LINGUIST List 15.686

Tue Feb 24 2004

Review: Lexicography/Semantics: Murphy (2003)

Editor for this issue: Naomi Ogasawara <>

What follows is a review or discussion note contributed to our Book Discussion Forum. We expect discussions to be informal and interactive; and the author of the book discussed is cordially invited to join in.

If you are interested in leading a book discussion, look for books announced on LINGUIST as "available for review." Then contact Sheila Dooley Collberg at


  • Ludwig Fesenmeier, Semantic Relations and the Lexicon

    Message 1: Semantic Relations and the Lexicon

    Date: Tue, 24 Feb 2004 18:09:21 -0500 (EST)
    From: Ludwig Fesenmeier <>
    Subject: Semantic Relations and the Lexicon

    AUTHOR: Murphy, M. Lynne TITLE: Semantic relations and the Lexicon SUBTITLE: Antonymy, Synonymy, and Other Paradigms PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press YEAR: 2003

    Announced at

    Ludwig Fesenmeier, Department of Romance Languages, University of Cologne


    The purpose of the monograph is to offer a new, cross- disciplinary approach to the traditional semantic relations discussion (henceforth: SR's), especially concerning antonymy and synonymy. The author claims that the relations themselves form part of the speaker's concepts of the words they address and that they thus share a role in instantiating meaning. She further claims that it is possible to identify a single principle underlying these different relations.

    The book is divided into two parts. Part I, consisting of three chapters (pp. 1-129) deals with SR's in general. Part II (pp. 131-242) discusses in detail the different SR's: three of its four chapters are dedicated to the relations of synonymy, antonymy, and, as a catch-all category of their own, hyponymy, meronymy and others respectively; the last chapter returns briefly to the assumptions proposed at the beginning of the book. At the end there is an appendix of ''Relation elements'' (pp. 243f), the notes (pp. 245-253), the references (pp. 254-273), and an index (pp. 274-292) of topics and authors.

    Chapter 1 provides an overview of the book's topics and goals, and of the concepts and terminology relevant for the discussion. The author takes a pragmatic and psycholinguistic perspective, where ''pragmatic'' implies ''that the linguistic phenomena described [...] are considered with reference to their use and their status in a human mind within a human culture'' (p. 5), while the label ''psycholinguistic'' refers to ''a psychologically plausible model of the knowledge and processes involved in semantic relations phenomena in human language behaviour'' (p. 4f). As far as terminology is concerned, the term ''intralexical'' is introduced to indicate ''that a structure or piece of lexical information is contained within the [mental] lexicon'', while ''metalexical'' refers to ''information that is not contained in the [mental] lexicon, even though it may be information about words'' (p. 9). Furthermore, various approaches to, and models of, the concept of 'mental lexicon' are evaluated, in particular those based on the ''dictionary metaphor'' and the ''thesaurus metaphor''. Finally the author proposes a distinction between two types of knowledge related to words: ''lexical and conceptual representation of words'' (p. 23).

    Chapter 2 presents in detail the metalexical approach. Murphy firstly presents nine properties of SR's which a theory must account for: productivity, binarity, variability, prototypicality/canonicity, semi-semanticity, uncountability, predictability, and universality. In the following section the ''Principle of Relation by Contrast'' (henceforth RC-P) is introduced which is defined as follows: ''The contrast relation holds among the members of a set iff: they have all the same contextually relevant properties but one.'' (p. 44). It is assumed that all types of SR's can be derived from this principle. Discussion in the chapter goes on to reconsider six kinds of phenomena - which can be observed in everyday language use and which are related to paradigmatic relations - in the light of the metalexical approach (among others metaphorical use, language acquisition, stylistic competence).

    Chapter 3 provides a survey of approaches to SR's from a number of different disciplines - this in constant comparison with the author's own metalexical approach. After a historical overview of work done in philosophy, linguistics, anthropology, psychology, and computer science, the sections that follow discuss approaches which Murphy divides in three categories: the two approaches following the dictionary metaphor and the thesaurus metaphor respectively, the third category falling between these two models. The chapter concludes by discussing ''approaches to the conceptual status of the semantic relations themselves'' (p. 61).

