Semantical structure of polysemantic words


Polysemy is characteristic of most words in many languages. All the lexical and lexico-grammatical variants of a word taken together form its semantic structure or semantic para­digm.

Thus, in the semantic structure of the word youth three lexico-grammatical variants may be distinguished: the first is an abstract uncountable noun, as in the friends of one’s youth, the second is a count­able personal noun ‘a young man’ (plural youths) that can be substituted by the pronoun he in the singular and they in the plural; the third \{ a collective noun ‘young men and women’ having only one form, that of the singular, substituted by the pronoun they.

Within the first lexico-grammatical variant two shades of meaning can be distinguished with two different referents, one denoting the state of being young, and the other the time of being young. These shades of meaning are recognized] due to the lexical peculiarities of distribution and sometimes are blended! together as in to feel that one’s youth has gone, where both the time and the state can be meant. These variants form a structured set because they are expressed by the same sound complex and are interrelated in meaning as they all contain the semantic component ‘young’ and can be explained by means of one another.

Other oppositions are concrete :: abstract; main/ primary::secondary;central::peripheric;nar row: :extended; general: :special/particular, and so on. In each case the comparison takes place within the semantic structure of one word. They are characterized one against the other.

Take, for example, the noun screen. We find it in its direct meaning when it names a movable piece of furniture used to hide something or protect somebody, as in the case of fire-screen placed in front of a fire­place. The meaning is figurative when the word is applied to anything which protects by hiding, as in smoke screen. We define this meaning as figurative comparing it to the first that we called direct. Again, when by a screen the speaker means ‘a silver-coloured sheet on which cabulary as compared with Russian, due to the monosyllabic character of English and the predominance of root words. The


greater the relative frequency of the word, the greater the number of variants that constitute its semantic structure, i.e. the more polysemantic it is. This regularity is of course a statistical, not a rigid one.1

Consider some of the variants of a very frequent, and consequently polysemantic word run. We define the main variant as ‘to go by moving the legs quickly’ as in: Tired as I was, I began to run frantically home. The lexical meaning does not change in the forms ran or running. The basic meaning may be extended to inanimate things: / caught the bus that runs between C and B; or the word run may be used figuratively: It makes the blood run cold. Both the components ‘on foot’ and ‘quickly’ are suppressed in these two last examples, as well as in The car runs on petrol. The idea of motion remains but it is reduced to ‘operate or func­tion’.

The difference of meaning is reflected in the difference of syntactic valency. It is impossible to use this variant about humans and say: *We humans run on food. The active-passive transformation is possible when the meaning implies ‘management’: The Co-op runs this self-service shop This self-service shop is run by the Co-op, but */ was run by home is obviously nonsense.

Every meaning in language and every difference in meaning is sig­nalled either by the form of the word itself or by context, i.e. its syntag-matic relations depending on the position in the spoken chain. The unity of the two facets of a linguistic sign – its form and its content in the case of a polysemantic word – is kept in its lexico-grammatical variant.

If the variants are classified not only by comparing them inside the semantic structure of the word but according to the style and sphere of language in which they may occur, if they have stylistic connotations, the classification is stylistical. All the words are classified into stylis­tically neutral and stylistically coloured. The latter may be classified into   bookish   and   colloquial,   bookish styles in their turn may be (a)   general,   (b)   poetical,   (c)   scientific   or learned,   while colloquial styles are subdivided into (a)   liter­ary colloquial, (b) familiar colloquia 1, (c) slang.

If we are primarily interested in the historical perspective, the mean­ings will be classified according   to   their genetic characteristic and their growing or diminishing role in the language. In this way the follow­ing terms are used:    etymological,    i.e.   the earliest  known meaning;   archaic,   i.e. the meaning superseded at present by a newer one but still remaining in certain collocations;   obsolete, gone out of use;   present-day meaning, which is the one most frequent in the present-day language and the   original  meaning serving as basis for the derived ones.

It is very important to pay atten­tion to the fact that one and the same meaning can at once belong, in accordance with different points,  to different groups. These features of meaning may therefore serve as   distinctive   features describing each meaning in its relationship to the others.

Diachronic and synchronic ties are thus closely interconnected as the new meanings are understood thanks to their motivation by the older meanings.



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