Session 11: Lexical Semantics

While analysis of the semantic content of an utterance is possible using differently sized chunks of language (phrases, sentences, entire texts), it is common to start on the word level and to examine words that intuitively seem to “go together”. Drawing up a map of sense relations is possible only after developing terms to describe these relations. The technical vocabulary explained below is used in lexical semantics to describe the relationship between terms. Are two terms neighbors? Opposites? Do they have a part-whole relationship? Lexical semantics has the goal of answering such questions.

Word fields

As has already been discussed, semantics is concerned with meaning. One way of defining meaning is by looking at the relationship of a group of terms in unison. Do they “go together” or not? Have a look at the following examples:

eyes, hands, nose, feet

green, red, purple, yellow

dog, log, hog, fog

While the terms in the first two sets are all related to one another (they form a word field), the words in the third set make up an arbitrary mix. This is likely to be the impression of most native speakers – dog and log simply have nothing in common in terms of meaning -, but it underscores a point we made very early in this course: the arbitrariness of the sign. The words in the third set share an identical sound pattern (save for the initial phoneme), but their meaning does not reflect this in any way.

Word fields as they are described above aren’t a purely theoretical exercise. Sets, an experimental tool developed by Google can automatically predict a word field based on very limited human input. Try it yourself here.


Synonomy is the degree of sameness (in regards to meaning) that two terms share. Natural languages afford fairly little space for complete synonyms (that would not be economical) and accordingly, small meaning differences exist. Buy and purchase are an example for two near-complete synonyms. In purely semantic terms, both words mean the same thing, but their use depends on the context they are used in. Purchase is likely to be used in slightly more high-brow language, whereas buy is the more common (in both senses of the word) variant. English has a fairly high number of (near) synonyms because of the influx of French words into the lexicon.


Antonyms are binary opposition pairs such as happy – unhappy, tall – short, young – old, war – peace. Their decisive quality is that the meaning of one term automatically excludes the other – someone who is tall is not short and someone who is unhappy is not happy. Antonyms can be gradable or non-gradable, depending on whether or not we can attach inflectional morphemes to them to indicate a comparison (happy – happier – happiest vs beautiful – *beautifuller – *beautifullest)


Hyponomy describes hierarchical relations between terms. If we can say that X is a kind of Y, a hyponymous relationship exists between X and Y. The two examples below illustrate this kind of connection.

blue red green yellow purple white black

toast boil fry grill roast bake microwave

In the examples, the terms color and cook are superordinates, while the words listed below them are their hyponyms.

Related to this is the concept of meronomy, which describes part-whole relationships. A meronymical relation is slightly different from a hyponymous one: eyes, lips and nose are part of the face – they are not a kind of face.


Homophones are terms that have a similar sound pattern, but are otherwise unrelated. Examples for this are see – sea, buy – bye, might – mite, night – knight. When two terms are spelled similarly but the sound patterns differ, we speak of homographs. An example for a pair of homographs is wind, as in we wind up in the same club every weekend vs. the wind is very cold in December. When both pronunciation and writing are identical, linguists conventionally speak of homonyms (see below).


Homonyms are terms that are superficially identical (in speech and writing) but etymologically unrelated:

match = thing that you light a cigarette with
match = thing that a soccer team loses

date = a sweet kind of fruit (ger: Dattel)
date = an appointment

Note that homonyms are characterized by the fact that they look the same superficially, but are actually unrelated. Usually the etymology of a word is key in determining whether it is a homonym.


In contrast to homonymity, which describes separate words with different meanings that only happen to look similar, polysemy describes individual word with multiple and distinct senses (polysemes). The term bank, for example, can denote either the institution or the building in which the institution resides. Both meanings are associated with the same word, making bank polysemous. By contrast, a river bank is not a different meaning of the same term, but a different word entirely.

Conceptual metaphors

While the abovementioned descriptions are use to describe sense relations, conceptual metaphor is a model that aims to explain how human cognition deals with certain aspects of meaning. Based largely on ideas put forth by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in their book Metaphors We Live By, a conceptual metaphor is an expression from ordinary language in which the meaning associated with a target domain is drawn from a source domain that is (subconsciously) perceived as sharing certain traits of the target (TARGET is SOURCE).

These examples serve to demonstrate the idea:


You make my blood boil

Let her stew

She got all steamed up

He’s just blowing off steam


She spends her time unwisely

The diversion should buy him some time

Time is money


Sally gave the idea to Sam

Sally took the idea from Sam

Sally traded ideas with Sam

Sally has an idea

Many more examples are available on George Lakoff’s website.

Key terms

  • sense relation
  • word field
  • synonymy
  • antonomy
  • hyponomy
    • meronomy
  • homophone
  • homonyms
  • polysemy
  • conceptual metaphor
    • source domain
    • target domain
Written by Cornelius in: Semantics,Summaries |

1 Comment

  • surya


    can you please explain in brief the conclusions of lexical semantics in sense relations

    Kind Regards

    Comment | December 29, 2010

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