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  Lexicology (Greek, ‘the study of words’), in linguistics, examines all aspects of the way words figure in human experience, which means that an enormously diverse spectrum of interests is entertained, ranging from the principles guiding dictionary compilation to questions concerning the storage and retrieval of words in the mind (see also lexicography and psycholinguistics). Until quite recently, the ways in which words combine to form sentences (syntax) has received much more attention than the nature of the words themselves. As a result, there has been a tendency to regard the lexicon as little more than a list of words, supplemented by idiosyncratic aspects of word usage.

Of central importance is the issue of how word meaning is represented in the mind. Clearly, words can be used by many different speakers in many different contexts and still convey meaning in a consistent way. This observation led to the idea that words must possess a stable core of meaning which allows them to be identified uniquely. The so-called semantic core of a word comprises a list of essential attributes which together define the meaning of a word. For example, the core meaning of ‘bull’ is composed of the properties male, bovine and animal. All other aspects of our knowledge about bulls (their aggressiveness, dislike of red rags and so on) are consigned to an encyclopaedic store of non-essential information.

This componential approach is useful because it can account for overlaps in meaning between words. Thus, if man is described as human, male and adult, then an overlap with the meaning of bull is explained, since they both possess the feature male. In addition, synonyms can be described as words which share precisely the same components of meaning, even if their pragmatic meanings vary slightly. However, serious problems arise when we consider that there is no objective method of deciding which components of meaning should be included in the semantic core. Furthermore, for some words it is difficult to find any single feature which is absolutely necessary and applicable to all exponents of the word. A famous example in this regard is the category of games.

A separate approach to word meaning acknowledges that words naturally cluster together according to shared aspects of meaning to form semantic fields. It is suggested that words may be represented in the mind according to the network of links they establish with other words. Word meaning can then be described in terms of the relations between words. Experimental research has revealed that words at the same level of detail are often grouped together: ‘rose’ and ‘poppy’, for example, would be more readily associated than ‘rose’ and ‘plant’. Another strong organizing factor is the characteristic association of words known as collocation, as with ‘hazel eyes’ or ‘hot temper’ (rather than, for instance, ‘hazel hair’ or ‘lukewarm temper’). A complicating factor, revealed by recent computer analyses, is that the meaning of a word varies according to the particular collocations it enters into, and furthermore, the different senses of an item occur in predictable syntactic patterns. MS

See also computational linguistics; prototype theory.Further reading J. Aitchison, Words in the Mind.



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