Lexical meaning - Syntagmatic relations

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2007 21 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics



1. Introduction

2. Approaches to syntagmatic relations
2.1. Katz/ Fodor Model
2.2. Weinreich Model
2.3. Collocation

3. Comparison with Corpus

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

6. Appendix

7. Appendix

1. Introduction

Ferdinand de Saussure called the relationship between a word and other accompanying words a syntagmatic relation, and the relationship between a word and related but not-occurring words, an associative relationship. For the latter a new term was somewhat later proposed by Hjelmslev – a paradigmatic relation-ship, which is universally preferred in modern linguistics.

Paradigmatic (vertical) relations are those that bind the elements of a group or a class of lexemes – “sets of intersubstitutable elements” (Lyons 2002:96) – from paradigm of a single world to whole lexical fields. Lexical items so related stand in opposition or contrast to each other and help to define the meaning of each other.

Syntagmatic (horizontal) relations between words are “the relations that hold among elements that can occur in combination with one another, in well-formed syntagms”. (Lyons 2002:96) They are linear and simultaneous in the stream of speech or writing and define the rules of combining smaller units of any level of a language into bigger ones and compatibility of the former. They characterise the formation of syntagms as a language sequence.

I have chosen to make syntagmatic relations between words the topic of this work because in my opinion this relationship is the most important part of linguistics as it is namely syntagmatics that describes and explains the functioning of words in speech and writing, i.e. in the reality of a language. It is certainly one of the most important aspects of each language as far as its learners are concerned as it is vital for those who learn a language to learn how the words collocate with each other alongside their meanings and paradigms.

In this paper I am going to consider 3 models of syntagmatic relations:

1. Katz/ Fodor Model
2. Weinreich Model
3. Collocation

Finally I am going to illustrate my conclusions by means of Corpus data.

2. Approaches to syntagmatic relations

Research on syntagmatic relations has been carried out within different theoretical frameworks. The first two models appeared within the generative grammar and the third one originated in the “traditional British approach” (Lipka 2002:181).

2.1. Katz/ Fodor Model

Katz/ Fodor theory was first proposed in 1963. It has the aim to give the most general picture of syntagmatic relations and consider them on the metalinguistic level. The model itself consists of two components:

1. Dictionary
2. Set of projection rules.

The ‘dictionary entry’ contains various meanings of a single homonymous or polysemous lexeme – the noun bachelor is the most famous example of such an entry. Let us for a change try to apply the approach to the analysis of another word, for example the noun ‘conductor’.

conductor {N}

a. (human) [a person, who directs the performance of an orchestra or a choir]
b. (human) [a person, who works on a bus or a train and checks the passengers tickets and collects the money]
c. (object) [a substance that allows heat or electricity to pass along or through it]

The model is supposed to select the appropriate meaning, in a specific context, and thus to resolve the ambiguity of a lexeme. A so called ‘path’ (a chain of general and specific semantic features) or ‘reading’ is selected. The information within curly brackets {i} is grammatical – here all three readings are nouns. Katz/ Fodor dictionary entries contain two types of semantic components: the first, given in round brackets (i), are semantic markers. They present links which bind the vocabulary together. The second, given in square brackets [i], are semantic distinguishers. This is idiosyncratic semantic information that identifies the lexical item.

As opposed to nouns, adjectives and verbs have selection restrictions (another term introduced in Katz/ Fodor theory) in their lexical entries. They control the combination of verbs and adjectives with nouns,

e.g. eat: SVO: [+Animate] + eat + (FOOD),

i.e. the verb eat (unless used figuratively) is supposed to be preceded by an animate noun denoting a person or an animal and is followed by a direct object denoting food.

