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

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

Throughout this topic I am going to explore the main types of lexical relation. I will divide the topic into four sections. In the first one I’ll analyse the concept of word as a linguistic sign. Then I will move on deal with the concepts of homonymy, synonymy and antonymy. My third section will be devoted to false friends. Finally, I will finish the topic by looking at lexical creativity and how new words are formed.

To start with this topic it is important to deal with Ferdinand de Saussure. He describes the structures within any language which make meaning possible. We owe to him the idea of “the word as a linguistic sign”. He insisted that meaning was a relationship between two equally participating characteristics: the objects, ideas, etc, on the one hand; and the language used to refer to them on the other hand. The first element is called signified, and the other signifier. According to Saussure, the relationship words have to the world (reference) is symbolic since rather than being labels for things, they are labels for concepts. The relationship between signified and signifier is arbitrary, that is, there is no logical, intrinsic or natural relation between a particular acoustic sound and a concept. For this reason, we refer to the same concept with different acoustic sounds in different languages. Hence, the meaning of any word or sign is derived from its existence within a network of related signs called semantic field. For instance, in the semantic field of “colours”, the word “red” is similar to “orange”, but different to brown and green etc.

For Saussure, everything in the system of language is based on the relations that can occur between the units in the system and on relations of difference, where the most important type of relation between units in a signifying system is the syntagmatic relation, that is, a linear relationship between the signs that are presented in the sentence. In spoken or written language, words come out one by one in a linear way. We would refer to this particular configuration of signs in an abstract way as structure, where word order governs meaning. Each language has a word order structure. Apart from the syntagmatic relations, there are other relationships that exist outside the discourse and which are called paradigmatic or associative relationships.

A paradigmatic relationship is a particular relationship between a sign in the sentence and a sign not present in the sentence, but part of the rest of the language. For instance, there is a paradigmatic relationship between the pronoun “he” and the rest of pronouns (I, she, we…). In fact, signs are stored in our mind not in syntagmatic links or sentences, but in associative groups. Paradigmatic relations establish word associations in various ways. First, the meaning of a word depends to some extent to its relationship to other similar words, often through sense relations. Moreover, words in a family are related to each other through having a common base form, but different inflectional and derivative affixes.

Of the two dimensions, the paradigmatic has been the more fully studied, as part of the explanation of a language’s sense relations. A sense relation is a relationship between sentences in which we perceive their lexemes to be in some kind of systematic correspondence. When analysing these relationships in detail, we may distinguish several types, such as homonym, synonymy and so on.

The study of language in semantic terms operates at two grammatical levels: at word level, and at sentence level. Semantics at word level explores for instance the relationship which words have with each other within the language as a whole. The meaning which a word has due to its place in the linguistic system constitutes its sense.

Once I have clarified these concepts, let me move on to analyse the main types of lexical relationship. I am going to start by looking at homonymy. Homonymy is the relationship which exists between words which have the same form but different senses or meanings. For instance “bank”, the place where we deposit our money, or “bank” the side of a river. We can talk about two different types of homonyms: homophones and homographs. By homophones we understand two words sharing the same phonological form but having different meanings and often different spellings.

Scene (scenery) -seen (past participle of the verb to see)

See (to look at) – sea (ocean)

On the contrary, homographs are another type of homonyms in which two words share the same graphical form but have different meanings and sometimes different pronunciation.

A present – to present

Wind (air in motion) – to wind (to move in a twisting manner)

However, sometimes there is difficulty in differentiating between homonymy and another phenomenon: polysemy. If two words with identical forms have different origins, they are homonymous. However, if they stem from the same origin, even if they have different meanings, they are polysemous. To differentiate homonymy and polysemy it is very useful to know about the closeness in meaning and the origin of a word. For example: “Foot” may refer to the lower limb in humans; a unit of measure; the bottom part of a printed page etc. It is a polysemic word, as all their forms have the same origin. Another example of polysemous word is “horse” (the animal; hobby-horse; one of the pieces to play chess).

