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Review of  Semantic Relations and the Lexicon

Reviewer: Ludwig Fesenmeier
Book Title: Semantic Relations and the Lexicon
Book Author: M. Lynne Murphy
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Book Announcement: 15.686

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Date: Tue, 24 Feb 2004 21:49:29 +0100
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

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

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 Gómez 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

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): "À propos de la délimitation des
unités synonymiques dans un champ conceptuel", in: Revue
roumaine de linguistique, 129-134.

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

Casas Gómez, Miguel (1999): Las relaciones léxicas,
Tübingen: Niemeyer.

Coseriu, Eugenio (1973): Sincronía, diacronía e historia:
El problema del cambio lingüístico, 2. ed., Madrid: Gredos.

Coseriu, Eugenio (1988): "Die Ebenen des sprachlichen
Wissens. Der Ort des 'Korrekten' in der Bewertungsskala des
Gesprochenen", in: Albrecht, Jörn/Lüdtke, Jens/Thun, Harald
(eds.) (1988): Energeia und Ergon. Sprachliche Variation -
Sprachgeschichte - Sprachtypologie, Studia in honorem
Eugenio Coseriu, Tübingen: Narr, vol. 1, 327-375.

Gauger, Hans-Martin (1970): Wort und Sprache, Tübingen:

Gauger, Hans-Martin (1972): Zum Problem der Synonyme. Avec
un résumé en français, Tübingen: Narr.

Gauger, Hans-Martin (1976): Sprachbewußtsein und
Sprachwissenschaft, München: 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.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 0521780675
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 304
Prices: U.S. $ 65
U.K. £ 45