Projection rules show how the meaning of a sentence is built up from the meanings of lexical items, i.e. they ‘amalgamate’ readings (i.e. meanings) on the basis of the syntactic structure of the sentence. The amalgamation may be prevented by selection restrictions, i.e. the meanings of two words turn out to be incompatible. However if the selection restrictions’ requirements are satisfied, the projection rules combine the paths, i.e. the sets of features, of two neighbouring constituents and thus working further upwards through the sequence of the sentence they combine the readings of more and more elements until we arrive at the meaning of the whole sentence.

Let us proceed with our example conductor and consider the following sentence from the point of view of projection rules:

Iron is a good conductor.

It contains three polysemous readings which have been enumerated above. The first two are excluded by means of selection restrictions because they cannot be combined with the meaning of the subject expressed by the noun iron as it denotes an inanimate material. Therefore the reading that is chosen by projection rules is in this case the third one – (object) [a substance that allows heat or electricity to pass along or through it].

Unfortunately, it is not always as easy as that to achieve disambiguation. In the famous example:

A naked conductor ran along the carriage

selection restrictions of either the verb ran or the adjective naked do not exclude any of the three readings and leave it to the reader’s discretion to choose the one which seems most logical to them.

2.2. Weinreich Model

Weinreich criticised Katz/Fodor theory severely. He wrote: “… a KF-type dictionary is in danger of having to represent an unlimited differentiation of meanings” (Lipka 1972: 38). This critique resulted in a model of his own where he postulated transfer features which were supposed to replace selection restrictions. Transfer features are more active and less restrictive than selection restrictions, and they can explain the interpretation of obscure, unusual or even conflicting combinations of lexemes, for example (1) He was drinking carrots or (2) His fear ate him up.

Let us analyse the first example:

He was drinking carrots


→ <-SOLID>

According to Weinreich’s theory the transfer feature <-SOLID>, which could also be formalized as <+LIQUID> is transferred from the verb drink to its grammatical object carrots. There it replaces the contradictory inherent feature [+SOLID]. The combination of drink and carrots is therefore not restricted or excluded. As the result of the transfer process the object carrots is reinterpreted as ‘carrot juice’.

Transfer features can also be resorted to in the system of a language to account for metaphorical processes. Denotative features such as [+ANIMATE], [+HUMAN], and [+PERSON] may thus function as transfer features. In this way productive processes like animation and personification (see (2)) can be explained.

2.3. Collocation

It is a commonplace observation that words prefer some patterns to the others. The term collocation was first introduced by J.R. Firth within the frames of British Contextualism. The term refers to the combination of words that occur together repeatedly. The combination is not a fixed expression but there is a greater than chance likelihood that the words will co-occur. Factors which influence the relative frequency of association of two or more words may be of different nature – extra linguistic factors, stereotypes, clichés, etc.

It would be no exaggeration to say that the collocation, that a lexeme regularly enters, is a factor that must be taken into consideration in the description of its meaning. In order to find out in which way collocations are relevant to the description of the meaning of a lexeme let us consider the meaning of the lexeme right in the following collocations: the right answer, the right hand, the right side, the right person, a right idiot, the right school, the right wing.

In the right answer the word right means ‘correct’. In the right hand or the right side it refers to the part of the body or a street which is situated on the right (opposite to the left) side. In the right person a quite different meaning of right is present. Here it expresses the idea of the person being most suitable for a particular occasion or purpose. In the collocation a right idiot the adjective can be considered as the synonym of ‘complete’ (Br E). In this combination it serves as intensifier of the negative quality of the head word. In this meaning it acquires a certain negative connotation and is used only with nouns that have negative meaning. In such collocations as the right school/ people/ places right refers to the social perception of the places or people in question and means that they are considered to be fashionable, important or belonging to a high social class. Finally in the right wing the quality referred to does not have anything to do with correctness or the side of the body, but expresses the idea of extreme conservatism of a group within a political party or a Parliament.

In each of these combinations right has a different meaning. These different meanings (or senses) of the word arise in large part from the specific collocations it enters.



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Lexical Syntagmatic



Title: Lexical meaning - Syntagmatic relations