We can establish a distinction between absolute and partial homonyms. Absolute homonyms involve three main conditions. They have to be unrelated in meaning; all their forms have to be identical; and the identical forms have to be grammatically equivalent. An example of absolute homonymy is “sole” (bottom of foot or shoe) and “sole” (fish). We talk about partial homonymy in those cases where there is identity of minimally one or two conditions in the word form (pronunciation, spelling and meaning), but not all three.

Found (past of to find) – to found (they are not grammatically equivalent)

Once homonymy and all its variants are clear, let me move on to the concept of synonymy. The term synonymy comes from Greek “same” plus “name”. Therefore synonymy is a sense relation which exists between expressions having identical or similar meaning. For example “drunk”/”intoxicated”. It can be said that the English language is quite rich in synonyms due to the influence of other languages in its history like French, Latin, Anglo-Saxon etc. For instance we have the Old English word king; French: monarch and Latin: sovereign. The same happens with the English word: ask; French: question and Latin: interrogate. However, nowadays, these words are not interchangeable in the same context: words from a French origin can be more restricted and associated to formal language, the Latin ones are kind of obsolete and the Anglo-Saxon are the most colloquial ones.

We can distinguish between two types of synonymy. Total or absolute synonymy is rather difficult to find. Two expressions are absolute synonyms if all their meanings are identical, they are synonymous in all contexts and they are semantically equivalent, that is, their meaning or meanings are identical on all dimensions of meaning. For historical reasons that would be useless since the economy of language would not tolerate the existence of many words with exact meaning and same context use. In the same way, connotations also make it difficult for total synonymy to be found, since words have different connotations, and therefore they do not mean the same in different contexts. For example although “boring” and “monotonous” refer to the same idea, the second term has a pejorative connotation. After much research there is only one word that can be named for total synonymy: “Mercury-quicksilver”.

On the other hand, partial synonymy is the most frequent case and it is present when part of the meanings of two or more words overlap. This is the case for instance of words such as freedom/liberty; to forgive/to pardon; hide/conceal etc. in which the second form is slightly more formal.

Hence, I can say that when we talk about synonymy, we do not normally mean strict synonymy, but rather words that have the same general reference. However, it is worthwhile mentioning the phenomenon of dialect since different groups of speakers of the same language use different words to refer to the same entity; this is the case of British “lift” and American “elevator”, “queue”- “line”; “pavement”-“sidewalk” etc.

In addition, many linguists regard hyponymy as a special kind of synonymy. Coming from Greek “under” plus “name”, there is hyponymy when a hierarchical sense relation exists between two terms in which the sense of one is included in the other. For instance “syrup”, “tablet”, “pill” all contain the meaning “medicine”, in other words, they are hyponyms of “medicine”, (the term “medicine” would be called hypernym term). Other examples of hyponymy are “tiger”, “cow”, “dog”, “man” under the hypernym “mammals”.

A third type of lexical relationship is the so-called antonymy. From Greek “opposite” plus “name”, generally speaking it refers to the relationship between two words which have opposite meaning. There are four types of Antonyms: binary, converse, multiple incompatible and gradable antonyms.

Binary or complementary antonyms are those pairs of words which finish all the possibilities, that is, the positive of one implies the negative of the other, there are no more possibilities in between. The denial of one member of the pair implies the assertion of the other member. For example is someone is alive, he is not dead or the other way around. Other binary antonyms are true-false, male-female, good-evil etc.

Converse Antonyms probably constitute the most difficult type of antonymy and refer the relationship between two entities from alternate viewpoints. For example, if Mercedes Milá is Lorenzo Milá´s sister, Lorenzo Milá is Mercedes´ brother. If Princess Letizia Ortiz is Prince Felipe´s wife, Prince Felipe is Letizia´s husband etc.

Multiple incompatible antonymy describe words which are at the same level in a taxonomy and oppose to each other with the same intensity. Multiple Incompatible antonyms include for instance the days of the week (Monday is Monday and not Thursday or Saturday), months of the year, colours etc.

Finally, Gradable Antonyms are probably the most common ones, in which two terms have an opposite position on a continuous scale of values. The positive of one term does not necessarily imply the negative of the other. This relation is typically associated with adjectives and refers to adjectives which do not refer to absolute qualities but to qualities that may be subjects to comparison or qualification. Some examples may be pair of words such as hot/cold; tall/short; easy/difficult etc. They do not refer to absolute qualities but rather they may include “quite, very much” etc for instance, a cup of tea can be hot, very hot, warm, cold, very cold etc.

