Topic 11 – The word as a linguistic sign. Homonymy Synonymy. Antonimia. "False friends". Lexical creativity.


2. THE WORD. 4

2.1. Definition criteria. 4

2.2. The word as a linguistic sign. 5

2.2.1. Saussurean’ concepts: 5 Words are linguistic signs. 5


3.1. Hyponymy. 5

3.2. Synonymy. 6

3.2.1. Total synonymy is impossible:Palmer. 6

4. Antonymy. 6

4.1. Graded antonyms (Sapir). 7

4.2. Complementaries (Lyons). 7

4.3. Relational opposites (Lyons’ converseness). 7

5. Homonymy and Polysemy. 8

5.1. Homonymy. 8

5.2. Polysemy. 8

5.3. Distinction between homonymy and polysemy. 8



7.1. Prefixation. 10

Conversion prefixes. 10

Neo-classical prefixes. 10

Neoclassical number prefixes. 10

Prefixes of time and order. 11

Locative prefixes: 11

Prefixes of attitude. 11

Prefixes of degree. 11

Pejorative prefixes. 12

Reversal or privative prefixes. 12

De. 12

Dis. 12

Un. 12

Negative prefixes. 12

7.2. Suffixation. 13

Verb suffixes. 13

Adverb suffixes. 13

Adjective suffixes. 13

Noun/adjective suffixes. 14

Nouns. 14

7.3. Compounding: 16

7.3.1. First element stressed: 16

7.3.2. Second element stressed: 16

7.3.3. Bahuvrihi compounds. 16

7.3.4. Greek- Latin bases. 17

7.4. Constraints to lexical productivity. 17

7.5. Processes. 17

7.5.1. Reduplication. 17

7.5.2. Back formation. 17

7.5.3. Proper nouns. 18

7.5.4. Blends. 18

7.5.5. New meaning: 18

7.5.6. Inventions: 18

7.5.7. Nonce formations. 18



The present topic aims to give a general overview on the following aspects regarding the idea of word and word meaning.

1. A set of possible definitions of word and the idea of word as a linguistic sign.

2. The difficulties arising on the precision of word meaning and the different relationships that can be established between different meanings that one or different words may have.

3. Some considerations about the way new words are produced, which were not contemplated in the previous topic.

4. The problems that may arise when words belonging to different ianguages are similar in form but more or less distant in meaning.


2.1. Definition criteria

Word. We all seem to sense what a word is, but when trying to define it we face many problems, and so, none of the definitions given by linguists seem to be entirely successful. In any case, the criteria are seen as tests for word identification:

a) A word is an element between potential pauses. Pauses will likely follow and precede words, even if this is more clearly seen in writing form. However, sometimes people break up words containing more than one syllable: Ab-so-lu-te-ly.

b) A word is indivisible. If you say a sentence out loud, and ask someone to add extra words to it, these will be added between the words and not within them. But what about absobloominglutely?

c) A word is a minimal free form (Bloomfield). It is the smallest unit of speech that can be meaningfully stand on its own. But what would happen for example with the article the?

d) A word is an element lying between phonetic boundaries. That is, you can tell from the sound of a word where it begins and ends. But what would happen with, for example: /d nt / (don’t you?).

e) A word is a semantic unit, that is, a unit of meaning. But we have cases such as: get rid of, which is a semantic unit, but three different words.

2.2. The word as a linguistic sign

2.2.1. Saussurean’ concepts:

1. ‘Langage’ is the faculty of speech present in all normal human beings due to heredity (our ability to talk to each other). This fault is composed of two aspects:

2. ‘langue’ (the language system): the social shared knowledge, the linguistic knowledge. It’s quite similar to Chomsky’s competence.

3. ‘Parole’: the actual act of speaking on the part of a person. It’s a dynamic, social activity in particular time and place. It’s the same as performance. Words are linguistic signs

They are linguistic in the sense that they are members of a system called langue. A system is a structure in which all elements are defined in opposition to other elements. According to Saussure they are signs in that they constitute an arbitrary relationship between:

4. signifiant: the sound image

5. signifié : the thing signified, or concept’.

The relationship between them both forms a linguistic sign: the basic unit of communication. “langue” is a system of signs.


3.1. Hyponymy

Hyponymy is the relation between two words when the sense of one o them includes the sense of the other. The upper term is the superordinate term and the lower term is the hyponym.

Hyponymy establishes hierarchy between terms. We say that a word is the immediate hyponym of another word when the former can be said to stand right below the latter in a hierarchy of meanings.










