In a similar manner to family ties wherein a person talks about his or her cousins, nephews, nieces, uncles, aunts, grandparents and so on, words also have relations. Such relationships, which exist among words, are technically referred to as sense relations. Words cannot be studied or understood by their referential meanings. To grow one’s linguistic repertoire, therefore, it is essential to know the relationship a word maintains with other words. The knowledge of these sense relations can greatly widen a person’s vocabulary. This treatise will, thus, discuss some important sense relations and provide corresponding examples, with a view to helping the general reader enlarge their lexicon.
First among them is synonymy. This term is used to capture words with similar meanings. Such words are called synonyms. A specialised dictionary for words with similar meanings is called a thesaurus. The knowledge of synonyms helps language users to create vivid pictures of scenarios and experiences. Examples of synonyms are:
Moreover, it should be noted that words which are synonyms may be absolute or near synonyms. ‘Bandits’ and ‘brigands’ are, for instance, absolute synonyms because they can replace each other in virtually all situations, while ‘ripe’ and ‘mature’ are near synonyms because contexts may have to be well understood to replace one with the other. Again, a sentential context may make it impossible for words to serve as synonyms, even if they are, in isolation. For example, ‘vital’ and ‘important’ are absolute synonyms, but the latter cannot serve as a replacement for the former in a sentence like: That was a vital thing to note. This is because the preceding indefinite article, ‘a’, cannot precede the adjective, important; hence, the sentential inappropriateness of the two synonyms as a replacement in the given context. Synonyms should, in point of fact, be carefully deployed in contexts.
Antonymy is another sense relation of words, and it is used to depict oppositeness. Words that have opposite meanings are said to be antonyms. Some antonyms in the English language are:
There are two types of antonyms, namely gradable antonyms and non-gradable antonyms. Gradable antonyms are those that can be used in comparative constructions, such as smaller than/bigger than, taller than/shorter than and whatnot. Non-gradable antonyms are complementary pairs that do not have comparative constructions. Examples are: male/female, alive/dead, awake/asleep, single/married, open/close, perfect/imperfect, lost/found. Scholars also discuss relational opposites, which explain reciprocal or social relationships. Some examples are:
Another sense relation is hyponymy; it is about inclusion. In this sense relation, the meaning of one form is embedded in the meaning of another. Hyponymy can be split in two (not, ‘split into two’): hypernyms and hyponyms. Hypernyms are words with broad meanings constituting categories into which words with more specific meanings fall. Hypernyms are also called superordinates. Hyponyms, by juxtaposition, embody more specific meanings than the general or superordinate terms applicable to them. There is always a hierarchical relationship with words. To illustrate the concept of hyponymy, we can present ‘horse’, ‘dog’ and ‘snake’ as hyponyms of ‘animals’; we can deploy ‘insects’ as a hyponym of ‘creatures’; and we can use ‘creatures’ and ‘plants’ as hyponyms of ‘living things’. Such knowledge helps language users deploy words with exactitude.
Another notable phenomenon in sense relation is polysemy. Citing the Oxford English Dictionary, polysemy is the coexistence of many possible meanings for a word or phrase. This is the reason some words can be adjudged to be ambiguous. For perspective, in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, the noun, ‘set’, encompasses no fewer than 15 distinct senses, some of which are:
1) a group of similar things that belong together in some way
2) a piece of equipment for receiving television or radio signals
3) a young plant, shoot, etc. for planting
4) the scenery used for a play, film, etc.
5) one section of a match in games such as tennis or volleyball
As a corollary to the foregoing, we have homography, which is a term that depicts words with the same spelling but different meanings. Classic examples are:
Refuse /refju:s/ — waste material or rubbish
Refuse /rɪfju:z/ — to turn something down
Present /preznt/ — a gift
Present /prɪzent/ — something to be considered
Last but not least are homophones. A homophone is a group of two or more words with the same pronunciation but different spelling, origins and meanings. Quintessential examples are illicit/elicit, idle/idol, counsel/council, aren’t/aunt, flour/flower, sweet/suite, cent/scent, right/write, weather/whether and sow/sew, among others.
Sense relations exemplify crucial knowledge in vocabulary building. As a result, this piece will guide users of English on how to trace the relationships that exist among words, in order to capture their thoughts better in speech and writing.