Basics of Lexicology

Lexicology as stimulation of systematic approach to the facts of vocabulary. The internal structure of the word or its meaning and semantic structure. The etymological doublets, their meaning and word-building. Morpheme as a small unit of the word.

Рубрика Иностранные языки и языкознание
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Язык английский
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The term lexicology is of Greek origin, from «lexis» - word and «logos» - science. It is a part of linguistics which deals with a vocabulary of the language and characteristic feature of words and word groups.

Lexicology can study the development of vocabulary, the origin of words and word groups, the semantic relations and the development of the sound form and meaning.

It helps to stimulate a systematic approach to the facts of vocabulary and organized comparison of the foreign and native languages.

It furnishes (serves) a tool helping the student to guess and retain his memory the meaning of new words on the bases of their motivation and by comparing and contrasting them with the previously learned elements and patterns.

This knowledge is important when literary texts are used. It helps students to master the literary standard of word usage.

Formal and informal language

The word is a unit of speech which serves the purpose of human communication. The modern approach to word studies is based on distinguishing between the external and internal structures of the word. By external structure of the word we mean its morphological structure. For example, post-im-press|ion|ist|s the following morphemes can be distinguished; the prefixes post - and im-, the root - press-, the noun-forming suffixes - ion, - ist and grammatical suffix of plurality - s.

The internal structure of the word or its meaning is the word's semantic structure. It is the words main aspect.

Then words may belong to formal or informal speech.

Informal words are divided into 3 types: colloquial, slang, dialect words.

The Oxford English dictionary defines slang as «language of highly colloquial style considered as below the level of standard educated speech and consisting either of new words or current words employed in some special sense».

The scientists define a dialect as a variety of a language which prevails in a district with local peculiarities of vocabulary and pronunciation.

Formal style is restricted to formal situations. Formal words fall into 2 main groups: words associated with professional communications and so-called learned words which are mainly associated with the printed page.

Archaic ; archaism

Archaic words and obsolete words stand close to the learned words because they also associate with printed page. This words are partly or fully out of circulation (e.g. thou, thy, aye, nay).

Historicisms are the words denoting objects and phenomena that are the things of the past and no longer exist.

Professional terminology are words that belong to special scientific professional or trade terminological systems.

Basic vocabulary words are stylistically neutral. Their stylistic neutrality makes it possible to use them in all kinds of situation both formal and informal.


By etymology of words their origin is understood. English vocabulary which is one of the most extensive in the world contains a lot of words of foreign origin.

In the first century B.C. the Romans brought the names of milk products and planes. For example, cherry, pear, plum, beet, pepper, cup, kitchen.

The fifth century A.D. the Angles and Saxons assimilated such Celtic words as down, druid, bard, cradle, London.

The seventh century A.D. brought such Latin borrowings as priest, bishop, monk, nun, candle and educational terms (school, magister).

Then the 8th-11th century are characterized by Scandinavian borrowings such as take, call, cast, die, husband. It is easy to recognize Scandinavian borrowings by the initial sk: sky, skill, skin, ski, skirt.

In 1066 England was defeated by William the Conqueror and the English language borrowed administrative words (state, government, parliament, council), legal terms (court, judge, justice, crime), military terms (army, war, soldier, officer, battle), educational terms (pupil, lesson, library, science), everyday life words (table, plate, dinner, supper).

The Renaissance Period was marked by Greek and Latin borrowings. They were abstract words (major, minor, intelligent), then scientific and artistic words (datum, status, phenomena, philosophy). Some borrowings came from so-called Parisian dialect (regime, routine, police, machine, ballet).

Reasons for borrowings are contact, wars, invasions, conquest, trade, cultural relations. Sometimes it is done to fill the gap in the vocabulary. It may be a word that expresses more peculiar concept. This type of borrowings enlarges the group of synonyms. For example, Latin «cordial» - Native «friendly»; Latin «admire» - French «adore».

Borrowed words are adjusted in 3 main areas of the new language system: the phonetic, the grammatical, the semantic.

