Semantics: Trying to Arrive at a Particular Word Meaning

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In daily conversations, understanding what is meant by a speaker is essential to establish a successful communication. To comprehend one’s utterances means that the hearer should understand the meaning of the words used in that particular communicative exchange. Language use is both action and reaction, so it is a process of understanding the meaning between the utterances of the speaker and the response of the hearer (Feller, 2010). One way to understand a particular word is through its meaning. However, it is not that simple to define words as the word ‘word’ also might not be the most straightforward term to be used (Murphy, 2010). Some words are also ambiguous or vague in its meaning, so to decide what they mean may require some considerations. Words are also influenced by how the effects of context give meaning to them. And analysing the lexical relations may also help to define a particular word meaning.

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Thus, deciding what a word is and the meaning it brings, ambiguity and vagueness issues, the influence of contextual effects and lexical relations are discussed below. Word – what is it? Firstly, defining the meaning of a word is complex because it may be confusing to what a ‘word’ is. It can be said that in most cases, a word is a collection of letters spelled together and has spaces on either side of it (Crystal, 2006). So, in the phrase ‘I like looking at words’, there are five words written. However, as Crystal (2006) mentions if it was easy as this, lexicology would be dull but fortunately, it is not always as simple as that. Below demonstrates how defining what a word is not that simple:

  1. My father-in-law is at the store.
  2. My father in law is at the store.

In a), most people would consider that sentence to have six words. However, in b) it seems like it is not only six words but nine. Regardless of this, the meanings of the two sentences are still the same. So, it can be said that father-in-law is considered as a single word because it refers to a single entity, even though technically it has three parts. This type of word is called compound words and some of them may have three different forms. First form with space in between like ‘flower pot’, ‘flower-pot’ separated with a hyphen and lastly a solid form ‘flowerpot’ (Crystal, 2006).

In addition, another issue with identifying how many words there are in a sentence can be seen with the example below: c) I jump. He jumps. She is jumping. We jumped. The example shows that there are nine words altogether. However, these words are not entirely different to one another in terms of meaning even if they do spell differently. Words like ‘I’, ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘we’ are all pronoun words which are used to refer to people. ‘Jump’, ‘jumps’, ‘jumping’ and ‘jumped’ all mean the same thing. The only difference is that these words are grammatically different, one is a present tense and another is a present progressive verb. These are only the variants of the single word or lexeme of ‘jump’ (Crystal, 2006). Furthermore, these variants from a lexeme by the addition of affixes can be divided into two which are inflectional and derivational. Examples of inflectional are like those in ‘run/ runs’ and ‘car/ cars’. They do not create a new lexical item but rather just a different variant. On the other hand, derivational affixes create a new lexical unit such as ‘dark/ darkness’ and ‘fortunate/ unfortunate’. Note that in words that are derivational, some of them have different meaning from the derived word as in ‘fortunate/ unfortunate’ which are opposites and others have a different word class ‘dark/ darkness’ adjective/ noun (Cruse, 1987). Moreover, the notion of ‘word’ can be defined in four ways which are orthographically, semantically, phonologically and grammatically (Murphy, 2010). The first one deals with the written form of the ‘word’.

Most common assumption is that a word is a collection of letters with space in either side of them as mentioned earlier. However, the problem with this is that it employs circular logic because the spaces are to indicate the beginnings and endings of words where the spaces are put if a person can already identify what the bits – words are. Then, semantic definition is stating the word based on the meaning. For example, it can be agreed that ‘ice-cream’ refers to a single item. Phonologically, a word is a unit of language that has rules and has several constraints. For instances, /t/ and /n/ cannot exist together in English at a beginning of a word. So, it is understood that ‘catnip’ refers to ‘cat nip’ but not ‘*ca tnip’. Nonetheless, what seems to be clearer to define what a word is by its grammar. This can be seen as follows: d) catnip (n. ) in ‘Little Paw loves catnip’ can be replaced with a single word ‘it’e) ‘cat nip’ in ‘do not let the cat nip the baby’ has no single word that can be a replacementFrom d) it is clear that ‘catnip’ is one word and ‘cat nip’ in e) are two words where cat is a noun and nip is a verb. Word meaning Murphy (2010) defines that lexical semantics includes the study of lexical words and how particular meanings are lexicalized. One common confusion with what a meaning of word is with regards to what aspects of meaning is still ‘lexical semantics’. The following shows how a description of ‘shoe’ in that sentence is thought to be: f) Cinderella was going to be late for the ball because she could not find her other shoe. With the given sentence, it can be assumed that most people would have a specific image of the scenario and the missing ‘shoe’. ‘Shoe’ here means it is one half of a pair of shoes and belongs to Cinderella. Thus, this means that it is a shoe for woman. Additionally, the fact that she was going to be late due to the missing shoe, it tells that this shoe is a very classy one and is appropriate to an occasion such as that. These details are not information that the ‘word’ provides but rather by context (Murphy, 2010).

