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General Linguistics

Semantics: Componential Analysis

楚军

外国语学院

Componential Analysis (a structural approach to meaning)

Outline: 1. The theory of componential analysis 2. Criticisms /Disadvantages of the theory 3. Applications /Advantages of the theory

1. Theory of Componential Analysis
Componential Analysis --shortened as CA, is a theory of word-meanings. (Leech 1981: 84) "The analysis of word meanings is often seen as a process of breaking down the sense of a word into its minimal components," which are known as semantic features, sense components, semantic markers or sememes (义位).

1. Theory of Componential Analysis
A (1) (2) (3) (4) man ram drake stallion B woman ewe duck mare C child lamb duckling foal

(5) (6)

boar rooster

sow hen

piglet chicken

1. Theory of Componential Analysis
From the above table, we may abstract the following semantic features: Column A: [Male], [Adult]; Column B: [Female], [Adult]; Column C: [Non-adult]; Line (1): [Human]; Line (2): [Ovine]; Line (3): [Anatine]; Line (4): [Equine]; Line (5): [Porcine]; Line (6): [Galline].

1. Theory of Componential Analysis
The method of componential analysis is to reduce a word's meaning to its ultimate contrastive elements. Semantic features are established on the basis of binary opposition, e.g. between [Male] and [Female], [Animate] and [Inanimate], [Adult] and [Non-adult]. For the sake of economy, we use pluses "+" as positive and minuses "-" as negative. ― Thus, [Male] and [Female] are written as [+Male] and [-Male] and so on.

1. Theory of Componential Analysis
Examples: woman: [+Human +Adult -Male]; boar: [+Porcine +Adult +Male]; girl: [+Human -Adult -Male]; ewe: [+Ovine +Adult -Male]. The sense components in square brackets are called ―semantic formula‖ or "Componential Definitions―.

1. Theory of Componential Analysis
The purpose of componential analysis: to study the conceptual-lexical relations. Through analyzing the semantic elements of word-meanings, we can fully grasp the denotative meaning, i.e. the conceptual meaning or cognitive meaning of words.

2. Criticisms of componential analysis
? Firstly, it is often said that CA accounts for only some parts of a language's vocabulary, especially that range of vocabulary with semantic oppositions, such as "man, woman; prince, princess; bull, cow, etc.". ? Secondly, it is often objected that CA suffers from a "vicious circle" in that it merely explains one set of symbols (e.g. English words) by another set of symbols (which turn out to be English words).

2. Criticisms of componential analysis
? Thirdly, the analysis of word-meaning into its sense components is not enough. It has also been claimed that CA is unexplanatory in that it does not provide for the interpretation of semantic features in terms of the real-word properties and objects that they refer to. e.g. ―man‖ in a child’s mind, and in the sentence ―Be a man!‖

3. Applications of componential analysis
(1) Componential analysis enables us to have an exact knowledge of the conceptual/denotative meaning of words when teaching English vocabulary, especially nouns. [+Animate + Mammal + Plant-eating + Heavy + Thick-skinned + Short-legged] --Hippopotamus

3. Applications of componential analysis
? To distinguish different nouns: [+ Animate] to differentiate "man, dog, sparrow― from "book, chair, dictionary"; [+Vegetable] to distinguish plants; [+ Male] and [+Adult] to be relevant for nouns with [+Animate]; [+Concrete] to tell nouns like "boy, table" from "hope, thought";

3. Applications of componential analysis
[+Count] to discriminate countable nouns (pen, lamp, chair) from "mass" nouns (water, milk, gravel); [+Common] to distinguish proper nouns "Boston, America, Smith" from common nouns "city, capital, table". [+Common + Count + Concrete + Human + Adult Male - Married] --spinster

3. Applications of componential analysis
(2) The technique of componential analysis also helps us correctly use verbs and adjectives. Only [+Dynamic]-featured v. and adj. can be used in progressives, imperatives, causative constructions (embedded clauses) and pseudocleft sentences. (3) Componential analysis has also proved its usefulness in characterizing sense relations such as synonymy, polysemy, antonymy, and hyponymy.

3. Applications of componential analysis
Synonymy refers to different lexical items having the same meaning. Two words are synonymous if they contain all the semantic features. "mother" and "female parent" can be given the same semantic definition: [+ Human + Adult – Male + Married].

3. Applications of componential analysis
We need the following semantic markers to distinguish the slight differences between synonyms and to correctly use them: [Semantic Coverage]: agriculture > agronomy > farming; [Connotation]: resolute (apprec.), obstinate (derog.), stubborn (neutral);

3. Applications of componential analysis
[Intensity]: small, tiny, diminutive, minute, microscopic, infinitesimal; [Manner]: bring, take, fetch; [Stylistic Coloring]: horse (neutral), steed (poetic), nag (slang) and gee-gee (childish).

3. Applications of componential analysis
Polysemy refers to the sense relation in which one lexical item has more than one definition. E.g. ―man‖: Man differs from animals in that he can speak and think. [+ Human]; Generally, a man is taller than a woman. [+ Human + Male + Adult]; They are declared man and wife. [+ Human + Male + Adult + Married].

3. Applications of componential analysis
Antonymy stands for "oppositeness of meaning". Two words are antonymous if the two semantic formulae of the two words contain a pair of contrasting semantic features. [+ Human + Adult + Male + Married + Parent] [+ Human + Adult - Male + Married + Parent] father—mother

3. Applications of componential analysis
Hyponymy refers to the relationship which obtains between general and specific lexical items (between the genus and the species). This relationship exists between two meanings if one componential formula contains all the features present in the other formula. [+Human+ Adult – Male + Married + Parent] human beings→ adult human beings → woman →wife →mother.

3. Applications of componential analysis
(4) A knowledge of the semantic feature of words helps us to choose the right word or right collocation (selection restriction). Water is in love with my friend. The flatworm got divorced. He elapsed a week ago. The boy frightened the idea. The giraffes arrested five demonstrators. The pigs /dogs arrested five demonstrators.

3. Applications of componential analysis
(5) Componential analysis can be applied to the explanation of changes of word-meanings: specialization and generalization. Specialization (Restriction of meaning) means that a word of wide meaning acquires a narrower, specialized sense which is applicable to only one of the objects it had previously denoted. Originally, ―wife‖: [+ Human + Adult - Male] Now, ―wife‖: [+ Human + Adult – Male + Married]

3. Applications of componential analysis
Generalization, the extension of meaning, means the widening of a word's sense until it covers much more than what it originally conveyed. "bird" originally means "a young bird―: [+ Animate + Feathered + Two-legged + Twowinged - Adult]; Now, ―bird‖, a general term, stands for feathered creatures with two legs and two wings, usually able to fly‖: [+ Animate + Feathered + Two-legged + Twowinged + Adult].

3. Applications of componential analysis
(6) Componential analysis is important in considering and appreciating some figures of speech such as personification, metaphor and metonymy. Personification: we add the semantic feature [+Human] to those non-human things, thus making them personified. "the thirsty ground―, "The waves danced." "the smiles of spring" .

3. Applications of componential analysis
Metaphor: an implied comparison. ―Tom is a fox.‖ ―Mary is quite a vision.‖ Metonymy refers to the substitution of the name of one thing for that of another with which it is closely associated. The whole town turned out to welcome us. The neighborhood objected to his plans. I have never read Li Bai. Peter threw his Webster at John's head.


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