chaotic.

In Russian linguistics lexicology exists as an independent discipline, as a part of the curriculum in our Universities. Russian lexicologists have worked out a comprehensive review of different types of word-groupings suggested in modern linguistics, both in the country and abroad. A short survey of formal and semantic types of groupings with a word-stock will help you in obtaining an idea of the lexical system in general.

^ One of the earliest and most obvious non-semantic grouping is the alphabetical organization of the word-stock, which is represented in most dictionaries. It is of great practical value in the search for the necessary word, but its theoretical value is almost null, because no other property of the word can be predicted from the letter or letters the word begins with.

^ Morphological groupings.

On the morphological level words are divided into four groups according to their morphological structure:

1) root or morpheme words (dog, hand);

2) derivatives, which contain no less than two morphemes (dogged (ynpямый), doggedly; handy, handful);

3) compound words consisting of not less than two free morphemes (dog-cheap-"very cheap", dog-days - "hottest part of the year"; handbook, handball)

4) compound derivatives (dog-legged - "crooked or bent like a dog's hind leg", left-handed).

This grouping is considered to be the basis for lexicology.

^ Another type of traditional lexicological grouping as known as word-families such as: hand, handy, handicraft, handbag, handball, handful, hand-made,handsome, etc.


A very important type of non-semantic grouping for isolated lexical units is based on a statistical analysis of their frequency. Frequency counts carried out for practical purposes of lexicology, language teaching and shorthand show important correlations between quantative and qualitative characteristics of lexical units, the most frequent words being polysemantic and stylistically neutral. The frequency analysis singles out two classes:

1) notional words;

2) form (or functional) words.

Notional words constitute the bulk of the existing word-stock, according to the recent counts given for the first 1000 most frequently occurring words they make up 93% of the total number.

All notional lexical units are traditionally subdivided into parts of speech: nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs. Nouns numerically make the largest class - about 39% of all notional words; verbs come second - 25% of words; they are followed by adjectives - 17% and adverbs - 12%.

^ Form or functional words - the remaining 7% of the total vocabulary - are prepositions, articles, conjunctions, which primarily denote various relations between notional words. Their grammatical meaning dominates over their lexical meaning. They make a specific group of about 150 units.

^ Lexico-grammatical grouping.

By a lexico-grammatical group we understand a class of words which have a common lexico-grammatical meaning, a common paradigm, the same substituting elements and possibly a characteristic set of suffixes rendering the lexico-grammatical meaning.

Lexico-grammatical groups should not be confused with parts of speech. For instance, audience and honesty belong to the same part of speech but to different lexico-grammatical groups because their lexico-grammatical meaning is different.

^ Common Denominator of Meaning, Semantic Fields.

Words may also be classified according to the concepts underlying their meaning. This classification is closely connected with the theory of semantic fields. By the term "semantic fields" we understand closely knit sectors of vocabulary each characterized by a common concept. The words blue, red, yellow, black, etc. may be described as making up the semantic field of colours, the words mother, father, sister, cousin, etc. - as members of the semantic field of kinship terms, the words joy, happiness, gaiety, enjoyment, etc. as belonging to the field of pleasurable emotions, and so on.

The members of the semantic fields are not synonymous but all of them are joined together by some common semantic component - the concept of colours or the concept of kinship, etc. This semantic component common to all members of the field is sometimes described as the common denominator of meaning. All members of the field are semantically interdependent as each member helps to delimit and determine the meaning of its neighbours and is semantically delimited and determined by them. It follows that the word meaning is to a great extent determined by the place it occupies in its semantic field.

It is argued that we cannot possibly know the exact meaning of the word if we do not know the structure of the semantic field to which the word belongs, the number of the members and the concepts covered by them, etc. The meaning of the word captain, e.g. cannot be properly understood until we know the semantic field in which this term operates - the army, the navy, or the merchant service. It follows that the meaning of the word captain is determined by the place it occupies among the terms of the relevant rank system. In other words we know what captain means only if we know whether his subordinate is called mate or first officer (merchant service), commander (navy) or lieutenant (army).

Semantic dependence of the word on the structure of me field may be also illustrated by comparing members of analogous conceptual fields in different languages. Comparing, e.g. kinship terms in Russian and in English we observe that the meaning of the English term mother-in-law is different from either the Russian тёща or свекровь, as the English term covers the whole area which in Russian is divided between the two words. The same is true of the members of the semantic field of colours (cf. blue - синий, голубой), of human body (cf. hand, arm - рука) and others.

The theory of semantic field is severely criticized by Soviet linguists mainly on philosophical grounds as some of the proponents of the semantic-field theory hold the idealistic view that language is a kind of self-contained entity standing between man and the world of reality (Zwischenwelt). The followers of this theory argue that semantic fields reveal the fact that human experience is analysed and elaborated in a unique way, differing from one language to another. Broadly speaking they assert that people speaking different languages actually have different concepts, as it is through language that we see the real world around us. In short, they deny the primacy of matter forgetting that our concepts are formed not only through linguistic experience, but primarily through our actual contact with the real world. We know what hot means not only because we know the word hot, but also because we burn our fingers when we touch something very hot. A detailed critical analysis of the theory of semantic fields is the subject-matter of general linguists. Here we are concerned with the theory only as a means of semantic classification of vocabulary items.