Ph: > ` > `

Gram: datum (pl. data), criterion (pl. criteria)

Sem: large (Fr. Has the meaning of «wide»), nice (Fr. - silly)

Some words are borrowed by many languages. They are so-called international words. Many of them are of Latin and Greek origin (democracy).

Etymological doublets are words that originated from one and the same etymological source, but are different in phonetic shape and in meaning (Native «shirt» - Scand. «skirt»; Lat. «senior» - Fr. «sir»; Lat. «canal» - Fr. «channel»).

A doublet may consist of a shortened word and the one from which it is derived (history-story, fantasy-fancy, fanatic-fan).


lexicology word morpheme etymological

Derived words (affixes= prefixes+suffixes)

Root words

Conversed words

Compound words

Neutral (shopwindow)

1) Affixless stems (blackbird)

2) Derived (absent-mindedness)

3) Contracted (TV-set)

Morphological (Anglo-Saxon)

Syntactic (lily-of-the-valley)

Shortening or contraction

So word-building is understood as processes of producing new words from the resources of this particular language. Together with borrowing word-building provides for enlarging and enriching the vocabulary of the language.

Words are divisible into smaller units - morphemes. They do not occur as free forms but only as constituents of words. Yet they possess meaning of their own (e.g. reddish, overwrite).

All morphemes are subdivided into roots and affixes. Affixes fall into prefixes (e.g. unwell) and suffixes.

Words which consist of a root and an affix or several affixes are called derived words or derivatives and are produced by the process of affixation.

Root words have only a root morpheme in their structure (e.g. room, street).

Conversion is a type of modern English word-building when a word from one part of speech is transformed into another part of speech (e.g. to hand - a hand).

Compound words consisting of 2 or more stems (e.g. mother-in-law).

Shortenings or contraction are words produced by shortening (e.g. laboratory - lab).

4 types of words (root words, derived words, compound words and shortenings) represent the main structural types of Modern English words.

Conversion, derivation and composition are the most productive ways of word-building.

Affixes can be classified into productive and non-productive. By productive ones we mean the one which take part in deriving new words in this particular period of language development.

Composition is one the most productive types of word-building in Modern English. Traditionally 3 types of compounds are distinguished: neutral, morphological and syntactic. In neutral compounds the process of compounds is realized without any linking elements (blackbird, shopwindow).

Morphological are few and number. This type is non-productive, when 2 stems are combined by a linking vowel or consonant. Syntactic compounds represent specifically English word structure. They are formed from segments of speech describing typical relations (lily-of-the-valley).

Less productive ways of word-building: shortening=contraction

Phone = telephone

Fence = defence

Vac = vacation

Hols = holidays

Ads = advertisements

BBC = British Broadcasting Corporation

M.P. = Member of Parliament

Minor types of modern word-building: sound imitation (dogs: bark, howl; cock: cock-a-doodle-doo; duck: quacks) and reduplication (bye-bye).

Analysis of word-meaning

The linguistic science at present is not able to put forward a definition of meaning which is conclusive. But the very function of the word as a unit of communication is made possible by its possessing a meaning. Therefore among the word's various characteristics meaning is certainly the most important. Meaning can be described as a component of a word through which a concept is communicated.

The branch of linguistics, which specializes in the study of meaning, is called semantics. The modern approach to semantics is based on the assumption that the inner form of the word (its meaning) presents a structure, which is called the semantic structure of the word.

The semantic structure of the word does not present an indissoluble unit nor does it necessarily stand for one concept. Most words convey several concepts and thus possess the corresponding number of the meanings. A word having several meanings is called polysemantic and the ability of words to have more than one meaning is described by the term polysemi.

Most of English words are polysemantic. At a certain stage of language development the production of new words by morphological means becomes limited, and polysemi becomes increasingly important in providing the means for enriching the vocabulary.

