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

I have based this essay on the following sources:

– Biber et all. Longman Grammar of spoken and written English. 1999

– Jackson, Howard. Grammar and Meaning.

– Pullum and Huddleston. The Cambridge Grammar of English Language. 2002.

– Quirk & Sidney. A University Grammar of English.

In this essay I will deal with the following issues:

Firstly, with the difference between semantics and linguistics.

Secondly with the word as a linguistic sign.

Thirdly the paradigmatic relations between words: homonymy, synonymy, and antonym.

Fourthly with the false friends

To end up with lexical creativity.


Semantics is a term coined in the 19th c. to refer to the study of meaning. It focuses in the study of the mind and how we organize and convey our experiences of the world through language and it interacts with phonology, morphology and syntax.

While linguistics is the scientific study of language. It is an empirical science, which differences it from semantics since meanings often depend on speakers, context or hearers.


There are many definitions of what a linguistic sign is. Saussure used the term linguistic sign as consisting of a signifier, the spelling, and the signified, the mental image. The latter is the conceptual image that human beings have of the general characteristics of an object (house= a place to live in) and the former the specific term applied to it. The addition of the two forms is the referent. The signified can exist without the signifier, but the signifier cannot exist without the signified. Moreover, the signifier is different in different languages while the signified is the same in all languages.

The names given to things are not innate features of those things but something man has established. Things exist independently of whether they have a name or not or the name they have. Besides, the name is only valid in a certain community so when something is named and arbitrary relationship between the thing and the word is established. The signifier may be different depending on the code and even the signified depending on the speaker. For instance the concept ‘house’ may be expressed and thought as a flat, house, mansion, igloo, depending on the speaker. The linguistic sign, then, links a concepts with an acoustic image.


What is the lexeme? It is a basic lexical unit, a unit that carries meaning. There are several types of relations between lexemes:

  • Syntagmatic collocations: when lexemes occur in sequences. (take care)
  • Paradigmatic relations: how a lexeme can be substituted by another:

homonymy, synonymy, antonym, polysemy.


It takes place when one word has different not closely related meanings:

A ‘file’ can be a ‘box’ or a ‘tool for smoothing surfaces’

According to Quirk we can distinguish among:

  • Homophones: lexemes that have the same pronunciation but different spellings as: “No – know”
  • Homographs: lexemes that have the same spelling but different pronunciation as: “saw”
  • Homomorphs: words that share stem like “fast” that can be an adjective and an adverb.


The lexeme “bank” can refer to different things: the slope of a river, money and even bench, so we need to go to dictionary entries. Homonyms have separate entries in dictionary according to the etymology of the words.


Polysemic words have a single entry in dictionaries. It takes place when one word has different and closely related meanings:

the word “crane” can refer to the animal or to the machine.

In these cases the context help to reduce the ambiguity.


When one word is expressed through various, interchangeable forms is called synonym. There is a scale of synonym:

  • Absolute synonyms are inexistent because one item would become out-dated due to the lack of use.
  • Cognitive: two words that are syntactically identical: violin – fiddle, able to replace each other.
  • Plesionyms: two words that alter the sentence content when they replace each other. It wasn’t foggy last Monday, it was misty.

English is rich in synonyms because its vocabulary has two sources: the Anglo-English and the Latin-French one. Sometimes we use one word or another depending on the context as “carry on” and “continue”.

Some words have survived after developing individual features. Such differences may arise from various fields:

  • Expressive meaning. Emotive contents may influence the hearer’s attitude without adding extra information.
  • Evoked meaning due to the consequence of dialect and registers. The former refers to groups of speakers sharing some characteristics like geographical variants: “autumn” (British English), “fall” (American English).

Registers are the varieties used according to the appropiecy of the situation as in the written and spoken.


The antonym is the oppositeness of meaning. There are different types of antonyms.

· Complementary: there is no third term between them because one applies to the other as in true / false.

· Gradable antonyms: most of them are adjectives and there are other terms between them: hot – warn – cool – cold

· Converes: mutually dependent on each other as to buy – to sell.


They are words that show similar or identical spelling in two languages and often share the syntactic function as well but their meaning or uses differ. They are thus responsible for many misinterpretations.

In Spanish – Catalan and English false friends:

· May not be semantically related at all: large – grande, long – largo.

· May have related meanings but one term may have a wider range of meanings: station (bus, train), estación (tren, bus, año, esquí).

· May differ in collocations with other words: depend on – depender de

· In syntactic function: “camping” is an activity and a place in Spanish, while in English is only the activity.


Language is not a static, closed system, but it changes continually. New terms are rapidly familiar to many people, nowadays more due to the mass media. These new terms are have been created through different processes:

· Coinage: a newly created license and there are two possibilities

1. a nonce word only used once: fuddle (flood)

2. a neologism: a nonce word that becomes popular

· By word formation:

1. Affixation: preffixation and suffixation.

2. Compounding: copywriter.

3. Conversion: “drive” verb and “to go for a drive”

In terms of foreign language instruction, it is very important to bear in mind that our students may have problems with synonyms concerning style and register, false friends and must be aware of homophones. This fact may affect learners from the very beginning who need to discover it and teachers should lead the path for this discovery through suitable tasks in each case.