Thursday, December 16, 2010

The theory of Componential Analysis in Semantics

Linguistic semantics is also used by anthropologists called ethnoscientists to conduct formal semantic analysis (componential analysis) to determine how expressed signs—usually single words as vocabulary items called lexemes—in a language are related to the perceptions and thoughts of the people who speak the language.
Componential analysis tests the idea that linguistic categories influence or determine how people view the world; this idea is called the Whorf hypothesis after the American anthropological linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf, who proposed it. In componential analysis, lexemes that have a common range of meaning constitute a semantic domain. Such a domain is characterized by the distinctive semantic features (components) that differentiate individual lexemes in the domain from one another, and also by features shared by all the lexemes in the domain. Such componential analysis points out, for example, that in the domain “seat” in English, the lexemes “chair,””sofa,””loveseat,” and “bench” can be distinguished from one another according to how many people are accommodated and whether a back support is included. At the same time all these lexemes share the common component, or feature, of meaning “something on which to sit.” Thus, in the terms of Katz:

“The word is broken down into meaningful components which make up the total sum of the meaning in a word”

                  [MALE] [ADULT]
-------------------------------
    Man             +            +
    Woman        -             +
    Boy              +             -
    Girl               -              -
 Word has been analyzed through this method in terms of a number of distinct elements or components of meaning. Names of Katz and Fodor are prominently associated with Componential Theory. They tried to describe words in terms of relatively small sets of general elements of meaning which some are also called ‘Universals’. Kinship terms, color vocabulary, words for botanical and animal world easily lend themselves for this kind of analysis. Sex is one of the parameters in kinship terminology. So sets like mother-father, brother-sister and uncle-aunt are formed.. The analysis of this kind allows us to provide definitions for all these words in terms of a few components as ‘man is = human + adult + male and so on’. This analysis is called Componential Analysis. The meanings of lexemes are analyzed into components, which can then be compared across lexemes or groups of lexemes.  The idea of dividing a lexeme into semantic components is like that of Distinctive Feature theory. Components have a distinguishing function. They serve to distinguish the meaning of a lexeme from that of other related lexemes and we show this through a matrix:

This shows that the semantic components  [MALE] and [ADULT] serve to distinguish the meanings of these four lexemes. The semantic domain where Componential Analysis was successfully used ‘Kinship terminology’ where we need many semantic components to distinguish the kinship terms. Here we can add [ASCEND] and [DESCEND] components to show generation older or younger than the other and also [LINEAL] to show collateral descent. There are two broad types of components: those that serve to identify a semantic domain and that are shared by all the lexemes in the domain and those that serve to distinguish lexemes from each other within a semantic domain. The first type is called Common Component and the second one is called the Diagnostic Component or as in phonology a distinctive feature. For example, all jugs are containers have bottoms, open mouths and handles which are the common components, but if one jug is not round, but rectangular, so [SHAPE] will be the diagnostic component in the domain. There are also Formal Components related to form of the object and Functional Components related to the function the object plays i.e. sofas, chairs and bench can be described in terms of form and function. The presence of a component is represented by [+] the absence is marked by [-] and these are usually binary; but if the components may or may not be presence, we describe them as [+/-].  This is so, as language is independent and universal. Katz says:

“Semantic components may be combined in various ways in different languages yet they would be identifiable as the ‘same’ component in the vocabularies of all languages”

In conclusion, These components or categories are not part of vocabulary of language itself, but rather theoretical elements ‘postulated in order to describe the semantic relation between the lexical elements of a given language’.  Within generative-transformational theory, meaning is studied through semantic features where they deep structures of a sentence and the meaning of words used in that structure together represent the total meaning of the sentence features mention the permissible relationship among words e.g. that is a good hope. In order to carry out a semantic analysis, we put it as: Hope = (noun-abstract-inanimate-non-human-uncount-definite) and comprehensive meaning emerges.

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