The words in the middle compose the Basic Level, a mental image: it’s made of the first words children and students of L2 learn.

Hierarchies have fuzzy boundaries, for example:

Bird: (basic level) robin and sparrow are hyponyms. However raven or hen are not so clear hyponyms, they are less central to the category.

3.2. Synonymy

Synonymy is used to mean sameness of meaning. In fact we can define synonymy in terms of symmetric hyponymy.

English is the language with the largest amount of words because it has words from two main stocks:

· Anglo-Saxon words: they are usually shorter.

· Latinate words: they are usually long and more cultivated.

However, we may find words such as chalk, wall and taste, which are Latinate even if they are short and popular.

3.2.1. Total synonymy is impossible:Palmer

According to Palmer real synonymy is impossible within a language, because no words have exactly the same meaning. Two possible synonyms may differ in meaning in at least five different ways:

1. They may differ in that they belong to different dialects of the language: Fall (AmE) / autumn (BrE)

2. They may belong to different styles:

Nasty smell (neutral), obnoxious effluvium (posh style), Horrible stink (colloquial) or Die, Pass away, Pop off

3. They may have different connotations: elderly or above the hill.

4. Or they appear in different contexts or have different collocations: likelyprobable, deep-profound

4. Antonymy

Antonymy means oppositeness of meaning.

4.1. Graded antonyms (Sapir)

According to Sapir graded antonyms can only be of as having their meaning to a higher or lesser degree than a norm. For example wide, old and big can only be understood in terms of being wider, bigger or older than something. When these adjectives are stated in their comparative forms, Sapir labels them explicitly graded, if not, they are implicitly graded.

These antonyms allow for the existence of intermediate terms (warm between hot and cold).

In each of these pairs there is a marked term and an unmarked one. We can also have Neutralization in questions, the terms are neutralized, they don’t mean what the adjective means: How tall is he? How short is he?

4.2. Complementaries (Lyons)

1. They are incompatible with each other: dead/alive, male/female

2. They are members of two-set terms.

3. Negation of one of the terms (A) implies the certainty of the other (B).

4. It’s not sure they exist because we may find elements in between: homosexual, unconscious

5. They have to belong to the same lexical field: asleep/wooded would not be accepted.

6. Superordinate complementaries may generate multiple-item sets of antonyms: Atheist: believer




4.3. Relational opposites (Lyons’ converseness)

These are pairs of words that exhibit the reversal of a relationship between items: buy/sell, lend/borrow.

There is a special kind of opposites that could somehow be assimilated to relational ones because they show some kind of relationship to each other, this relationship being temporal: ask-answer.

5. Homonymy and Polysemy

5.1. Homonymy

Homonymy occurs when we have the same word form and different meanings, different lexemes. For some authors, they have to be of the same word class as well:

Bank: shore, Barclays

Buck: male deer, money

Colt: young horse, gun

With the following words, if we apply the criteria that they have to be of the same word class, they wouldn’t be homonyms: well (adv-N) and kind (A-N).

A special case of homonyms are homophones: sun/son, pane/pain, sum/some, of/have (weak form).

5.2. Polysemy

Polysemy occurs when we have 1 lexeme having several, usually metaphorical related meanings: mouth: organ of body; entrance in a cave.

5.3. Distinction between homonymy and polysemy

Sometimes it’s not always clear whether this is an example of homonymy or polysemy. If we take these two cases:

Port: harbour; kind of fortified wine.

Mouth: organ of body; entrance in a cave.

We could solve the question by putting forward some distinctive criteria:

· Etymological criteria

To know whether they have the same origin or not, but in practice, the etymological criterion is not always decisive, because there are many words in English about whose historical derivation we are uncertain and even if some words are related historically, the speakers may sense they are not, as in port.

· Relatedness of meaning

The second major criterion would be that of unrelatedness vs. relatedness of meaning: whether the speaker feels that two words are related or not. For native speakers mouth is a single lexeme with several related senses: the mouth of the bottle, the mouth of the river…’ However, in cases such as the eye of the hurricane, the metaphor is not so clear.


‘False friends’ are elements in the lexicon of a language that bear great resemblance with the lexeme of another language, but with a variation of meaning. It happens in all levels of the communicative competence, but especially in vocabulary.

1. Borrowings from Greek and Latin, usually in the Renaissance:

Eventually: ‘finalmente’.

Library: ‘biblioteca’.

Sympathetic,: ‘compasivo’.