When analyzing the semantic structure of a polysemantic word it is necessary to distinguish between two levels of analysis. On the first level the semantic structure is treated as a system of meanings. Meaning one generally referred to as the main meaning, presents the centre of the semantic structure holding it together. But not in every polysemantic word such a centre can be found. The second level of analysis shows that the semantic structure is divisible at the deeper level. That's why the semantic structure of the word should be investigated at both levels.

The leading semantic component is termed (named) denotative component. It expresses the conceptual content of the word. To give more or less full picture of the meaning of a word it is necessary to include into the scheme of analysis, editial semantic component or connotative components. By singling out denotative and connotative components one can get a clear picture of what the word clearly mean.

Causes of development of new meaning are historical or extra-linguistic and linguistic factors through the influence of other words mostly of synonyms. It collided with a borrowed word animal and changed its meaning.

How new meaning develop:

The process of developing a new meaning is termed transference. Transference based on resemblance is a process with a new meaning, appears as a result of associating two objects.

Sometimes the process of transference may result in a considerable change in range of meanings leading to broadening or generalization of meanings (the girl in Middle English had the meaning of a small child) or to narrowing or specialization of meaning (meat in Old English had the meaning of any food).

The terms «degeneration» or «degradation» and «elevation» of meaning imply that meanings can become better and worse.

e.g. villain - farm servant (раньше)

villain - bad person (сейчас)


Homonyms are the words which is identical in sound and spelling or at least in one of these aspects, but different in their meanings.

e.g. bank, n - a shore

bank, n - an institution

English vocabulary is rich in such pairs and even groups of words. If synonyms and antonyms can be regarded as the treasure of the language's expressive resources homonyms may lead to confusion or misunderstanding. But it is this very characteristic which makes them one of the most important sources of humor.

Homonyms which are the same in sound and spelling are termed homonyms proper. Homophones are homonyms which are the same in sound but different in spelling.

e.g. bean - боб

been - 3 форма глагола to be

Homographs are words which are the same in spelling, but different in sound.

e.g. lead, v [li:d] - управлять

lead, n [led] - свинец

Sources of homonyms are as follows:

1) Phonetic changes

2) Borrowings

3) Word-building

Classification of homonyms:

According to Professor Smirnizkii they are subdivided into full homonyms and partial homonyms.

Full lexical homonyms are words which represent the same category of part of speech and have the same paradigm.

e.g. match, n - матч

match, n - спичка

Partial homonyms are subdivided into 3 subgroups:

1) Simple lexico-grammatical partial homonyms are words which belong to the same category of part of speech and have one identical form.

e.g. lay, v - infinitive

lay, v - Past Indefinite of the verb to lie.

2) Complex lexico-grammatical partial homonyms are words of different categories of parts of speech which have one identical form.

e.g. rose, n

rose, v - Past Indefinite of the verb to rise

3) Partial lexical homonyms are words of the same category of part of speech which are identical only in their corresponding forms.

e.g. to can, v - консервировать

can, v - modal verb.


Synonymy is one of the modern linguistics' most controversial problems. The duality of synonyms is their most confusing feature. They are somewhat the same and yet they are obviously different. Their function in speech is revealing different aspects, shades and variations of the same phenomenon.

Synonyms are words of the same category of part of speech conveying the same concept, but different either in shades of meaning or in stylistic characteristics.

The only existing classification system for synonyms was established by Academician V.V. Vinogradov. In his classification there are 3 types of synonyms: 1. ideographic; 2. stylistic; 3. absolute.

Ideographic are words conveying the same concept, but different in the shades of meaning.

Stylistic are words different in stylistic characteristics.

Absolute once coincide in all their shades of meaning and in all their stylistic characteristics.

A more modern approach to the classification of synonyms may be based on the definition of synonyms as words differing in connotations:

1. the connotation of degree or intensity.

Can be traced in such groups of synonyms as:

To surprise - to astonish - to amaze - to astound

To like - to admire - to love - to adore - to worship

2. the connotation of duration.

