There are a few ways to characterize the meaning of a word; we can do it through morphology, phonology, or even through its categorization: whether it is animate, human, female, or adult. However, there is another way to characterize the meaning of a word: namely, to characterize the word through its lexical relations.
Lexical relationships are the connections established between one word and another; for example, we all know that the opposite of “closed” is “open” and that “literature” is similar to “book”. These words have a significant relationship to one another, whereas words like “chair” and “coffee” might have no meaningful relationship; thus, certain lexical relationships can inform us about the meaning of a word.
There are a few common types of lexical relationships: synonymy, antonymy, hyponymy, and polysemy. This is not all the known types of lexical relationships, but as an introduction to lexical relations, these will suffice.
This is perhaps the most commonly understood of all the lexical relations. Synonymy is the idea that some words have the same meaning as others, though this is not always the case; that is, there are some synonyms which cannot replace one another in a sentence, we will give some examples of this further down.
When words have the same meaning, they can replace one another without altering the meaning of a sentence; for example:
Jane is quick
Jane is fast
Jane is speedy
All three sentences have the same meaning even though they are each unique instances of that sentence; only because the meanings of all three words at the end of the sentences are the same. This, by extension, then allows each sentence to maintain the same meaning as before.
Now, this lexical relationship, as said earlier, does not necessarily hold for all synonyms. Consider some of these pairs: quick/high-speed, quick/brisk. When we do the same sentence exercise as above, we will get radically different meanings:
Jane is quick
Jane is high-speed
Jane is brisk
So, synonyms sometimes lack the same meanings when applied to a specific context or sentence; indeed, there are cases where the result will give us something incoherent or incredibly odd. Therefore, the key to remember with synonyms is that, although they have a relationship in meaning, they do not always have the same meaning in sentences.
Antonymy is precisely the opposite of synonymy. With antonymy, we are concerned with constructions which are opposite to one another with respect to lexical relationships. For example, ice/hot, beautiful/ugly, and big/small. These words have meanings which are opposite to one another, and these opposite meanings come in two forms: categorical and continuous.
The categorical distinction is one that has two categories that contrast one another; for example, fire/water. These are categorical because there is no continuum between them; that is, less fire never means more water and less water never means more fire. Comparatively, antonyms that are on a continuum are constructions like big/small. This is due to the relative nature of these words; meaning, when we call a horse small, it may be relative to something else like another horse. And when that same horse is compared yet again, it might be the case that the horse is now big. So, the meanings between big and small are on a continuum relative to the object of discussion.
Some example phrases of antonymy are as follows:
Jane is small
Jane is big
Jane is slow
Jane is fast
These phrases all have opposite meanings to one another, and we can see this more readily through their applications to sentences.
It is also important to note that antonymy can have issues as well, though only when we shift the nature of our communication: I.e., “The economy is going nuts,” can also be said, though sarcastically, in the following manner: “the economy is perfectly healthy”. Traditionally, “going nuts” and “mentally healthy” are viewed as opposite meanings, but when we shift the manner in which we speak, like with sarcasm, this relationship fails to hold up. Thus, antonyms work differently when we hold as an assumption a literal or straightforward view of discourse.
Hyponymy is similar to the notion of embeddedness; meaning, the semantics of one object is implied by another. That is to say, because words represent objects, the semantic properties of a particular object, like whether it is a female or animate, can be embedded in a word that implies those same objects; and so, the meaning of word “x” can be embedded in word “z”. For example, “Donald Trump” implies “human,” or “animate”. This is due to the fact that Donald Trump, despite the beliefs of others, is both a human and animate. With each word, there is implied the notion of another semantic feature.
These semantic features, might I add, are organized in an ordinal fashion, which means there is a rank for embeddedness: from specific to general. The most general word would sit atop the hierarchy; so, with respect to our friend Donald Trump, the hierarchy might look something like the following:
There are also technical terms that are used to describe the relationships amongst these hierarchies: superordinates and co-hyponyms. In the previous example, animate would be considered superordinate to human and human would be considered superordinate to female. On the other hand, when a term is on the same level as another word, then it is named a co-hyponym; for instance, “dog” and “cat” are a co-hyponyms that have “pet” as their superordinate. So, hyponyms move from either specific to general or general to specific, where general is at the top of the hierarchy and specific is at the bottom.
So hyponymy is the idea of embedded semantic features in a hierarchical order. When we speak of Donald Trump, we necessarily bring up specific semantic features.
Polysemy deals with constructions that have multiple meanings; for example, “head,”, “over,” or, “letter,” can all adopt multiple meanings. These words could be considered polysemous since they each have many potential meanings.
The word “head” can be used to refer to the top of someone’s body: “Jane received a head injury”; it can be used to refer to the front of a line: “Jane is at the head of the line”. It can also be used to refer to how prepared someone is: “Jane is way ahead of the curve, she already read the chapter for next week”. So, the word “head” is polysemous since it has many meanings.
Another word with many meanings is “over”. The word “over” can be used more ways than countable; for instance, “she lives over there,” is different from, “she lives over the hill”. Even furthermore, “the lid is over the pot,” and, “is it over yet,” are both different from one another and the two previously mentioned examples. The word “over,” as said already, has more meanings than countable.
Words are not alone when it comes to being polysemous, sentences are polysemous to; for instance, “Jane hit the man with the umbrella”. Here, it is unclear as to whether Jane had hit someone with an umbrella, as though the umbrella were a weapon, or if she had bumped into someone that was holding an umbrella. And not every meaning associated with a given polysemous sentence will be the same.
So, polysemy pertains to words and phrases that can have more than one meaning; sometimes the context of a specific phrase will allow us to negate other phrases, like if someone was holding an umbrella, but when removed from context, phrases remain ambiguous. And thus, polysemy highlights the importance of analyzing semantic features of words rather than analyzing syntax alone.
Lexical relations are important for understanding language and cognition; they teach us how words relate to one another and how human thought and perception get organized.
On the one hand, the lexical relations allow us to create reference points for words and therefore add meaning to our language. For example, if I say, “she is as cold as ice,” we know that cold is the opposite of warmth; that is, we experience cold and warmth as two opposite ends of a spectrum. In addition, warmth has as a superordinate “love” because we associate love with warmth: i.e., she warms my heart, his touch melts me,” and so love is a superordinate of warmth. So, the antonym of warmth is cold, which then aids in our understanding of “she is as cold as ice,”: namely, she is unloving or unempathetic. These types of lexical relations are important for semantics and the understanding of language.
On the other hand, the relationships between words also teach us how it is we think about the world. The very fact that we view “happy” as the opposite of “sad” tells us something about human cognition and experience. In addition, the fact that fast and quick can mean the same thing tells us something about the organization of perception; that is, when we call something fast or quick we are paying little attention to placing it on a continuum and are instead merely observing its speed; this is evident by the fact that synonyms for speed do not necessarily entail differences within speed. So, words can reveal features about how we perceive the world.
And so, the importance of lexical relationships is that it can speak volumes about human cognition; lexical relations can allow us to infer the cognitive resources necessary to organize the world in a particular manner, or they can allow us to infer how it is that we relate phenomenon.