    Chapter 4 addresses ''synonymy and similarity'' (title) which is firstly described from the author's metalexical perspective, thus being considered ''a relation between our conceptualizations of words, rather than between their lexical entries [in the mental lexicon]'' (p. 134). Adopting the RC-P, it follows that a synonym ensemble ''includes only word-concepts that have all the same contextually relevant properties, but differ in form''. This she calls ''Relation by Contrast - Synonymy'' (henceforth RC-S; p. 134). Murphy continues by discussing the aspects of identity, similarity, and difference, showing how RC-S allows for deriving ''context-dependent synonyms, rather than logical synonyms'' (p. 143). Another section treats the question of defining which specific properties of the words concerned, can reliably be said to reify a synonymy relation (denotation, connotation, etc.). The following section is dedicated to the logical properties of synonymy (reflexivity, symmetry, and so on), showing that such properties ''do not hold in natural languages instances of synonymy'' (p. 157). Finally, attention is paid to the effects synonymy might have on the vocabulary of a language.

    Chapter 5 deals with ''antonymy and contrast'' (title), paying special attention to ''why contrast involving semantic incompatibility is so central a semantic relation'' (p. 169). In the metalexical approach, opposition and contrast are accounted for by the principle of ''Relation by Contrast - Lexical Contrast'' (henceforth RC-LC), discussed in the first section: ''A lexical contrast set includes only word-concepts that have all the same contextually relevant properties but one'' (p. 170). In what follows, some properties of antonymy that are traditionally discussed in literature (binarity, symmetry, and markedness) are reconsidered in the light of this principle and it is shown how antonym subtypes can be accounted for from this point of view. Furthermore the author discusses antonymy and contrast as far as, among others, discourse functions, semantic change, and language acquisition are concerned. Chapter 6 discusses in particular the relations of hyponymy/hyperonymy and meronymy/holonymy, and a case is made for considering these less as ''relations among word- concepts rather than relations among the things (the concepts) that those words denote'' (p. 216).

    Chapter 7 gives a brief summary of the topics addressed in the preceding chapters, considering possible counter- arguments to the metalexical approach and questioning its compatibility with different models of the lexicon. The lexicon is examined both as being more or less of modular nature as well as analysed as part of a gradual continuum towards ''grammar'' at the other end of the scale (Construction Grammar, Functional Grammar, among others).


    One of the merits of Lynne Murphy's book is that it clearly lays out the problems intrinsically connected to the study of semantic relations: in fact, much of the work on this topic seems to be grounded on what she calls ''knowledge about words'', clearly distinguished from what the author terms ''knowledge of words''. This distinction is sometimes not so straightforwardly drawn in literature. The lack of awareness of this difference might be one of the reasons for the frequent co-occurrence of ''problem'' with ''synonymy'', ''antonymy'' and the like. Nevertheless, the distinction between various types of knowledge might have been further refined by considering the work done by Hans- Martin Gauger (see Gauger 1970, 1972 and in particular 1976) and Eugenio Coseriu (e.g., Coseriu 1973, 1988) who discuss in detail various aspects of ''types of linguistic knowledge''; furthermore, Andreas Blank proposed a rather detailed model of the relationships between levels of knowledge and levels of linguistic meaning (see Blank 1997, in particular pp. 54-96).

    Another great advantage of the study under review resides in its taking into account the results of a broad range of disciplines often not discussed in more ''traditional'' (especially linguistic) accounts of SR's.

    What ought to be highlighted also as an important point is that Murphy's metalexical treatment of SR's includes the speakers themselves in the discussion, since SR's are sometimes considered either a phenomenon of language itself or a mere instrument for description (e.g., Berejan 1971, 129 and Harris 1973, 1 respectively for synonymy). In fact, some of the properties of SR's discussed by Murphy are intimately bound to speakers' judgements (e.g., productivity, variability, prototypicality, semi- semanticity). As far as these properties are concerned, it must be noted, however, that they are of different status: some bear on properties of the relations themselves (uncountability, universality), some concern rather the entities involved (variability, semi-semanticity), some others still seem to be of interest for antonymy only (binarity, prototypicality).

    The metalexical treatment further demands reconsidering how far the role of denotation has to be treated in the study of SR's (see, e.g., Casas G�mez 1999 who discusses mainly this point).