Can be traced in such groups of synonyms as:

To stare - to glare - to gaze - to glance - to peep - to peer

3. the emotive connotation.

e.g. alone - single - lonely - solitary

4. the evaluative connotation conveys the speaker's attitude labeling it as good or bad:

e.g. well-known - famous - notorious - celebrated

5. the causative connotation:

e.g. to sparkle (сиять(глаза) положительные эмоции) - to glitter (блестят, но эмоции отрицательные)

to shiver (with cold, from a chill, because of a frost) - to shudder (with fear).

6. the connotation of manner:

e.g. to stroll - to stride - to trot - to pace - to swagger - to stagger. All these synonyms denote different ways and types of walking encoded in their semantic structure: the length of space, tempo, gait, carriage, purposefulness or lack of purpose.

7. the connotation of attendant circumstances.

To peep smb. - through a hole, from behind a screen, a half-closed door, a newspaper, a fan, a curtain.

8. the connotation of attendant features.

e.g. pretty - handsome - beautiful.

9. stylistic connotation.

e.g. to leave - to be off - to clear out (col.) - to beat it - to hoof it - to take the air (col.) - to depart - to retire - to withdraw (formal).

All or at least most synonymic groups have a central word whose meaning is equal denotation common to all the synonymic groups. This word is called the dominant synonym.

e.g. to produce - to create - to fabricate - to make - to manufacture.

The following characteristic features of the dominant synonym can be underlined:

1. high-frequency of usage; 2. broad combinability (ability to be used in combination with various classes of words); 3. broad general meaning; 4. lack of connotation.


There are words in every language which people instinctively avoid because they are considered indecent, indelicate, rude, direct or impolite. They are often described in a round - about way by using substitutes, called euphemisms.

e.g. lavatory - powder-room, washroom, restroom, retiring-room, (public) comfort station, lady's (room), gentlemen's (room), water-closed, W.C., public conveniences, toilet, wind-sort castle.

The love or affection which displays itself in the excessive use of euphemisms has never been a sign of good taste. Fiction writers have often reduced pretentious people for their attempts to express themselves in too delicate and refined way.

Euphemism may be used due to genuine concern not to hurt someone's feelings (a stupid person can be said to be not exactly brilliant).

Euphemisms are used to avoid the so-called social taboos. Superstitious taboos have their roots in the distant past of mankind, when people believed there was a supernatural link between a name and the object or creature it represented (devil - the Prince of Darkness, the Black One, the evil one, dickens (col.), dince (col.), (Old) Nick (col.)).

People are not superstitious nowadays and yet they are reluctant to use the verb «to die» which has a long chain of both solemn and humorous substitutes: to pass a way, to be taken, to breathe one's last, to depart this life, to close one's eyes, to yield (give) up the ghost, to go the way off all flash, to kick off(slang), to check out(slang), to keep the basket(slang)).


Antonyms are words of the same category of parts of speech which have contrasting meanings such as hot-cold. They usually appear in pairs, but a polysemantic word may have an antonym for each of its meanings (light-heavy, light-dark).

Antonymy is not evenly distributed among the categories of parts of speech. Most antonyms are adjectives which is quite natural because qualitative characteristics are easily compared and contrasted. Verbs take second place (to lose-to find). Nouns are not rich in antonyms (friend-enemy).

Antonymic adverbs can be subdivided into 2 groups:

a) adverbs derives from adjective (warmly-coldly);

b) adverbs proper (now-then, here-there).

Together with synonyms antonyms represent the language's important expressive means. Authors often use antonyms as a stylistic device of contrast.

Phraseology: word-groups with transferred meanings

Phraseological units, or idioms, represent the most picturesque, colorful and expressive part of the language's vocabulary.

There are some other terms denoting more or less the same linguistic phenomenon: set expressions, set phrases, fixed word-groups, collocations. The confusions in terminology reflects insufficiency of reliable criteria by which phraseological units can be distinguished from free word-groups.

There are two major criteria: semantic and structure.

Academician V.V. Vinogradov spoke of the semantic change in phraseological units as a meaning resulting from a peculiar chemical combination of words, when an entirely new quality comes into existence.

e.g. a dark horse.

