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Criteria of Synonymy

Synonymy is associated with some theoretical problems which at present are still an object of controversy. Probably, the most controversial among these is

the problem of criteria of synonymy. To put it in simpler words, we are still not certain which words should correctly be considered as synonyms, nor are we agreed as to the characteristic features which qualify two or more words as synonyms.

Traditional linguistics solved this problem with the conceptual criterion and defined synonyms as words of the same category of parts of speech conveying the same concept but differing either in shades of meaning or in stylistic characteristics.

Some aspects of this definition have been criticised. It has been pointed out that linguistic phenomena should be defined in linguistic terms and that the use of the term concept makes this an extralinguistic definition. The term "shades of meaning" has been condemned for its vagueness and lack of precision.

In contemporary research on synonymy semantic criterion is frequently used. In terms of componential analysis synonyms may be defined as words with the same denotation, or the same denotative component, but differing in connotations, or in connotative components (see Ch. 7).

Though not beyond criticism, this approach has its advantages and suggests certain new methods of analysing synonyms.

A group of synonyms may be studied with the help of their dictionary definitions (definitional analysis). In this work the data from various dictionaries are analysed comparatively. After that the definitions are subjected to transformational operations (transformational analysis). In this way, the semantic components of each analysed word are singled out.

Here are the results of the definitional and transformational analysis of some of the numerous synonyms for the verb to look.


































] to stare: to glare: to gaze: to glance: to peer: to peer: Denotation Connotations
to look + + + + + + steadily, lastingly + + + + + in surprise, curiosity, etc.
to look steadily, lastingly in anger, rage, fury
to look steadily, lastingly in tenderness, admiration, wonder
to look briefly, in passing
to look steadily, lastingly by stealth; through an opening or from a concealed location
to look steadily, lastingly with difficulty or strain

The common denotation convincingly shows that, according to the semantic criterion, the words grouped in the above table are synonyms. The connotative components represented on the right side of the table highlight their differentiations.

In modern research on synonyms the criterion of interchangeabilityis sometimes applied. According to this, synonyms are defined as words which are interchangeable at least in some contexts without any considerable alteration in denotational meaning. [4]

This criterion of interchangeability has been much criticised. Every or almost every attempt to apply it to this or that group of synonyms seems to lead one to the inevitable conclusion that either there are very few synonyms or, else, that they are not interchangeable.

It is sufficient to choose any set of synonyms placing them in a simple context to demonstrate the point. Let us take, for example, the synonyms from the above table.

Cf.: He glared at her (i. e. He looked at her angrily). He gazed at her (i. e. He looked at her steadily and attentively; probably with admiration or interest).

He glanced at her (i. e. He looked at her briefly and turned away).

He peered at her (i. e. He tried to see her better, but something prevented: darkness, fog, weak eyesight).

These few simple examples are sufficient to show that each of the synonyms creates an entirely new situation which so sharply differs from the rest that any attempt at "interchanging" anything can only destroy the utterance devoiding it of any sense at all.

If you turn back to the extracts on p. 184—187, the very idea of interchangeability will appear even more incredible. Used in this way, in a related context, all these words (/ like you, but I cannot love you; the young man was strolling, and his child was trotting by his side; Romeo should smile, not grin, etc.) clearly demonstrate that substitution of one word for another is impossible: it is not simply the context that firmly binds them in their proper places, but the peculiar individual connotative structure of each individual word.

Consequently, it is difficult to accept interchange-ability as a criterion of synonymy because the specific characteristic of synonyms, and the one justifying their very existence, is that they are not, cannot and should not be interchangeable, in which case they would simply become useless ballast in the vocabulary.

Synonyms are frequently said to be the vocabulary's colours, tints and hues (so the term shade is not so inadequate, after all, for those who can understand a metaphor). Attempts at ascribing to synonyms the quality of interchangeability are equal to stating that subtle tints in a painting can be exchanged without destroying the picture's effect.

All this does not mean that no synonyms are interchangeable. One can find whole groups of words with half-erased connotations which can readily be substituted one for another. The same girl can be described as pretty, good-looking, handsome or beautiful. Yet, even these words are far from being totally interchangeable. Each of them creates its own picture of human beauty. Here is an extract in which a young girl addresses an old woman:

"I wouldn't say you'd been exactly pretty as a girl — handsome is what I'd say. You've got such strong features."

(From The Stone Angel by M. Lawrence)

So, handsome is not pretty and pretty is not necessarily handsome. Perhaps they are not even synonyms? But they are. Both, the criterion of common denotation ("good-looking, of pleasing appearance") and even the dubious criterion of inter-changeability seem to indicate that.

In conclusion, let us stress that even if there are some synonyms which are interchangeable, it is quite certain that there are also others which are not. A criterion, if it is a criterion at all, should be applicable to all synonyms and not just to some of them. Otherwise it is not acceptable as a valid criterion.

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