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Concourse 2

Relationships between words

we understand each other


Technical terms

This is where the terminology gets a little technical but bear with us, the concepts are quite easy to understand even if you forget the terminology.


Five key ideas

If we need to talk about the relationships between lexemes, we need to have some terms to talk about the ideas.  Here they are:


Idea 1: Homonymy

The term homonymy comes from the Greek and means 'same name'.  The reference is to words like these:

dear and deer
These words are written differently but pronounced the same and have different meanings.  They are homophones.  Other examples are:
lead weight and lead an army
These words are written the same but pronounced differently and have different meanings.  They are homographs.  Other examples are:
read (present tense) and read (past tense)
invalid (not usable) and invalid (sick person)
bass (a deep voice) and bass (a fish)
desert (leave one's duty) and desert (arid area)
export (the noun, stressed on the first syllable) and export (the verb, stressed on the second syllable)
tear (rip) and tear (drop of eye water)
Sometimes homographs are spelt and pronounced the same way but have different meanings.  They are homographs and homophones and often simply called homonyms.
Examples of homonyms are:
bat (hitting tool) and bat (flying animal)
down (lower) and down (feathers)

Idea 2: Hyponymy

a relationship between words in which the meaning of one word includes the meaning of others which are closely related
The word derives from the Greek meanings of under and name.

The superordinate or hypernym
is the word which includes the meanings of all the others
The hyponyms
are all the second-level words which are related to each other

Like this:


Idea 3: Word families, lexical sets and lexical fields

On this site, the terms are defined like this because for teaching purposes, it seems the most useful.
A word family refers to words with the same root
A lexical set refers to words for objects (or verbs etc.) found in the same conceptual area.
A lexical field refers to words of all kinds which occur in the same topic.

Like this:

family set field
Lexical sets are usually defined as being words of the same class so we could also have, e.g.
    treat, care for, tend, operate, nurse, examine, cure etc.
as verbs in a lexical set to do with health care.


Idea 4: Synonymy

Loosely, this means words of the same meaning but they don't always mean exactly the same to all people and often aren't interchangeable.

Examples are:

and so on.

There is a good argument that no pairs of words can be absolute synonyms because shades of meaning, grammatical forms or dialect use will always distinguish them.  For example:

  • sidewalk and pavement may be synonymous but the first is American dialect use and the second British dialect use
  • determined and pig-headed may mean the same in some settings but the second is much more negative
  • conceal and hide may have the same meaning but you can't say I concealed behind the curtain and you can say I hid behind the curtain.

Idea 5: Antonymy

Antonymy refers to words which have opposite meanings.  There are three types of antonymy:

antonymy 1
  • Gradable antonyms have meaning relative to each other.  For example, a mouse is a tiny animal but huge compared to a microbe so tiny and huge are gradable antonyms.
  • Converse antonyms imply their opposites so a nurse implies a patient, inanimate implies animate and so on.
  • Complementary antonyms become synonyms if you insert not before them.  For example, clear and unclear become synonyms with the insertion of not (not clear = unclear, clear = not unclear).  Other types of antonyms don't exhibit this because not malefemale (it could mean neuter) and not old young (it could mean middle aged, quite new and many other things).



Some words very often occur together so we have, for example:
   torrential + rain
   bright + sunshine
   bitterly + cold

and so on.
Some words do not collocate so we can have:
   strong winds and heavy snow
but not
   strong snow and heavy winds
   tall people and high mountains
but not
   high people and tall mountains

Collocations can be analysed by:

  • type:
    • verb + noun (e.g., rent an apartment vs. rent / hire a car but not *hire an apartment)
    • adjective + noun (e.g., nagging toothache, splitting headache but not *splitting toothache)
    • adverb + adjective (e.g., deeply depressed but not *ecstatically unhappy, *shallowly depressed)
    • noun + noun (e.g., cash dispenser, chocolate machine and cash machine but not *chocolate dispenser)
    • verb + adverb (e.g., tiptoe quietly, shout loudly but not *walk violently or *shout softly)
    • verb + preposition (e.g., rely on not *rely by, burst out laughing but burst into tears)
  • strength:
    • On the left we have fixed idioms such as
      the black sheep of the family
      (no word except sheep is allowed)
    • Next, we have two-word combinations (and sometimes three-word combinations) which occur in a fixed order, do not allow alternatives and carry a single significance such as
      by and large
      tall, dark and handsome
    • Strong collocations allow few other possibilities.  For example:
      liquid assets
      or fixed assets
      torrential rain
      or flood
      rolling pin / stone / tobacco
      There is a cline here, too, from very strong to somewhat weaker collocations.
    • With textual collocations, certain words occur conventionally together such as
      doctors treat patients
      nurses care for patients
      police officers arrest people
      firemen attend fires
      and many other noun + verb + noun combinations are possible such as
      solicitors advise clients
      waiters serve diners


Take a test

To make sure you have understood so far, try a very short test of your knowledge of word relationships.
Use the 'Back' button to return when you have done that.

If you got that all right, it is safe to move on.

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