Topic 11B – The word as a linguistic sign. Homonymy – sinonymy – antonymy. ‘false friends’. Lexical creativity

Topic 11B – The word as a linguistic sign. Homonymy – sinonymy – antonymy. ‘false friends’. Lexical creativity

The term semantics was coined in the nineteenth century to refer to the study of meaning. This science is central to the study of the human mind. It interacts with phonology, morphology, syntax.


Saussure used the term SIGN to refer to the symbolic entity which consists of signifier and signified (although many linguists nowadays prefer to use sign to refer to the signifier alone). The relation between these two elements form the nucleus of the semantic situation. This relation is established by a psychological associative bond. The saussurean view of language has suffered serious criticism, mainly because it is difficult to establish the nature of this link, which may be seen as a theoretical entity designed to explain the phenomenom.


Although the average speaker has a clear intuitive knowledge of the word as a clear unit of language (in part supported by writing), the definition of word and even its existence as a relevant unit encounters some difficulties. There are several criteria to approach this problem:

Phonological criteria:

words are separated by prosodic features, such as stress.

phonemes are inseparable, they act as units of opossable pairs diferentiating meaning.

Grammatical criteria:

In order to state general rules about the construction of sentences, grammar needs to refer to smaller units: clause, phrase, word, and morpheme, as constituents of words.

The relation between words and their components (morphemes) is different from that between the other units and their constituents:

– the combination of morphemes in words is determined by lexical as well as grammatical considerations, and

– the segmentation of words into sequences of morphemes is not always possible.

(We can conclude then that words are then the units of lexicology)

Lexical and semantic criteria:

One lexical item can consist of more than one orthographic word (in spite of, look for) or it can become less than a word.

Grammar can make general statements about its units. Lexicology, has to make specific statements about individual units.

Two branches:

lexical morphology: studies word forms, word formation. One problem of lexical morphology is related to word-autonomy: the passage from syntactic groups to compounds (in spite of, air -conditioning, haircut). Uncertainties reflected in the 3 possibilities (hyphenation…)

lexical semantics: studies the meaning of words. From the point of view of lexical semantics, word is a minimum free form that can occur in isolation (Bloomfield)

But: the, is, by, cannot occur in isolation. (2 main classes, open, closed)


All these considerations reveal weaknesses in the simple, clear-cut view of the word as a sign referring to an external reality. However it is clear that a linguistic unit must be used for practical reasons, and the most appropiate one is the word.


POLYSEMY: one only signifier with 2 or more meanings. Meanings usually closed related.

Never different word class.

country: nation. opposed to city.

wheel: to turn. each 4 touching the floor (in a car)

branch. tree, family, company, bank.

hook: a part of the tackle. a device used by one-armed men…

football: a sports game, a kind of ball

HOMONIMY: two words, whose signifiers share the same form. Meanings normally not related. Usually different word class, different origin.

mean: who doesn´t spend his money easily. Refer to.

saw: tool. see

no: know



Homomorphs: product of conversion

frost (noun verb)

book (noun verb have your name included in a book of reservations)

screen (noun verb)


Words that have different signifiers but the same (at least denotative, basic) meaning.

fiddle, violin

cemetery, graveyard

corpse, body

There are not absolute synonyms, each pair share denotative meaning but differs somewhat in connotative meaning. For example, the words graveyard and cemetery share a basic meaning, but they are not equally appropriated in all the contexts: (graveyard: specially appropiate for cemeteries where graves are buried, not in vertical buildings.)

The meaning connoted can be:

social and affective meaning (what is communicated by virtue of the social circumstances of language use or the feelings of the participants):

taboo and their counterparts (penis / cock)

I like you / I love you (plesyonisms)

Reflected meaning (what is communicated through association with another sense of the same expression)

knights of the round table

collocative meaning: (what is communicated by the association of a word to other words that usually occur in its environment)

make a building / build a building

thematic meaning: what is communicated by virtue of how language is organized, in terms of focus, emphasis, order, etc.

john stole it / it was john who stole it (this form implies that there are other suspects of having stolen it).


COGNITIVE SYNONIMS: must be able to replace one another without altering the sentence content (basic, denotative meaning)

fiddle, violin

PLESIONYSMS: words which refer to the same concept, but with slight differences of degree:

I like football, but he loves it.

angry upset

it is more than a nice day, it is beautiful.


Words with opposite meanings. While there are not true synonyms, the existence of antonyms seems to be a feature of language.


COMPLEMENTARIES: genuine oppositeness of meaning. They share the property of incompatibility. If we deny one, we imply the other.

true/false open/shut dead/alive

not gradable

not modified by intensifiers

not comparative nor superlative


Set of mini semantic systems,

closed: days, months, seasons, capital sins

open: animals, metals, colours, vehicles….


low/high young/old up/down fast/slow


modified by intensifiers

comparative, superlative

one of them is MARKED, the other UNMARKED

how high is it? no implications

how low is it? it is low, we don´t know how low.

the unmarked used to form the noun: width, height, depth, weight


This class of anthonyms brings forward the concept of motion or direction. The two terms of the pair are disposed along one spatial, directional axis. The relationship between the two terms is reciprocal.

The picture is above the sofa.

The sofa is below the picture.

There are other relationships which are metaphorical extensions of the spatial relationship.

Borrow/lend father/son sell/buy guest/host


North/south hill/valley always/never convex/concave top/bottom

When the relationship is that of class and member of this class, we are talking of HYPONIMY:


Animal, furniture, plant, vehicle, tool…


Dog, table, lilacs, car, hammer


Language, as any other aspect of human society is continuously being expanded and revised. New concepts are introduced everyday and they become familiar to many people thanks to mass media.


Diversity: they allow the application of many modifications to the same lexical entry:

Manly, manlike, mannish

Open endedness: the new terms can be interpreted imaginatively.

The wind whispers


The process can be applied on terms which have already been transformed:

Man manly manliness


The product of the change can be a simpler term: televise


Of lexical meanings.

Wheel chair (not every chair with wheels). Fast-food (not every food made quickly. Strawberries with milk is not fast food)

There are 3 mechanisms through which new concepts are introduced



Semantic transfer


Advertising. Sun-kissed, ready-to-eat, technology, science, dj (disc jockey became obsolet)…….


Change of the word-class of a word.

Net the ball



Change in the semantic field of the word. The word-class is the same.

Metaphor: a handful of hope

A sad match.

Metonymy: a whole expression is replaced by a part of it.

20 souls a scotch the guitar of the group


A sad city

The wind whispers

The cars shouted


Large (long)

Notice (news)

Success (happen)

Ticket (receipt (in a shop))

Station (season)

Contamination (pollution (smoke in cities))

Familiar (family)

Camping (campsite)

Persons (people, too formal))

Impressive (serious, only positive connotation))

Actually (currently, nowadays)