Once the main types of lexical relationship have been explained (homonymy, synonymy and antonymy), I am going to move on to my third section, dealing with false friends


The term false friend refers to those words in a foreign language which resemble a word in one’s mother tongue but has different meaning. False friends are also called cognates: they are words which show a similar or identical form in two languages, often the same syntactic functions, but whose meaning or uses differ.

Unfortunately for Spanish learners of English, there are many false friends in the English language. Some examples may be actually which does not mean “actualmente”, but “in fact”; carpet, which is not a “folder” (carpeta) but rather, a soft covering for the floor, and so on.

False friends very often may cause laughter for the speakers of the target language, and can be really embarrassing for the foreigners. For instance, it could be really embarrassing for a Spaniard to say to a British or American person that “he is constipated”, meaning that he has the flu, since “constipated” might mean “having diarrhea” or even the opposite. If you are constipated, in English you wouldn’t ask the doctor for a recipe, but for a prescription. In the same way, if you ask the pharmacist for a preservative, you won’t get condoms, but “conservantes”.

As teachers of English we should warn our students of the importance and dangers of false friends. It is important for learners to be aware of the differences with their mother tongue and to learn to use the English terms correctly, in order to avoid problems caused by misunderstanding.

Finally, the same as with false friends, we should teach our students that different languages have different systems and therefore translating word for word is not appropriate in more than 85 % of the cases. In the case of single words it can be said that “cat” is definitely a “gato”, “table” “mesa, etc. However with fixed expressions everything changes. Therefore we should encourage our students to realize that expressions such as “de perdidos al río” does not read in English “from lost to the river”; “si te he visto no me acuerdo” “if I have seen you, I don´t remember”; “a otra cosa mariposa” “to another thing butterfly” etc., but rather they are the so-called idioms, which are set expressions existing in a language and which do not allow literal translation.

Once false friends have been explained, I am going to move on to the last section of this topic, dealing with lexical creativity. By lexical creativity we mean the process of creation of new words. The lexicon of a language is not fixed. It changes over time and speakers add new words to talk about new inventions and their uses, new technologies, concepts, etc. The semantic system is continually being extended and revised. Two main mechanisms can be distinguished by which new concepts are introduced.

The first mechanism is word formation. According to Bauer (1983), it can be said that there are different ways of word-formation in English. These are the following: compounding, affixation (prefixation and suffixation), clipping, conversion, backformation, blending, formation of acronyms, and eponymy. Let’s see them separately.

Firstly, as far as COMPOUNDING is concerned, I should say that it is the way in which two or more existing words are stuck together, as happens in girlfriend, takeover, bittersweet or couchpotato. Compounds may be written as two independent words (washing machine), as two words joined by a hyphen (tax-free), or as one word (toothache). Often the three forms of the same compound exist side by side. The meaning of a compound cannot always be deduced from the separate meaning of the individual elements (hot dog).

Secondly, as far as AFFIXATION (also known as DERIVATION) is concerned, I should say that it involves the addition of morphemes that do not have word status, that is to say, it involves the addition of prefixes, suffixes and infixes. Prefixes precede the root morpheme (un-happy), and suffixes attach to the end of the root (happi-ness). On the other hand, infixes are inserted within the word, but in English they do not really exist. The inclusion of prefixes and suffixes, as said before, change the word in the sense that they can even give the opposite meaning or transform it into a different word type, so giving a list of prefixes and suffixes would be a never-ending task since there are hundreds of them. It must be pointed that affixation is the most productive way of creating new words in English. Good examples can be seen in the following table:

Only use the table if the document is to be handed in, not read out loud. If it is to be read, then give a brief list of examples.


