Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Word meanings and other relations

Most people who survive the US educational system know a little bit about what linguists call nyms. Nyms are sets of meaning relations that words have with each other.

For example, everybody's heard of synonyms and antonyms (we'll come back to antonyms a bit later).  Synonyms are words that supposedly have the same meaning, like couch and sofa, or big and large.  I say supposedly, though, because true synonyms are pretty rare.  I suppose couch and sofa work ok, but check out these phrases:
my big brother
my large brother
Still think big and large are synonyms?  Try the same experiment with little and small.

There are some nyms, though, that most people haven't heard about, for example:
Hyponyms.  These are kinds of something, as in terrier, chihuahua, and German shepherd, which are kinds of dogs, which makes terrier, chihuahua, and German shepherd hyponyms of dog.
Metonyms.  We use these when we refer to a whole something by naming one of its parts.  My favorite is suits, as in look like you're busy, the suits are coming.  Here suits is a metonym for the people who wear business suits and are in charge, the bosses.
And again:
Partonyms (aka meronyms).  These are parts of something:  head, ear, leg, and tail are parts of a dog, so they are partonyms.
And one more:
Retronyms.  These show up when we have to specify something's older form because the newer one has become the default.  Acoustic guitar is a retronym; before there were electric guitars, all guitars were acoustic and if you spelled it out you were being redundant.  Straight razor is probably another.
Before we get to antonyms, I might mention two other relations between words, one of which most people know, and the other maybe a bit less known:

Homophones. These are words that sound the same but have different meanings: led and leadsweet and suitefeet and feat.
Homographs. These are words that are spelled the same, but pronounced differently and with different meanings.  For example, dove (the bird) and dove (past tense of dive).
And now, at last, antonyms. Antonyms are supposed to be opposites, but it turns out it's a little more complicated than that; there are several flavors of antonyms:
Gradable antonyms. These are opposites that have intermediate forms or grades in between. For example, something doesn't have to be either hot or cold, it can be warm, lukewarm, tepid, cool, chilly, etc.
Nongradable (or complementary) antonyms.  Unlike gradable antonyms, these have to be one or the other: single or marrieddead or alive. There's nothing in between.
Converse antonyms.  These antonyms entail each other; you can't be a member of the pair unless the other member also exists:  wife and husbandparent and childteacher and student.  Can't have one without the other.
It's this last set of antonyms that's illustrated in the photo.  Grampa Ron and Grandson Gabriel: converse antonyms.


  1. Very nicely done. And an adorable grandson. Should he study linguistics, what would he be to me? When students of my students come around, I say that they are my grandstudents.

  2. "...grandstudents"

    Works for me! I haven't had any yet, to my knowledge. But we do refer to our son's dogs as our grandpuppies.

  3. Cool, thanks for sharing this Ron. I didn't know about all these different "nyms."

    There is one little thing I disagree with though and that is the inclusion of "single vs married" in the nongradable antonyms. Someone can be "not single" and "not married." What about people who shack up without signing papers (what prior generations referred to as "living in sin" but is the growing norm for lots of people) or people who have long term relationships without living together or getting married? Legally, it seems you are correct because the governments around here tend to ignore reality. But in "real life" I know many who, like me, are stumped when it's time to check off these boxes indicating our "marital status."


  4. Jacky, thanks for pointing that out. I took my list from a standard textbook that includes, no doubt, mostly "standard" notions of these things. I'll probably take this one out of my presentations, or at least use it to point to how this nym, like synonyms, doesn't always work.

    Hope things are well in ᒋᓴᓱᐱ.

  5. Quite helpful.
    I'm doing French Studies, and was just searching for some straightforward explanations on the different types of antonyms. Thank You.

    Nice to know you worked in my region of the world-Carriacou, Grenada [beautiful islands].


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