Библиографическое описание:

Мамедова М. А. An Introduction to Modern English Lexicology // Молодой ученый. — 2016. — №8. — С. 1137-1141.

At this early stage, a definition of lexicology is best considered as a working tool for a better understanding of subsequent chapters. In fact, we believe that this whole book is an answer, or at least a partial answer, to the fundamental question. “What exactly is lexicology?” We shall not have completed our definition until we reach the end. Even then, we cannot claim to have said everything about lexicology.

For the purpose of an introductory, lexicology may be defined as the study of lexis, understood as the stock of word in a given language, its vocabulary or lexicon (from Greek lexis, ‘word’, lexikos,’of/for words’). This working definition shows that the notion of ‘word’ is central in the study of lexicology. However, ‘word’ itself needs to be defined and discussed as a technical term. Since our main focus is the definition of lexicology, and in order to avoid a lengthy digression we use ‘word’ somewhat loosely in the usual traditional sense of a sequence of letters bounded by spaces. A comparison of the words ‘vocabulary’, ‘lexis’ and ‘lexicon’ would show that the three items may be considered more or less synonymous. However, it must be added that the first is more colloquial, the third more learned and technical and the second may be situated half-way between the other two. A distinction must, nevertheless, be drawn between the terms ‘vocabulary’, ‘leis’, and ‘lexicon’ on the one hand, and ‘dictionary’ on the other. While each of the first three may refer to the total word stock of the language, a dictionary is only a selective recording of that word stock at a given point in time.

Lexicology deals not only with simple words in all their aspects, but also with complex and compound words, the meaningful units of language. Since these units must be analyses in respect of both their form and their meaning, lexicology relies on information derived from morphology, the study of the forms of words and their components, and semantics, the study of their meanings. A third field of particular interest in lexicological studies is etymology, the study of the origins of words. However, lexicology must not be confused with lexicography, the writing or compilation of dictionaries, which is a special technique rather than a level of language study.

To avoid possible confusion and in order to introduce some of the technical terms we need in our discussion of lexicology, we shall examine the four related fields mentioned above, morphology, semantics, and etymology. Finally, we shall discuss lexicology as a level of language analysis.


Morphology is the study of morphemes and their arrangements in forming words. Morphemes are the smallest meaningful units which may constitute words or parts of words. They are ‘smallest’ or ‘minimal’ in the sense that they cannot be broken down further on the basis of meaning, as Katamba puts it: ‘morphemes are the atoms with which words are built’. They are ‘meaningful’ because we can specify the kind of relationship they have with the non-linguistic world. Consider the following items: cat, child, with, sleeping, armchairs, farmer. A close examination shows that cat, child and withcannot be analysed further into meaningful units. However, sleeping, armchairs and farmer can be analysed as ‘sleep + ing’, ‘arm + chair + s, and 'farm+er’. The items cat, child, with, sleep, -ing, arm, chair, -s, farm, and –er are all morphemes. Some are simple words such as cat, child, with, sleep, arm, chair, and farm, while others are only parts of word such as -ing, -s, and -er.But both types meet our definition of morpheme. On the one hand, they are minimal, since they can not be broken down into further meaningful units; on the other hand, they are meaningful, because we can establish a stable relationship between each item and the none-linguistic world of experience. For example, the references of cat, farm and chair can be explained by pointing or acting out the meaning as in ‘This is a chair’, or ‘That is a farm’, ‘It is a domestic animal that goes “miaow”, “miaow”’. The meaning of with may be given as ‘in company of’, ‘in antagonism to’; that of -s as ‘plural’; while that of -er may be expressed as follows: ‘-er combines with the preceding lexical item to designate things or persons with a function describable in terms of the meaning of the preceding morpheme’. For example, the meaning of -er in farmer and dreamer is describable in terms of those of farm and dream with which the morpheme -er is combined.

Morphemes that can occur alone as individual words are ‘free’ morphemes. Those that can occur only with another morpheme are ‘bound’ morphemes. Thus, the morphemes ‘cat’, ‘chair’, ‘farm’ are free, while ‘-ing’, ‘-s’, and ‘-er’ are bound, indicated by the hyphen. Any concrete realization of a morpheme in a given utterance is called a ‘morph’. Hence, the forms cat, chair, farm, -ing, -s, and -er are all morphs. Morphs should not be confused with syllables. The basic difference between the two is that while morphs are manifestations of morphemes and represent a specific meaning, syllables are parts of words which are isolated only on the basis of pronunciation.