Class(es) of word to which affix applies

Nature of change in meaning


Prefix ‘non-‘

Noun, adjective


Noun: non-starter
Adj.: non-partisan

Suffix ‘-ity’


Changes to noun


Prefix ‘un-‘


Reverses action
opposite quality

tie/untie, fasten/unfasten
clear/unclear, safe/unsafe

Suffix ‘-ous’


Changes to adjective

fame/famous, glamor/glamorous

Prefix ‘re-‘


Repeat action

tie/retie, write/rewrite

Suffix ‘-able’


Changes to adjective;
means ‘can undergo action of verb’

print/printable, drink/drinkable

Thirdly, as far as CLIPPING (or ABBREVIATION) is concerned, I should say that it is the process through which a word is shortened in English, as in bro from brother, pro from professional, fax from facsimile, flu from influenza or veg from vegetate (as in stay all day in front of TV).

Fourthly, as far as CONVERSION is concerned, I should say that it is the process through which a word transfers from one word class to another, as in the verb to refill to the noun a refill. It is also called ZERO DERIVATION, because it changes the word class without the addition of any suffixes. Other examples of conversion are the transformation from a hammer to the verb to hammer, or the adjective dirty to the verb to dirty.

As far as BACKFORMATION is concerned, it is the process through which new words are made by removing affixes from old ones. For instance, editor was adapted to form the verb to edit, and surrealist led to surreal. However, there is sometimes a false assumption that it brings about new words. For instance, beef-burger and later chicken-burger or vege-burger were back-formed from hamburger, which was not a “burger” made of ham, but a dish named after the city of Hamburg.

As far as BLENDING is concerned, I should say that it is the process through which two or more existing words are merged into one, as in ginormous (giant+enormous), brunch (breakfast+lunch) smog (smoke+fog) or motel (motor+hotel), Telethon (television+marathon), or even the language our future students tend to speak: Spanglish (Spanish+English).

As far as the formation of ACRONYMS is concerned, it is the process through which a word (an acronym) is formed from the initial letters of other words as in nimby (not in my back yard), NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration). And even nowadays, with the wide spread of written communication via internet in forums and chats, more acronyms have been created such as iawtc (I agree with the commenter) and so on, that help speed communication.

And finally, as far as EPONYMY is concerned, it is the process through which a new word is created from a person’s name (often the person who popularised or invented it). A very remarkable example of eponymy can be found in the word leotard from the acrobat Jules Leotard. However, most of the words created by eponymy do not tend to last in the language; they are usually NONCES (temporary words that never properly enter the language). They are often created to solve an immediate communication problem or to play on current affairs. It is extremely difficult to predict which new words will be seized upon and soon enter the dictionaries, and which will never be heard again. For example, the eponym coined in the early 90’s: TO BOBBITT was coined from the über-famous case of Lorena Bobbitt and her husband, and the newspapers came up with the verb to Bobbitt meaning something like to “vengefully remove one’s husband’s penis”. A the time, no one could have known if this word was to be a nonce that would disappear as fast as it had been coined or whether it would stay with us and enter the dictionaries. As it turns out, the word is still alive. It is used literally and figuratively (meaning something like “to remove status from”), and looks like a strong candidate for dictionary inclusion.

The second main mechanism of lexical creativity is semantic transfer. In this mechanism, the morphological and syntactic specifications of the item remain the same, and only the semantic specifications change. One of the most common forms of semantic transfer is metaphor: the meaning of a lexical item is replaced by another similar to it; the ground for the comparison has to be interpreted by the hearer.

His hair is gold

Metonymy is the designation that refers to another type of semantic transfer in which a whole expression is replaced by part of it.

The town welcomed them (= the people)

These are just two examples of semantic transfer, although they abound, especially in literary language.

All in all, in this topic I have dealt with the relationship words have to the world and how they are bound up in a network of related signs. In the first part I went through the main types of sense relations, namely homonymy, synonymy and antonymy followed by words that may cause confusion for foreign learners of English: False friends. Finally, in the last section I have gone through the phenomenon of lexical creativity, dealing with word formation and semantic transfer. As a final word I would like to say that a clear and comprehensive understanding of lexical items would require a very long time. However, we should make our students aware of the existing phenomena and introduce them to knowing them little by little as their level of English improves. Connotations and cultural implications are essential factors of vocabulary choice, and should be taken into account when learning a foreign language.