Lexemes consists of words and idioms.
A word is a unit of speech with relatively fixed internal distribution but relatively free external distribution. But in fact there is no universal applicable meaning of defining a word. For example, in languages like Chinese, one word(one character to be exact) consists of a single syllable and is not internally modified – there is no alteration and addition to a stem or root. The only word structures are fixed phrases. Also, there are areas of overlap between word and its syntactic phrases, e.g. come-in-and-take-it-easy hospitality.
Idioms are combinations of words, which are more open to intrusions and modifications and are rather culture-specific. Idioms carry more impact than nonidiomatic expressions.
Semantic Classes of Lexemes
Most lexemes are referential – they represent reference in the real word or linguistic world. They may have unique referents, e.g. proper names. They maybe one of the four major classes: entities, activities, characteristics and relations. Lexemes could act as substitutes to other lexemes, predominantly pronouns. There are “empty” lexemes. For example, in the English phrase “make a speech”, the verb “make” is semantically almost empty.
Besides the above-mentioned major classes, there appear to be at least four minor semantic classes: marker (e.g. to as a marker of infinitive forms), exclamatives (e.g. oh boy, and ouch), attention-getter (e.g. hi, and hey) and admonisher (e.g. shh).
Meanings of lexemes
Lexemes have designative/denotative and associative/connotative meanings. The associative meanings represent the values and attitudes resulting from the use of lexemes in discourses, while the designative meanings represent referents in the practical or linguistic world.
Associative meanings are derived primarily from the linguistic and cultural context in which such lexemes habitually occur.
There are several primary sources of associative meanings. The person who uses such lexemes are one of the principal sources. Expressions such as sweetie, oh no and my oh my are typical of female speech. Also, the four-letter words in English are generally regarded as vulgar and uncouth because of the people who habitually use them.
Some associative meanings come from the physical settings in which lexemes are used, e.g. Church, political rallies and sports events. However, the specific settings can radically change the associative meaning. For example, the English phrase “son of a bitch” normally has an associative meaning of crude vulgarity, but it can also have friendly conviviality between two buddies who meet after prolonged period of time and greet each other with enthusiastic, like “how are you doing, you son of a bitch”.
The associative meanings of lexemes are often conditioned by their occurrences in well-known published sources, for example, “of the People, by the people and for the people” could immediately suggest the Gettysburg address.
Contextual contamination – the occurrence of a particular lexeme in especially favorable or unfavorable expressions – could affect some associative meanings. For example, the meaning of green as a color may be affected negatively because of such phrases as green with envy, and green-eyed monster.
Some associative meanings are derived from homophone. For example, the term ass a term for donkey has a negative associative meaning.
Cultural values associated with the referent of a lexeme may also influence the associative meaning of a term. For example, in some cultures the word pig may have negative associative meanings because pigs are not highly rated in those societies. But the situation might be totally the opposite in certain cultures like Malaysia.
The designative meanings of lexemes represent referents in the practical or linguistic world, which includes a bundle of semantic features. It is more relevant to regard meaning as a three-way relation between a sign, the reference and the system of the sign which makes possible the interpretation of the sign.
The definition of any meaning of a lexeme depends upon determining the distinctive semantic features. More commonly, designative meanings are stated in terms of some prototypical entity, activity, characteristic or relation. For example, the meaning of cup, mug and demitasse can be stated by setting cup as a prototypical entity and then establishing the distinguishing features of mug and demitasse on the basis of difference from cup which can be regarded as a prototype and as a kind of semantic primitive.
Some of these sets of meanings form well-defined clusters and some are inclusive and included meanings – which then create multi-layered hierarches. Overlapping meaning are also common. Complementary relations can also be found in meanings: 1) polar opposite, 2) reversives, 3) role-shifters.
In addition, different meanings of the same lexeme could exhibit different kinds of semantic relations: strings, galaxies and constellations. The different to use as a single word may form a string of relatively close meanings. Also, in many cases there is a central meaning to which other meanings are related to as a type of galaxy. There are words whose meanings are rather amorphous which have no central meaning to which other meanings related to, all of which are in a form of amorphous constellation.
The diachronic/historic features of a word could provide interesting information on the semantic relations, although it cannot determine the synchronic/present-day usage.
There are three sets of the relations between a lexeme and its referent: iconic, indexical and conventional. The iconic relation is based on similarity, e.g. choo-choo. The indexical relation is based on a pointing relation e.g. here, there. The conventional relation is the most common one: Most lexemes are related to the referent in an arbitrary manner.
Major features of designative meanings
The designative meaning of lexemes have indefinite boundaries. It may be recorded to determine where the range of meanings end. The semantic range of all lexemes is always potentially open.
The sets of designative meanings are always fuzzy. The semantic domains tend to overlap. This is because it is always difficult to determine the diagnostic features which separate one sets of meanings from another.
There are shifts in the number and types of semantic features in designative meanings. Also, inherent difficulties exist in determing the distinctive meanings. This is especially obvious when people trying to define the meaning of words. The designative meanings also have obligatory and optional/supplementary features. Some lexemes have numerous meanings while others have limited ones.
Basic Analytical Principles
In the process of analyzing the meaning of lexemes, there are a number of basic irrelevant principles.
First, the correct meaning of a lexeme in any context is the one which fits the context best;
Second, unless otherwise contextually marked, the central meaning of a term is to be assumed as correct. Its peripheral and figurative meanings are generally marked by context;
Third, in any context, a lexeme is likely to have one meaning unless multiple meanings are indicated by its immediate contexts;
Fourth, no two lexemes in a language have exactly the same meaning;
Fifth, no two words in any two languages are completely identical in meaning.