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THE NOTION OF LEXICAL SYSTEM

It has been claimed by different authors that, in contrast to grammar, the vocabulary of a language is
not systematic but chaotic. In the light of recent investigations in linguistic theory, however, we are now
in a position to bring some order into this “chaos”.
Lexicology studies the recurrent patterns of semantic relationships, and of any formal phonological,
morphological or contextual means by which they may be rendered. It aims at systematisation.
There has been much discussion of late, both in this country and abroad, concerning different
problems of the systematic nature of the language vocabulary. The Soviet scholars are now approaching
a satisfactory solution based on Marxist dialectics and its teaching of the general interrelation and
interdependence of phenomena in nature and society.
There are several important points to be made here.
The term s y s t e m as used in present-day lexicology denotes not merely the sum total of English
words, it denotes a set of elements associated and functioning together according to certain laws. It is a
coherent homogeneous whole, constituted by interdependent elements of the same order related in certain
specific ways. The vocabulary of a language is moreover an a d a p t i v e s y s t e m constantly
adjusting itself to the changing requirements and conditions of human communications and cultural
surroundings. It is continually developing by overcoming contradictions between its state and the new
tasks and demands it has to meet.
A set is described in the abstract set theory as a collection of definite distinct objects to be conceived
as a whole. A set is said to be a collection of distinct elements, because a certain object may be
distinguished from the other elements in a set, but there is no possibility of its repeated appearance. A set
is called structured when the number of its elements is greater than the number of rules according to
which these elements may be constructed. A set is given either by indicating, i.e. listing, all its elements,
or by stating the characteristic property of its elements. For example the closed set of English articles
may be defined as comprising the elements: the, a/an and zero. The set of English compounds on the
other hand is an infinite (open) set containing all the words consisting of at least two stems which occur
in the language as free forms.
In a classical set theory the elements are said to be definite because with respect to any of them it
should be definite whether it belongs to a given set or not. The new development in the set theory, that of
fuzzy sets, has proved to be more relevant to the study of vocabulary. We have already mentioned that
the boundaries of linguistic sets are not sharply delineated and the sets themselves overlapping.
1
Another term often used nowadays and offered by V.G. Admoni is f i e l d -
s t r u c t u r e The lexical system of every epoch contains productive elements typical of this particular
period, others that are obsolete and dropping out of usage, and, finally, some new phenomena, significant
marks of new trends for the epochs to come. The present status of a system is an abstraction, a sort of
scientific fiction which in some points can facilitate linguistic study, but the actual system of the
language is in a state of constant change.
Lexicology studies this whole by determining the properties of its elements and the different
relationships of contrast and similarity existing between them within a language, as well as the ways in
which they are influenced by extra-linguistic reality.
The extra-linguistic relationships refer to the connections of words with the elements of objective
reality they serve to denote, and their dependence on the social, mental and cultural development of the
language community.
The theory of reflection as developed by V.I. Lenin is our methodological basis, it teaches that
objective reality is approximately but correctly reflected in the human mind. The notions rendered in the
meanings of the words are generalised reflections of real objects and phenomena. In this light it is easy to
understand how things that are connected in reality come to be connected in language too. As we have
seen above, the original meaning of the word post was ‘a man stationed in a number of others along a
road as a courier’, hence it came to mean the vehicle used, the packets and letters carried, a relay of
horses, the station where horses could be obtained (shortened for post-office), a single dispatch of letters. E.
g.: It is a place with only one post a day (Sidney Smith). It is also used as a title for newspapers. There is
a verb post ‘to put letters into a letter-box.'
The reflection of objective reality is selective. That is, human thought and language select, reflect and
nominate what is relevant to human activity.
Even though its elements are concrete and can be observed as such, a system is always abstract, and so is
the vocabulary system or, as Academician V.V. Vinogradov has called it, the lexico-semantic system. The
interdependence in this system results from a complex interaction of words in their lexical meanings and
the grammatical features of the language. V.V. Vinogradov includes in this term both the sum total of
words and expressions and the derivational and functional patterns of word forms and word-groups,
semantic groupings and relationships between words. The interaction of various levels in the language
system may be illustrated in English by the following: the widespread development of homonymy and
polysemy, the loss of motivation, the great number of generic words and the very limited autonomy of
English words as compared with Russian words are all closely connected with the mono-morphemic
analytical character of the English language and the scarcity of morphological means. All these in their
turn result, partly at least, from levelling and loss of endings, processes undoubtedly connected with the
reduction of vowels in unstressed syllables. In this book the relations between these elements and the
regularity of these relations are shown In terms of oppositions, differences, equivalencies and positional
values. Equivalence should be clearly distinguished from equality or identity. E q u i v a l e n c e is the
relation between two elements based on the common feature due to which they belong to the same set.
The term s у s t e m as applied to vocabulary should not be understood to mean a well-defined or
rigid system. As it has been stated above it is an adaptive system and cannot be completely and exactly
characterised by deterministic functions; that is for the present state of science it is not possible to specify
the system’s entire future by its status at some one instant of its operation. In other words, the vocabulary
is not simply a probabilistic system but a set of interrelated adaptive subsystems.
An approximation is always made possible by leaving some things out of account. But we have to
remember that the rules of language are mostly analogies.
The following simple example offered by J. Lyons illustrates this point: the regular, that is statistically
predominant, pattern for adjective stems is to form abstract nouns by means of the suffix -ness: shortness,
narrowness, shallowness. All the antonyms of the above-mentioned words, however, follow a different
pattern: they have a dental suffix: length, width, depth. This second analogy becomes a constraint on the
working of the first. Moreover, the relationship of the adjective big with the rest of the system is even
more unpredictable, as it is mostly correlated with the noun size. The semantic correlation then is as
follows:
short = narrow = shallow = long = wide = deep = big shortness narrowness shallowness length width
depth size