An examination of a number of morphs may show that two or more morphs may vary slightly and still have the same meaning. For example, the indefinite article may be,realized either as a or as an, depending on the sound (not the letter) at the beginning of the following word. Morphs which are different representations of the same morpheme are referred to as ‘allomorphs’ of that morpheme (from Greek alio ‘other’ and morph ‘form’). For example;

a context vs. an index

a battle vs. an apple

a union vs. an onion.

The last pair of words deserves some comment. Its members begin with u and o, which are classified as vowel letters. However, while union begins with the same sound as yes which is treated as a consonant, onion begins with the same sound as onwards, which is a vowel; hence ‘a union’ vs. ‘an onion’.

The use of ‘vs.’ (versus) highlights the point that where the allomorph an occurs, its counterpart a cannot occur and vice versa. They are therefore mutually exclusive and are said to he in complementary distribution. It should be pointed out that as a descriptive term, ‘distribution’ refers to the total set of distinct linguistic contexts in which a given form occurs, sometimes under different morphological shapes. For example, the distribution of the indefinite article described above may be defined as: a before consonant sounds (e.g. a battle) and an before vowel sounds (e.g. an apple).

We now turn our attention to the relation between morphology on the one hand, and simple, complex and compound words on the other. Simple words such as door, knob, wild, animal are all free morphemes. They are therefore morphologically unanalysable. Complex (or derived) words such as spoonful, wildish, reanimate, mentally, farmerare formed from simpler words by the addition of affixes or some other kind of morphological modification. The limiting case for complex words is that of zero modification or conversion as in answer, call and question, which may be either nouns or verbs, or clean, dirty, and dry, which may be either adjectives or verbs, without the addition of further sounds/letters. Compound words, or simply compounds, are formed by combining two or more words (free morphemes) with or without morphological modification, e.g. door-knob, cheeseburger, pound saver, wild-animal-tamer. It should be pointed out that the distinction between word compound (solid and hyphenated) and phrasal compound (open) is not very clear in English. This fact is reflected by the inconsistency with which spaces and hyphens are used with compounds in written English.

This brief discussion shows the importance of morphology in lexicology. In fact, the construction of words and parts of words, and he distinction between the different types of words are all based on morphological analysis. Morphology is particularly relevant in the discussion of word formation.


Semantics is generally defined as the study of meaning. Its aim is therefore to explain and describe meaning in natural languages. The term ‘meaning’ is used here in the ordinary, non-technical sense, without reference to any particular theoretical framework. Most linguists agree that meaning pervades the whole of language. However, they are not always unanimous on the terms to be used in the discussion of semantics.

To highlight the pervasive nature of meaning, Jackson states that if we are to talk about semantics at all, then we should identify several kinds of semantics: pragmatic semantics, which studies the meaning of utterances in context; sentence semantics, which handles the meaning of sentences as well as meaning relations between sentences; lexical semantics, which deals with the meaning of words and the meaning relations that are internal to the vocabulary of a language. Semantics is usually approached from one of two perspectives: philosophical or linguistic. Philosophical semantics is concerned with the logical properties of language, the nature of formal theories, and the language of logic. Linguistic semantics involves all aspects of meaning in natural languages, from the meaning of complex utterances in specific contexts to that of individual sounds in syllables.

Consequently, since semantics covers all aspects of human language, it must be considered not only as a division of lexicology, but also as part of phonology, syntax, discourse analysis, textlinguistics, and pragmatics.

It will also be useful to introduce two terms which belong more to the area of sentence semantics, but which are equally relevant to our discussion of lexicology, ‘acceptability’ and ‘meaningfulness’.

‘Acceptability’ and ‘meaningfulness’ are distinct but related concepts. They are important in our discussion of lexicology because we may have utterances that are meaningless but acceptable, while others may be meaningful but unacceptable. Consider the following:

That woman is a man.

That doll is a bomb.

That walking-stick is a gun.

They may be considered meaningless in the sense that a human being cannot be both ‘a woman’ and ‘a man’ at the same time. Similarly, it may be argued that an object cannot be ‘a doll' and ‘a bomb’, just as the same object cannot be simultaneously ‘a walking-stick’ and ‘a gun’. But with a bit of imagination, one can think of contexts where such utterances, and others like them, can be considered acceptable. For example, in a play, a character may be a man biologically and play the role of a woman; in a film, an actor could be carrying a doll or a walking-stick which in fact could be deadly weapons such as a bomb or a gun. To paraphrase Leech, the ‘effective message’ in all such utterances is: ‘What appears as an “x” is in fact a “y”.’