Professor A.V. Koonin, the leading authority on problems of English phraseology in our country, defines a phraseological unit «as a stable word-group characterized by a completely or partially transferred meaning». This definition suggests that the degree of semantic change in a phraseological unit may vary.

1. the following phraseological units represent the first case: e.g. to skate on thin ice - to put oneself in a dangerous position (рисковать); to wear one's heart on one's sleeve - to expose one's most intimate feelings (не (уметь) скрывать своих чувств); to have one's heart in one's mouth - to be greatly alarmed but what is expected to happen (быть очень напуганным = душа в пятки ушла).

2. the second type is represented by phraseological units in which one of the components preserves the current meaning and the other is used in a transferred meaning: e.g. to lose (to keep) one's temper - выйти из себя (владеть собой); to stick to one's word-promise.

The term «idiom» is mostly applied to phraseological units with completely transferred meaning, that is to the ones in which the meaning of the whole unit does not correspond to the current meaning of the components.

The structural criterion also brings forth distinctive features characterizing phraseological units and contrasting them to free word-groups.

The structural invariability is an essential feature of phraseological units, though some of them possess it to a lesser degree than others: e.g. to give smb. the cold shoulder - means to treat smb. coldly (оказать холодный приём кому-л., холодно встретить кого-л.), but a warm shoulder or a cold elbow make no sense at all.

Structural invariability finds expression in a number of restrictions:

Restriction in substitution. No word can be substituted for any meaningful component of a phraseological unit without destroying it: e.g. to carry coal to Newcastle (but not to Manchester) (возить товар туда, где его и без того много; ехать в Тулу со своим самоваром; заниматься бессмысленным делом).

Restriction in introducing any edition components. E.g. to have his heart in his boots (испытывать чувство безнадёжности, впасть в уныние).

Grammatical invariability. E.g. from head to foot (с головы до пят).


Proverbs are different from phraseological units. If viewed in their structural aspect, they are sentences. In their semantic aspect proverbs could be best compared with minute fables, because they sum up the collective experience of the community. They moralize (hell is paved with good intensions), give advise (don't judge a tree by its bark), then criticize (everyone calls his own geese swans).

No phraseological unit ever does any of these things. Phraseological unit's function in speech is purely nominative. They denote an object, an act etc. The functions of proverbs in speech is communicative. They give certain information.

Phraseology principals of classification

The very complex nature of phraseological units suggests that they must be sorted out and arranged in certain classes which possess identical characteristics. A phraseological unit is a complex phenomenon which a number of important features which can be approached from different points of view. So, there exists a considerable number of different classification systems devised by different scientists and based on different principals.

I. The traditional and oldest principal is based on their original context and might be named «thematic». It has real merit, but it does not take into consideration the linguistic characteristic features of the phraseological units.

II. The classification system, made by the academician V.V. Vinogradov, is a little old-fashioned, but it is the first classification system which is based on the semantic principal. This classification is founded on the degree of the semantic cohesion between the components of the phraseological unit. Vinogradov classifies phraseological units into 3 classes:

1. phraseological combinations; 2. unities; 3. fusions.

Phraseological combinations are word-groups with the partially changed meaning. The meaning of the unit can be easily deduced from the meaning of its constituency (to be good at smth. - преуспевать).

Phraseological unities are word-groups with completely changed meanings. That is the meanings of the unit do not correspond to the meanings of its constituent part. So, the meaning of the unit can not be deduced from the meaning of the constituent parts (to sit on the fence - in discations or politics to reframe from committing oneself to either side).

Phraseological fusions are word-groups with completely changed meaning (to show the white feather - to betray one's cowardice (проявлять трусость)).

III. The structural principal of classifying phraseological units is based on the ability to perform the same syntactical function as words.

IV. Professor Smirnizkii offered a classification in which phraseological units are grouped according to the number and semantic significance of their constituent part.

V. Professor Coonin's classification system is the latest outstanding achievement in the Russian theory of phraseology. It is based on the combined structural semantic principal and it also considers quotient of stability of phraseological units.

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