Actually: ‘de hecho’.

Sensible: ‘responsable’.

Constipated: ‘estreñido’

Consistent, ‘consecuente, lógico’

Disgraced: ‘deshonrado’

2. Other:

Disco: ‘discoteca’



The bulk of the new words created in a language is produced by means of word formation processes:

1. Affixation


3. Compounding.

Affixes are usually very productive (unless infixes) and they show semantic relations among them, especially antonymy.

7.1. Prefixation

It consists in putting a prefix in front of the base, sometimes with, but more usually without a change of word-class: e.g. ‘pre-determine.

We are going to classify prefixes depending on meaning, etymology or some other criteria.

Conversion prefixes

1. A: to create predicative adjectives: asleep)

2. BE: to create intensity: befriend

3. EN-EM: endanger, embitter,’

Neo-classical prefixes

Most of them are still productive.

1. AUTO: automobile

2. EXTRA: extraaffectionate

3. NEO: neoliberal, neoclassicism

4. PALEO: (old): palaeography

5. PAN: (world-wide): Pan-African

6. PROTO: (first): protoGermanic

7. TELE: television

8. VICE: vice-president

Neoclassical number prefixes

1. MONO, UNI: monorail, unisex

2. BI, DI: bicycle, diphthong


4. POLY, MULTY: polysyllabic, multiculturalism.

5. SEMI, DEMI, HEMI: hemisphere, semicircle,…

Prefixes of time and order

1. EX: ex-president

2. FORMER: former-Yugoslavia

3. PRE: pre-school

4. FORE: fore play

5. POST: post-war

6. ATER: aftertaste

7. RE: redo

Locative prefixes:

1. FORE: (front part of): foreground

2. SUB: submarine

3. SUPER: superstructure

4. INTER: international

5. TRANS: trans-oceanic.

Prefixes of attitude

1. ANTI: anti-social

2. CONTRA: contradict

3. COUNTER: (against) counteract

4. PRO: pro-life

Prefixes of degree

1. ARCH: archbishop

2. SUB: subconscious

3. SUPER: supermarket

4. MINI: minimarket

5. MAXI: maxi skirt

6. UNDER: underage

7. OUT: outnumber

8. ULTRA: ultraliberal

9. SUR: surmount

10. CO: co-education

11. HYPER: hyper creative

12. OVER: overestimate

Pejorative prefixes

1. MAL: malfunction

2. MIS: misunderstand

3. PSEUDO: pseudo-science

Reversal or privative prefixes












Negative prefixes

1. A/AN: atheist

2. DIS: disorder.

3. IN, IL, IM, IR, IG: impossible, incomplete, illegible, ignorant

4. NON: non-smoker

5. UN: unhappy, unexpected

7.2. Suffixation

It consists in putting a suffix after the base, sometimes without, but more usually with a change of word-class; e.g.: homeless. This is why the classification of suffixes will be grammatical instead of lexical (the have a small semantic role).

We group suffixes according to the word class that results when they are added to a base. We therefore speak of:








Verb suffixes

1. ATE: (to neo-classical noun bases) evaluate

2. EN: (causative): deepen

3. IFY/FY: simplify

4. IZE/ISE: modernize

Adverb suffixes

1. LY: personally

2. WARD: onward

3. WISE: clockwise

Adjective suffixes

1. ABLE: (related to the passive) translatable

2. IVE: (related to the active) attractive


1. ED: pointed, wooded

2. FUL: careful

3. ISH: childish, Finnish

4. LESS: careless

5. LIKE: childlike

6. LY: hilly

7. Y: beauty

8. AL, IAL, ICAL: chemical

9. ESQUE: picturesque

10. IC: specific

11. OUS, IOUS: pious, desirous

12. LESS: careless

Noun/adjective suffixes

1. ESE: Chinese

2. IAN: Indian, Shakespearian.

3. IST: violinist

4. ITE: Israelite, socialite


· Concrete

1. ANT: (agential): Participant

2. EE: employee

3. ER, OR: driver

· Abstract

1. AGE: (action of): coverage

2. AL: (action or result of) refusal

3. ATION: (process or state of) exploration

4. ING: building

5. MENT: amazement


ITY: (Latinate bases) elasticity, banality

NESS: meanness


· Concrete

1. EER: pamphleteer

2. ER: teenager

3. ESS: (feminine): waitress

4. ETTE: (feminine) usherette

5. LET: (small, unimportant) booklet

6. STER: (involved in) trickster

· Abstract

7. AGE: (measure of, collection of) baggage

8. DOM: (pejorative) officialdom

9. ERY, RY: slavery, nursery

10. FUL: spoonful

11. lNG: farming, duckling

12. ISM: idealism

13. OCRACY: democracy

14. SHIP: membership

7.3. Compounding:

It consists in adding one base to another, such that usually the one placed in front in some sense subcategorises the one that follows (hyponym): blackbird, armchair, bottle-feed. They function grammatically and semantically as a single word. In English, compounds are usually formed by two words and they are equally open.