There are other types of meaningless utterance that may be acceptable for various reasons. Some may involve ‘slips of the tongue', ‘typographical errors’, ‘sarcasms’, ‘different figures of speech’, etc. Others may he considered deviations from the norm of the language under study. Still others may have different origins or justifications. For example, if a person who has a bad cold and a completely blocked nasal cavity says ‘It’s dice beeting you’, after he/she has just been introduced to someone, this utterance maybe considered meaningless, strictly speaking. However, the ‘effective message’ it conveys in this context would be something like ‘It’s nice meeting you but I have a bad cold.’

The important point here is that there are several factors that contribute to the meaningfulness and the acceptability of utterances. As opposed to utterances that are meaningless but acceptable, others are meaningful but unacceptable. The latter category includes assertions that are false because of our knowledge of the real world, rather than for purely semantic reasons. Consider the following:

Crocodiles can fly.

The basket ate the vegetables.

John’s behaviour pleased the bananas.

We may use different criteria to account for such utterances. For example, they may be explained by logical argument to highlight the contradictions, inconsistencies or incompatibilities in the message. From a syntactic point of view, such utterances are treated as errors in predication, meaning that the subject or object noun phrases are syntactically unsuitable to the corresponding verb phrases. Hence, the subjects crocodiles and the basket are syntactically unsuitable to the verb phrases can fly and ate respectively. Such examples point to the lad that all of syntax, semantics and lexicology contribute to a comprehensive study of language.


A third field which should be of particular interest in lexicological studies is etymology, which may be defined as the study of the whole history of words, not just of their origin. The term ‘etymology’ was coined by the Stoics, a group of Greek philosophers and logicians who nourished from about the beginning of the fourth century BC. They noticed a lack of regularity in the correspondence between the forms of the language and their respective contents. In other words, they found no necessary connection between the sounds of the language on the one hand and the things for which the sounds stood on the other. Since they were convinced that language should be regularly related to its content, they undertook to discover the original forms called the ‘eytma’ (roots) in order to establish the regular correspondence between language and reality. This was the beginning of the study known today as etymology.

One of the difficulties faced by etymological studies is that some words are not etymologically related to ancient forms. It is therefore difficult to establish and indicate their origins. Consequently, the forms from which such words are said to derive can only be produced by analogy. Another difficulty is that while it is possible to specify the exact time when some terms entered the language, for example through borrowing, it is clearly impossible to say exactly when a form was dropped, especially since words can disappear from use for various reasons.

The most crucial difficulty faced with etymological studies is that there can be no ‘true’ or ‘original’ meaning, since human language stretches too far back in history. To paraphrase an example given by Palmer, one may be tempted to say that from the etymological point of view the adjective nice really means ‘precise’ as in ‘a nice distinction’. But a study of its history shows that the word once meant ‘silly’ (Latin nescius, ‘ignorant’), and earlier, it must have been related to ne, ‘not’ and se, probably meaning ‘cut’. The form se is also used in the Modern English words scissors and shears. But at this level of analysis, one would still be left with the Latin items ne, ‘not’ and se, ‘cut’, the origins of which are still unknown. In other words, no matter how far back one goes in history, one cannot expect to reach the beginning of time. So, the Stoics’ quest has proved fruitless.

As suggested in our definition, etymological information goes beyond the origin of the word. It also makes reference to cognates (i.e. words related in form) in other languages. Furthermore, in the case of borrowed words, it gives the source language, together with the date when the borrowing took place. Finally, it supplies any other information on the previous history of the word. In dictionary entries, such information is contained traditionally in square brackets. The amount of detail provided in etymologies varies from one dictionary to another. But in spite of its potentially wide range of coverage, etymological information is generally scanty in most monolingual dictionaries. In fact, it is totally absent from both bilingual and learners’ dictionaries, presumably on the grounds that it is not helpful to language learners. However, as pointed out by Jackson, it could be argued that ‘knowledge of etymology may help some learners to understand and retain new vocabulary items’.

To sum up the article we have given at least a partial answer to the question “What is lexicology?”. In so doing, it has established the distinction between lexicology as a level of language analysis and related fields such as phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and etymology. Here is also examined the various attempts made to account for the structure of the English vocabulary as a whole.


  1. Jackson, H.(1988) “Woprds and their meaning”, Longman.
  2. Katamba, F. (1994, 2005) “English words”, Routledge.
  3. Palmer, F.R. (1981) “Semantics: A new outline”, 2nd edn, Cambridge University Press.


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