    As Murphy rightly argues, it is beyond doubt that the common denominator of SR's is similarity between the entities related. Who says ''similarity'' necessarily also says ''difference''. The RC-P is thus a quite appealing idea in that it offers a unified account of the different SR's, defining them as ''relations on the basis of minimal difference'' (p. 44) and thus as being based on a quantitative criterion rather than on a qualitative criterion. Yet it seems to me that one can likewise make a strong case for claiming that especially with synonymy and antonymy (I leave out of discussion hyponymy/hyperonymy and meronymy/holonymy for the reasons exposed in chapter 6 of the monograph) there is a fundamental qualitative difference which challenges notably the possibility of a unified account. It might be formulated in the following way: (a judgement of) synonymy is based on similarity IN meaning, while (a judgement of) antonymy is based on similarity OF meaning (see also p. 43 (my capitals): ''In the case of synonymy, words are expected to be similar IN meaning. Antonymy also requires similarity OF meaning.''). That is to say that the tertium comparationis in synonymy is, roughly speaking, a single entity (a single ''meaning'' or ''concept'' or whatsoever) which is at least partially ''contained'' in the related words themselves, whereas in the case of antonymy it is a scale (e.g., ''warmth'', ''length'') or some other complex (e.g., ''pets'' in the case of ''dog - cat'') to which the related words are to be referred to, and it is precisely the difference concerning the tertium that RC-P, at least in its actual version, does not account for. This is not to deny a priori the possibility that there might exist a common principle underlying (judgements of) both synonymy and antonymy (and other SR's), but it seems that further research is needed to prove the case, Murphy's approach being an important step.

    Another aspect that needs to be emphasised is the fact that Murphy is right in insisting on the importance of contextual factors in discussing SR's, showing how different contexts (in a rather broad sense, including sentential contexts as well as somewhat artificial ones like thesauri and word-association tests) allow for different judgements on the synonymy or antonymy of the words under discussion. One however must be careful not to blur the borders (thereby compromising the operationality of the concepts) that separate what one would reasonably still consider as an instance of a 'nym-relation from attributes no longer compatible with such a judgement. If we consider for example what is discussed on pp. 148f: although RC-S allows for treating ''to punish'' as a synonym of ''to correct'', ''to chastise'', ''to discipline'', ''to castigate'', and ''to penalize'', ''since for many purposes it is a reasonable substitute (and thus similar enough to) any of the others'', The American Heritage Dictionary on the contrary suggests it as being ''the 'least specific' of the words''. One might in fact find it more natural to consider the relation between ''to punish'' and its neighbours as a relation of hyperonymy/hyponymy.

    Still more counterintuitive are ex. 3 on p. 28 (''brown'' rather as an antonym of ''blue'' than of ''red'') and ex. 12 on p. 142 (''doggy'' as a synonym of ''kitty''), where the relations are simply posited by the speaker in the concrete situation, and where it is quite easy to imagine the judgements as being the other way round, thereby depriving the possibility of distinguishing between antonymy and synonymy. Thus, as a reader of Murphy's theses, one has to bear in mind that a set of words one finds for example in dictionaries of synonyms and antonyms, will fulfil the requirements of RC-S or RC-LC, but that the contrary will not necessarily hold. So, the principles as proposed by Murphy seem too strong in their predictive power, and the idea that SR's are to be accounted for as categories which show some kind of prototypicality effects (linguists actually limiting their attention normally to the more/most prototypical cases) must not lead to assigning them shadowy status.

    In conclusion, despite the problems discussed so far, Murphy's book sheds light on the important challenges and interesting insights which the matter of SR's are still able to offer, even if such relations have been subject of interest for centuries.


    Berejan, Silviu (1971): ''� propos de la d�limitation des unit�s synonymiques dans un champ conceptuel'', in: Revue roumaine de linguistique, 129-134.

    Blank, Andreas (1997): Prinzipien des lexikalischen Bedeutungswandels am Beispiel der romanischen Sprachen, T�bingen: Niemeyer.

    Casas G�mez, Miguel (1999): Las relaciones l�xicas, T�bingen: Niemeyer.

    Coseriu, Eugenio (1973): Sincron�a, diacron�a e historia: El problema del cambio ling��stico, 2. ed., Madrid: Gredos. Coseriu, Eugenio (1988): ''Die Ebenen des sprachlichen Wissens. Der Ort des 'Korrekten' in der Bewertungsskala des Gesprochenen'', in: Albrecht, J�rn/L�dtke, Jens/Thun, Harald (eds.) (1988): Energeia und Ergon. Sprachliche Variation - Sprachgeschichte - Sprachtypologie, Studia in honorem Eugenio Coseriu, T�bingen: Narr, vol. 1, 327-375.

    Gauger, Hans-Martin (1970): Wort und Sprache, T�bingen: Niemeyer.

    Gauger, Hans-Martin (1972): Zum Problem der Synonyme. Avec un r�sum� en fran�ais, T�bingen: Narr.

    Gauger, Hans-Martin (1976): Sprachbewu�tsein und Sprachwissenschaft, M�nchen: Piper.

    Harris, Roy (1973): Synonymy and linguistic analysis, Oxford: Blackwell.


    Ludwig Fesenmeier teaches Romance linguistics at the Department of Romance Languages, University of Cologne, currently working on his post-doctoral thesis on lexical synonymy in the Romance languages.