These inferences are not what lexical semantics do because such information based on context or world knowledge is part of pragmatics. Conversely, how word meaning is identified in semantics is through semantic entailments. It is the sort of conclusions that follow the particular use of a word and in this case, ‘shoe’. In addition, it is a relation between propositions in which whether a statement is true or false. So, the‘if A then B’ test is usually to show entailment between two statements. Below shows the entailment of the word ‘shoe’g) If it is a shoe, then it is made to be worn on a footh) If it is a shoe, then it is made for people to weari) If it is a shoe, then it is made of leather For either statement to be an entailment of shoe, the ‘then’ statement must be true to ‘shoe’. It can be said that the only entailment for the word ‘shoe’ is in g) because it is necessarily a footwear if it is a shoe. Though in h) that it is for people to wear is not false, it is necessarily not true because there is shoe not only for people to wear such as horseshoes. And a shoe is not only available in leather, there are lots of fabrics that a shoe is made from such as rubber, canvas and synthetics (Murphy, 2010). Ambiguity and VaguenessNext, ambiguity and vagueness tests to distinguish the two has been an issue central to the study of word meaning (Evans, 2010). Although, vagueness and ambiguity are manifestations of a phenomenon that may seemed indifferent, distinctions have been made between the two (van Deemter, 2010). Crystal (2008) defines ambiguity as it referring to a word which expresses more than one meaning or in other words, several senses. An example of an ambiguous word is ‘dish’ in ‘two dishes’. Here, one dish cannot mean one food item and another a medium to place a food item as the sense in ‘dishes’ must be the same for ‘the two dishes’.

So, this demonstrates that ‘dish’ possesses several distinct senses or meanings stored in the memory, hence ‘dish’ is ambiguous (Evans, 2010). Polysemy is often related to ambiguity in which the former is regarding the relationship between distinct but related word-senses and the latter is concerning the distinctiveness of a word meaning which is basically what is normally being termed as a sense. Another example of ambiguity is in the word ‘Japanese’ in the followings: j) Are there any Japanese flights from A to B?Here, ‘Japanese’ may refer to several senses. First, the most obvious one, can refer to an airline that is from Japan. Then, it also can be referred to manufacturing country of the plane. Thirdly, it may also mean that the departure of the flight is from Japan. Whereas vagueness is when a word allows borderline cases (van Deemter, 2010). For example, the word ‘grey’ is vague in which there are cats that are grey and some are not. However, there are others that rest in the borderline area between grey and not grey. Quite often in linguistics, vagueness always revolves around the interpretation of gradable adjectives (van Rooij, 2011). This can be displayed in adjectives like ‘tall’ and ‘flat’. The vagueness of being tall is not clear whether one’s height is considered as being tall or not. Nevertheless, ‘180cm tall’ makes ‘tall’ less vague with the measure phrase of such. Another example of vagueness is in expressions like ‘5 o’clock’ which is by itself not vague. However, when added a hedging word like ‘about’ or ‘roughly’ to it, it makes the expression vague.

Another way to test vagueness is with the ‘do so’ test. Below shows how vagueness can be tested: k) He is my cook. l) She is my cook. m) That restaurant hired a cook and so did we. The above examples show that in m), ‘a cook’ in the first clause can be referred to a male and in the second a female cook. ‘Cook’ here is vague because it allows the interpretation to be either male or female. Similarly, when said ‘they are both writers’, this is rather vague because they can either be a professional writer, an author or even a songwriter respectively. Hence, ambiguous basically means that the can have different senses but vagueness refers to word with one sense but is open and unclear.

Contextual Effects on Word Meanings

Next, contextual effects show the meaning of words in some ways. To define a particular word is simpler when the word is placed in a phrase or sentence of how it occurs in. One of the effects of giving a context to the word is through collocation which is the tendency for words to occur together. Crystal (2008) defines collocation as “a term used in lexicology by some – especially Firthian linguists to refer to the habitual co-occurrence of individual lexical items”. Examples are such as ‘book’ which collocates with ‘alphabets’, ‘words’ and ‘story’.

Additionally, a word can also be a collocation of one another with a word that has a similar meaning to it. For instance, the word ‘fast’ and ‘quick’ are synonymous to each other but they can be said to have a different collocation. ‘Fast car’ is a possible noun phrase but not ‘*quick car’ which does not work in English. This shows that different words have different degree of ability to occur in a given phrase as shown in ‘fast/quick’. In this case of adjective words, one factor that makes it dissimilar is the difference between an attributive use of an adjective and a predicative use. The former modifies a noun but the latter has the adjective after the verb. Lexical RelationsBy understanding how a certain word might relate to a word that is unclear, will help in identifying the meaning of that given word. Such can be achieved through the acknowledgment of homonymy, synonyms, antonyms, hyponymy and meronymy. Firstly, homonym are separate words that is identical in form but differ in meaning (Fowler, 2009). Examples are like keep (n. ) and keep (v. ). Next, Crystal (2008) defines synonymy to be a term that is used in semantics to refer to a major type of sense relation between different lexical items in which they have the same or similar meaning.

For instance, safe/ secure are synonyms. On the other hand, the oppositeness of a word meaning such as short/ long is called as antonym (Crystal, 2008). Hyponymy is vertical relation between lexical items such as boots belongs to a hypernym of footwear. Meronymy is a term in semantics that refers to the relationship between parts and wholes of a particular item. For example, ankle/ leg, nose/ face and sambal/ nasi katok. All of these lexical relations would be helpful to obtain a word meaning provided that that related word is already understood its meaning.


In summary, a person has to consider plenty of things before arriving at a particular word meaning. Issues with what is considered a word is also being discussed. Until one is able to identify a word will only then he can be able to understand the meaning of the particular word. Nonetheless, after this, another issue with defining a word meaning is the issue of ambiguity and vagueness. Ambiguity means that a word has multiple senses depending on the expressions whereas vagueness is the absence of what the word really refers to. Another issue with forming a word meaning is depending on the contextual effect. And lastly, lexical relations help to recognise a meaning of a particular word.

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