Lexical semantics

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Lexical semantics is a subfield of linguistic semantics. It is the study of how and what the words of a language denote.[1] Words may either be taken to denote things in the world or concepts, depending on the particular approach to lexical semantics.

The units of meaning in lexical semantics are lexical units, which a speaker can continually add to throughout their life, learning new words and their meanings. By contrast, one can only easily learn the grammatical rules of one's native language during a critical period when one is young.[citation needed]

Lexical semantics covers theories of the classification and decomposition of word meaning, the differences and similarities in lexical semantic structure between different languages, and the relationship of word meaning to sentence meaning and syntax.

One question that lexical semantics explores is whether the meaning of a lexical unit is established by looking at its neighbourhood in the semantic net (by looking at the other words it occurs with in natural sentences), or if the meaning is already locally contained in the lexical unit. Another topic that is explored is the mapping of words to concepts. As tools, lexical relations (defined as patterns of association that exist between lexical items in a language[2]) like synonymy, antonymy (opposites), hyponymy and hypernymy - and to a certain degree homonymy as well - are used in this field.

Syntax of lexical semantics[edit]


The syntax of lexical semantics illustrates how the syntactic structure of morphologically complex words, such as causative (CAUS) and inchoative verbs, influences their meaning.

History of VP shells[edit]

The analysis of morphologically complex words, such as verbs composed of subparts, had a decisive role in the field of "generative linguistics" during the 1960's. A prominent theory that dominated this era was that Complementizer Phrases (CP's) held more syntactic and morphological atoms than Verb Phrases (VP's); suggesting that different lexical meanings would reflect these independent structures. Influential theorists Noam Chomsky and Ernst von Glasersfeld were among those who recognized that the relations between transitive verbs and associated adjectives were complex and tied to their independent syntactic organization. The idea that a syntactic atom was tied to a semantic element, particle, or feature, and that both had relational and a lexical coordinate was eventually abandoned for "lexicalist" theories in the 1980's.

Changes of state[edit]

There are two types of change of state verbs: inchoative and causative. Inchoative verbs are intransitive, meaning that that they occur without a direct object, and these verbs express that their subject has undergone a certain change of state. Inchoative verbs are also known as anticausative verbs. [3]

(1) The vase broke.[4]

Causative verbs are transitive, meaning that they occur with a direct object, and they express that the subject causes a change of state in the object.

(2) John broke the vase.[5]

While English does not have an overt morpheme that denotes causality, there is substantial empirical evidence that causal morphemes are present in the verbs of other languages. In many of these languages (e.g., Tagalog, Malagasy, Turkish, etc.), the causal morpheme appears in the form of a pronounced affix to the verb. This can be seen in the examples from Tagalog in (3a) and (3b), where the causal morpheme pag (phonetically realized here as nag) attaches to the verb tumba to indicate causality.

(3) a. Tumumba ang bata.
       fall    the child
       'The child fell.'
    b. "Nagtumba ng bata si Rosa."
        CAUS-fall  child was Rosa
       'Rosa knocked the child down.' [6]

Ditransitive verbs[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Pustejovsky, James (1995). The Generative Lexicon. MIT Press. 
  2. ^ Glossary of Linguistic Terms
  3. ^ Johnson, Kent (2008). "An Overview of Lexical Semantics". Philosophy Compass: 119–134. 
  4. ^ Johnson, Kent (2008). "An Overview of Lexical Semantics". Philosophy Compass: 119–134. 
  5. ^ Johnson, Kent (2008). "An Overview of Lexical Semantics". Philosophy Compass: 119–134. 
  6. ^ Johnson, Kent (2008). "An Overview of Lexical Semantics". Philosophy Compass: 119–134.