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Semantic structure of the word in modern english

К содержанию номера журнала: Вестник КАСУ №2 - 2007

Автор: Дудник А. А.

Speaking of the semantic structure of the word, I’d like to point out that, the branch of the study of language concerned with the meaning of words is called semasiology. The name comes from the Greek semasia ‘signification’ (from sema ‘sign’ and semantikos ‘significant’). As semasiology deals not with every kind of linguistic meaning but with lexical meaning only, it may be regarded as a branch of lexicology.

This does not mean that the semasiologist needn’t pay attention to grammatical meaning. On the contrary, grammatical meaning must be taken into consideration in so far as it bears a specific influence upon lexical meaning. This influence is manifold and will be discussed at length later. At this stage it will suffice to point out that a certain basic component of the word meaning is described when one identifies the word morphologically, i. e. states to what grammatical word class it belongs. If treated diachronically, semasiology studies the change in meaning, which words undergo. Descriptive synchronic approach demands a study not of individual words but of semantic structures typical of the language studied, and of its general semantic system.

We will have noticed that two terms, “semasiology” and “semantics”, have so far been used indiscriminately as if synonymous (What’s in a name? That which we call a rose. By any other name would smell as sweet… (W. Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Sc.2)).

In fact, they are synonyms but not equally appropriate for our purpose. The first term is preferable because it is less ambiguous. The term “semantics” on the other hand, is used to cover several different meanings. It is also used to denote the phenomena studied, i. e. the meaning of words and phrases. Had this been all, it might have been tolerated, because the same double purpose is served by the terms “phonetics” and “grammar”. In the case of “semantics”, however, there are other meanings, not sufficiently divorced from linguistics and apt to create confusion.

We can much time ask a question: What is a word? What is Lexicology? We can compare with such an expression as:

These famous lines reflect one of the fundamental problems of linguistic research: what is in a name, in a word? Is there any direct connection between a word and the object it represents? Could rose have been called by “ any other name” as Juliet says? These and similar questions are answered by lexicological research. Lexicology, a branch of linguistics, is the study of words. For some people studying words may seem uninteresting. But if studied properly, it may well prove just as exciting and novel as unearthing the mysteries of Outer Space.

It is significant that many scholars have attempted to define the word as a linguistic phenomenon. Yet none of the definitions can be considered totally satisfactory in all aspects. It is equally surprising that, despite all the achievements of modern science, certain essential aspects of the nature of the word still escape us. Nor do we fully understand the phenomenon called “language”, of which the word is a fundamental unit. We know nothing- or almost nothing – about the mechanism by which a speaker’s mental process is converted into sound groups called “ words”, nor about the reverse process whereby a listener’s brain converts the acoustic phenomena into concepts and ideas, thus establishing a two - way process of communication. We know very little about the nature of relations between the word and the referent (i.e. object, phenomenon, quality, action, etc. denoted by the word). If we assume that there is a direct relation between the word and the referent - which seems logical- it gives rise to another question: how should we explain the fact that the same referent is designated by quite different sound groups in different languages.

We do know by now - though with vague uncertainty- that there is nothing accidental about the vocabulary of the language; that each word is a small unit within a vast, efficient and perfectly balanced system. But we do not know why it possesses these qualities, nor do we know much about the processes by which it has acquired them. The list of unknowns could be extended, but it is probably high time to look at the brighter side and register some of the things we do know about the nature of the word.

First, we do know that a word is a unit of speech, which, as such, serves the purposes of human communication. Thus, the word can be defined as a unit of communication.

Secondly, the word can be perceived as the total of the sounds, which comprise it.

Third, the word, viewed structurally, possesses several characteristics.

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, in the word post-impressionists the following morphemes can be distinguished: the prefixes post-, im-, the root press, the noun- forming suffixes –ion, -ist, and the grammatical suffix of plurality –s. All these morphemes constitute the external structure of the word post-impressionists.