Two more points should be discussed in this connection. Firstly, semantic groups may be very extensive and may cover big conceptual areas, e.g. man-universe, etc. There may be, however, comparatively small lexical groups of words linked by a common denominator of meaning. The words bread, cheese, milk, meat, etc. make up the semantic field with the concept of food as the common denominator of meaning. Such smaller lexical groups seem to play a very important role in determining individual meanings of polysemantic words in lexical contexts. Analysing polysemantic verbs we see that the verb take, e.g. in combination with the lexical group denoting means of transportation is synonymous with the verb go (take the tram, the bus, etc.). When combined with members of another lexical group possessing another semantic denominator, the same verb is synonymous with to drink (to take tea, coffee, etc.). Such word-groups are often used not only in scientific lexicological analysis, but also in practical class-room teaching. In a number of textbooks we find words with some common denominator of meaning listed under the headings Flower, Fruit, Domestic Animals, and so on.

In other words lexical or semantic field is the organization of related words and expressions into a system which shows their relationship to one another.

For example, kinship terms such as father, mother, sister, brother, uncle, aunt belong to a lexical field whose relevant features include generation, sex, membership of the father's or mother's side of the family, etc.

The absence of a word in a particular place in a lexical field of a language is called a lexical gap.

For example, in English there is no singular noun that covers both cow and bull as hoarse covers stallion and mare.

^ Common Contextual Associations. Thematic Groups.

Another type of classification almost universally used in practical class-room teaching is known as thematic grouping. Classification of vocabulary items into thematic groups is based on the co-occurrence of words in certain repeatedly used contexts.

In linguistic contexts co-occurrence may be observed on different levels. On the level of word-groups the word question, e.g., is often found in collocation with the verbs raise, put forward, discuss, etc., with the adjectives urgent, vital, disputable and so on. The verb accept occurs in numerous contexts together with the nouns proposal, invitation, plan and others.

As a rule, thematic groups deal with contexts on the level of the sentence (or utterance). Words in thematic groups are joined together by common contextual associations within the framework of the sentence and reflect the interlinking words, e.g. tree-grow-green; journey-train-taxi-bags-ticket or sun-shine-brightly-blue-sky, is due to the regular co-occurrence of these words in similar sentences. Unlike members of synonymic sets or semantic fields, words making up a thematic group belong to different parts of speech and do not possess any common denominator of meaning.

Contextual associations formed by the speaker of a language are usually conditioned by the context of situation which necessitates the use of certain words. When watching a play, e.g., we naturally speak of the actors who act the main parts, of good (or bad) staging of the play, of the wonderful scenery and so on. When we go shopping it is usual to speak of the prices, of the goods we buy, of the shops, etc. (In practical language learning thematic groups are often listed under various headings, e.g. At the Theatre, At School, Shopping, and are often found in text-books and courses of conversational English).

^ Thematic and ideographic organization of a vocabulary.

It is a further subdivision within the lexico-grammatical grouping. The basis of grouping is not only linguistic but also extra-linguistic. The words are associated because the things they name occur together and are closely connected in reality, e.g., terms of kinship. Names of parts of the human body, colour terms, etc.

^ The ideographic groupings are independent of classification into parts of speech, as grammatical meaning is not taken into consideration. Words and expressions are here classed not according to their lexico-grammatical meaning but strictly according to their signification, i.e. to their system of logical notions. These subgroups may compare nouns, verbs adjectives and adverbs together, provided they refer to the same notion. Under alphabetical order the words which in the human mind go close together (father, brother, uncle, etc.) are placed in various parts of a dictionary. So, some lexicographers place such groups of lexical units in the company they usually keep in every day life, in our minds. These dictionaries are called ideographical or ideological.

^ Synonymic grouping is a special case of lexico-grammatical grouping based on semantic proximity of words belonging to the same part of speech. Taking up similarity of meaning and contrasts of phonetic shape we observe that every language in its vocabulary has a variety of words kindred (родственный) or similar in meaning but distinct in morphemic composition, phonetic shape and usage. These words express the most delicate shades of thought, feelings and are explained in the dictionaries of synonyms.

Antonyms have been traditionally defined as words of opposite meaning. Their distinction from synonyms is semantic polarity. The English language is rich in synonyms and antonyms, their study reveals the systematic character of the English vocabulary.

^ Special terminology.

Sharply defined extensive semantic fields are found in terminological systems. Terminology constitutes the greatest part of every language vocabulary. A term is a word or word-group used to name a notion characteristic of some special field of knowledge, e.g., linguistics, cybernetics, industry, culture, informatics. Almost every system of terms is nowadays fixed and analyzed in numerous special dictionaries of the English language. ?

^ Hyponymy (включение).

Another type of paradigmatic relation is hyponymy. The notion of hyponymy is traditional enough; it has been long recognized as one of the main-principles in the organization of the vocabulary off all languages. For instance, animal is a generic term as compared to the specific names: wolf, dog, mouse. Dog, in its tern, may serve as a generic term for different breeds such as bull-dog, collie, poodle.

In other words, this type of relationship means the "inclusion" of a more specific term in a more general term, which has been established by some scientists in terms of logic of classes*. For example, the meaning of tulips is said to be included in the meaning of "flower", and so on.

So, the word-stock is not only a sum total of all the words of a language, but a very complicated set of various relationships between different groupings, layers, between the vocabulary as a whole and isolated individual lexical units.



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