At this point it will be helpful to remember that it is precisely the most frequent words that show
irregular or suppletive derivation and inflection.
Last but not least, one final point may be made about the lexical system, namely that its elements are
characterised by their combinatorial and contrastive properties determining their s y n t a g m a t i c
and p a r a d i g m a t i c relationships. A word enters into syntagmatic (linear) combinatorial
relationships with other lexical units that can form its context, serving to identify and distinguish its
meaning. Lexical units are known to be context-dependent. E. g. in the hat on her head the noun head
means ‘part of the body’, whereas in the head of the department Head means ‘chief. A word enters into
contrastive paradigmatic relations with all other words, e. g. head, chief, director, etc. that can occur in
the same context and be contrasted to it.1 This principle of contrast or o p p o s i t i o n is fundamental
in modern linguistics and we shall deal with it at length in § 1.6. concerned with the theory of
oppositions.

1
paradigm < Lat paradigtna < Gr paradeigma ‘model’ < paradeiknynai ‘to compare'

Paradigmatic and syntagmatic studies of meaning are f u n c t i o n al because the meaning of the
lexical unit is studied first not through its relation to referent but through its functions in relation to other
units.
Functional approach is contrasted to r e f e r e n t i a l or onoma s i o l o g i c a l approach,
otherwise called t h e o r y of nomi n a t i o n , in which meaning is studied as the interdependence
between words and their referents, that is things or concepts they name, i.e. various names given to the
same sense. The onomasiological study of lexical units became especially prominent in the last two
decades. The revival of interest in onomasiological matters is reflected in a large volume of publications
on the subject. An outline of the main trends of current research will be found in the monographs on the
Theory of Nomination issued by the Institute of Linguistics of the Academy of Sciences.
The study of the lexical system must also include the study of the words’ combinatorial possibilities •
— their capacity to combine with one another in groups of certain patterns, which serve to identify
meanings. Most modern research in linguistics attaches great importance to what is variously called
valency, distributional characteristics, colligation and collocation, combining power or otherwise. This
research shows that combinatorial possibilities of words play an important part in almost every
lexicological issue.
Syntagmatic relationships being based on the linear character of speech are studied by means of
contextual, valency, distributional, transformational and some other types of analysis.
Paradigmatic linguistic relationships determining the vocabulary system are based on the
interdependence of words within the vocabulary (synonymy, antonymy, hyponymy, etc.).
Diachronically the interdependence of words within the lexical subsystem may be seen by observing
shifts in the meaning of existing words that occur when a new word is introduced into their semantic
sphere. This interdependence is one of the reasons why historical linguistics can never achieve any
valuable results if it observes only the development of isolated words. Almost any change in one word
will cause changes in one or several other words. Characteristic examples are to be found in the influence
of borrowings upon native words. The native OE haerfest (ModE harvest || Germ Herbst) originally
meant not only the gathering of grain’ but also ‘the season for reaping’. Beginning with the end of the
14th century, that is after the Romance word autumne > autumn was borrowed, the second meaning in the
native word was lost and transferred to the word autumn.
When speaking about the influence of other aspects on the development of the vocabulary, we mean
the phonetical, morphological and syntactical systems of the English language as they condition the
sound form, morphological structure, motivation and meaning of words. This influence is manifold, and
we shall have to limit our illustration to the most elementary examples. The monosyllabic phonological
type of the English word, for instance, enhances homonymy. Сf. miss v ‘not hit’, ‘not catch’ and miss n
— a title for a girl or unmarried woman.
The influence of morphology is manifest, for instance, in the development of non-affixed word-
formation. Cf. harvest n and harvest v.
The above considerations are not meant to be exhaustive; they are there to give some general idea of
the relationships in question.
In this connection it is necessary to point out that various interpretations of the same linguistic
phenomena have repeatedly been offered and have even proved valuable for their respective purposes,
just as in other sciences various interpretations may be given for the same facts of reality in conformity
with this or that practical task. To be scientific, however, these interpretations cannot be arbitrary: they
must explain facts and permit explanation and prediction of other facts. Therefore they must fit without
bringing contradictions into the whole system of the theory created for the subject.

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