The internal structure of the word, or its meaning, is nowadays commonly referred to as the word’s semantic structure. This is certainly the word’s main aspect. Words can serve the purposes the human communication solely due to their meanings, and it is most unfortunate when this fact is ignored by some contemporary scholars who, in their obsession with the fetish of structure tend eludes mathematical analysis. And this is exactly what meaning, with its subtle variations and shifts is apt to do.

The question posed by the title of it is one of those questions, which are easier to ask than to answer. The linguistic science at present is not able to put forward a definition of meaning which is conclusive. However, there are certain facts of which we can be reasonably sure, and one of them is that the very function of the word as unit of communication is made possible by it possessing a meaning. Therefore, among word’s various characteristics, meaning is certainly the most important.

Generally speaking, meaning can be more or less described as a component of the word through which a concept is communicated, in this way endowing the word with the ability of denoting real objects, qualities, actions and abstract notions. The complex and somewhat mysterious relationships between referent (object, etc. denoted by the word), concept and word are traditionally represented by the following triangle:

By the “symbol” here is meant the word; thought or reference is concept. The faltering line suggests that there is no immediate relation between word and referent: it is established only through the concept.

If speaking about components of semantic structure of the word, we can say that, the leading semantic component is usually termed denotative component (also, the term referential component may be used). The denotative component expresses the conceptual component of a word.

The following list presents denotative components of some adjectives and verbs:

Lonely, adj. Alone, without


Notorious, adj. Widely known

Celebrated, adj. Widely known

To glare, v. to look

To glance, v. to look

To shiver, v. to tremble

To shudder, v. to tremble

It is quite obvious that the definitions given in the right column only partially and incompletely describe the meanings of their corresponding words. To give a more or less full picture of the meaning of the word, it is necessary to include in the scheme of analysis additional semantic components, which are termed connotations, or connotative components.

Let us complete the semantic structures of the words given above introducing connotative components into the schemes of their semantic structures.

The above show how by singling out denotative and connotative components one can get a sufficiently clear picture of what the word really means. The schemes presenting the semantic structures of glare, shiver, shudder also show that a meaning can have two or more connotative components.

The given examples do not exhaust all the types of connotations but present only a few: emotive, evaluative connotations, and also connotations of duration.

So the branch of linguistics, which specializes in the study of meaning, is called semantics. As with many terms, the term “semantics” is ambiguous for it can stand, as well, for the expressive aspect of language in general and for the meaning of one particular word in all its varied aspects and nuances (i.e. the semantics of a word= the meaning(s) of a word). Meaning can be described as a component of the word through which a concept is communicated, endowing the word with the ability of denoting real objects, qualities, actions, and abstract notions. The semantic structure of the word does not present an indissoluble unity (that is actually, why it is referred to as “structure”), nor does it necessarily stand for one concept. Most words convey several concepts and thus possess the corresponding number of meanings. A word having several meanings is called polysemantic, and the ability of the word to have more than one meaning is described by the term polysemy. The vocabulary is the most flexible part of the language and it is precisely its semantic aspect that responds most readily to every change in the human activity in whatever sphere it may happen to take place. Speaking about different types of semantic structure they play their own role and affect in various aspect on the word and its structure but so that to make any changes, elements of the word exist and have an important part in changes of the word causes by different changes of the epoch, and different races.


1. The English Word I.V. Arnold, Moscow 1973 (the second edition).

2. Лексикология английского языка. Ворно Е.Ф., Кащеева М.А., Малишевская Е.В., Потапова И.А..Ленинград 1955

3. A Course in Modern English Lexicology, R.S. Ginzburg, S.S. Khidekel, G.Y. Knyazeva, A.A. Sankin. Moscow 1966

4. Лексикология английского языка (практический курс) Т.И. Арбекова 1977

5. www. yahoo.com.

6. www. google.ru

К содержанию номера журнала: Вестник КАСУ №2 - 2007

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