There are two main stress patters:

7.3.1. First element stressed:

1. Obj + V-er: firefighter, maths teacher.

2. V + prepos: close-up, flashback

3. V-ing + Sub: washing machine, cleaning lady

4. Long established: blackboard, godfather.

7.3.2. Second element stressed:

The following usually have primary stress on their second element but if these words are followed by another stressed word with which they have close grammatical connexion, the stress may shift to the first element, e.g. ´snow-white hair but snow-´white.

1. A + N-er: wrongdoer, freethinker

2. A + Past Part: cold-blooded, red-haired

3. N + N: apple-tart, chicken soup, front door, Cathedral road

4. N + P: all-out, head-on, looker-on, Hangeron

5. Subj + Attrib: boy-friend

6. Obj + V: birth-control, blood-test

7. Adv + N: managing director.

7.3.3. Bahuvrihi compounds

This type of compounds is defined in terms of meaning. Bahuvrihi compounds or exocentric refers to the relation the constituents of the sentence have with their referents. They are not hyponyms, but they refer to a separate entity that is characterized by the compound. Some examples are: paperback, birdbrain, highbrow

7.3.4. Greek- Latin bases.

These compounds are also defined in terms of meaning, and they usually slow a first constituent borrowed from Latin or Greek. This constituent does not occur as a separate noun base in English: orthodontia, eugenics, palaeography, insecticide

7.4. Constraints to lexical productivity.

Lexical productivity by means of these processes is subject to linguistic and non-linguistic constraints:

1. Phonological: some words are impossible to create in a language because of the rarity of the sounds or sound cluster: *sfgooiç

2. Syntactic: Adjectives in English precede Nouns: *car unicorn

3. Grammatical: The word sadless is impossible, since -less cannot be added to adjectives.

Apart from these constraints, the new word must be pragmatic plausible: *snow-cream

7.5. Processes

7.5.1. Reduplication

These are compounds that have two or more constituents, these being either identical or only slightly different, e.g. wishy- washy. The difference between the two constituents may be in the initial consonants, e.g. ‘walkie-talkie’ or in the middle vowels, e.g. ‘criss-cross ‘.

They are usually informal and fami1iar, and many belong to the sphere of child parent talk. e.g. ‘din-din’ (dinner). Their uses are:

· Onomatopoeia: rat-a-tat (sound on the door), tick-tock

· Alternative movements: flip-flop. Ping-pong

· Intensifier: teeny-weeny

· Childlike: hocus-pocus, wishy-washy.

Some expressions have become lexicalised: sink or swim, tip for tat, by hook or by crook.

7.5.2. Back formation

It’s the process by which a word is created by the deletion of a supposed affix is:

Lazy (A) <laze>

Enthusiasm (N) <enthuse>.

7.5.3. Proper nouns




7.5.4. Blends

It’s a very productive process consisting of merging elements belonging to two different words to form a new one. Some examples are the following: breathalyser, smog, brunch, alcoholiday, workaholic….

7.5.5. New meaning:



7.5.6. Inventions:




7.5.7. Nonce formations

They are created just for the moment and they are often eccentric. The commonest process of word-formation of this kind is compounding and abbreviation, being the first one more familiar and informal:

to perestroika, balkanised, workaholic, magnetic levitation.

Some nonce formations will remain in the language depending some factors such as who is the coiner of the word, the need for it,…


1. Lyons, J. (1968) Introduction to General Linguistics. Cambridge: C.U.P.

2. Lyons, J. (1977) Semantics (2 vols.). Cambridge: C.U.P.

3. Quirk, R. et al. (1985) A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. N.Y.: Longman.

4. Palmer, F.R. Semantics C.U.P.Cambridge 1990

5. Gramley, s Pätzold K. A survey of Modern English Routiledge London-Newyork, 1992.

Publicado: marzo 13, 2019 por Laura Gonzalez

Etiquetas: tema 11 inglés secundaria