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NOUN MEANINGS Gabriela Vilela, Giulia Zuccoli, Marcos Parreira

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First Things First

Nouns form a majority of the words in the vocabulary in English. In contrast to the unidimensional meanings of adjectives explored in the previous seminar, nouns typically 'denote rich, highly interconnected complexes of properties' (Cruse, 2000: 289). This seminar outlines ways of describing the complexity, starting with a sense relation that I will call has-relation.

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The "things" denoted by some nouns have parts, which may figure in the nouns' meanings. For example, a square has four equal sides and has 90º angles, and in saying what a square is, one cannot avoid talking about its four sides and right angles. Also dealt with in this presentation is the way nouns are grouped into semantic categories, for example, squares, circles, and triangles belong together as shapes. In semantic terms to be introduced below, square, circle, and triangle are hyponyms of the superordinate word shape. Contrasts between the different kinds under a given superordinate are mainly captured through a sense relation called incompatibility, also to be explained. This work ends with a discussion of meaning differences between count and mass nouns. Mass nouns are ones that English treats as denoting substances - as not having distinguishable parts.

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Pants , dress , and skirt are everyday words, and also very commonly used in the fashion industry where they have a tight definition. For example, pants are only pants if, and only if, it is a piece of fabric with two cylinder-shaped parts that cover the legs from waist to the ankles that are joined at the hip. ENTAILMENT: Those are pants → that piece of fabric has two cylinder-shaped parts that cover legs from waist to the ankles.

The Has -Relation

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Prototype pants have fabric that goes from a human`s wais to above the feet;

Prototype pants have fabric that are joined at the hip.





Prototype pants have two-cylinder shaped parts;

Prototype pants have fabric that covers the human's body two legs;

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The definition of pants is a prototype . Prototypes are clear, central members of the denotation of a word. The drawing of a house, for example, would be expected to have a rectangular shape, with a door, windows, and a roof.

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The has-relation is restricted to prototypes which makes entailment available:

a) The pants are on sale → If it is like a prototype for pants then it has two cylinder-shaped parts that cover our legs.

b) The child drew a house → If the house was prototypical, then the child drew a roof.

Although entailments were given as guarantees, here these guarantees are weakened by making them conditional on prototypicality.

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Pragmatic Inferences from the Has -Relation

The has-relation is the basis for some of our pragmatic expectations in language use; Indefinite article to definite article:

A: Your mother told me you drew a house in class today. B: This is the house I drew. (showing his drawing to his father minutes later.)

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However, if mentioning part of a whole, then the part can be referred to by a definite article:

A: I've bought a car. B: I hope the engine is working.

C: I've got a new phone today. D: Let's hope the memory card is good.

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If a whole has parts (a house has a roof, for example), parts can also have parts, and a whole can be part of a larger whole (suburb is a part of a city).

Parts Can Have Parts


has → streets → a street → has → kerbs

has → houses → a house → has → panes

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Parts can exist in the absence of the larger whole. For example, a glass on a window can exist out of the window and still be a glass. The same kind of a part can belong to different kinds of the whole: a glass can also be a part of a door, for example.

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Spatial Parts

A prototype thing, for example, a building, has a top, a bottom (or base), sides, and a front and back. These words are 1) general - such airplane, pants, and houses have tops , bottoms , sides , fronts , and backs ; 2) usually, spatial part words are deictic. For example, if Caroline says "I'm in the front of the building", it means she is facing it while its back faces away from her. The sides are left and right to Caroline's point of view. But if she says she's at the top of the top building, then she must be near the roof and far from the base, the bottom .

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Table 1 - Examples of Two Kinds of Spatial Parts



people houses trees (top, base, sides) hills (top, base, sides) animals pianos

balls planets (through a telescope) trees (front, back) hills (front, back)

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Long thin things have ends, and sometimes there is a distinction between two different kinds of ends: beginnings and ends. Some things prototypically have ends:

Ends and Beginnings

‣ ropes ‣ (pieces of) string ‣ ships ‣ roads ‣ trains ‣ planks

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Nouns that denote periods of time have beginnings , middles , and ends ;

a) day, week, month, year, era, century; b) conversation, demonstration, ceremony, meal, reception, process, trials, sports.

The examples listed above are not concrete, meaning you can't touch them or feel them. However, these events occur in space and time and ask where and when is reasonable. These events and processes also have beginnings, middles and ends.

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Some Other Parts




The physical person prototypically has a head, a torso, legs, genitals, skin. These parts also have parts that may have other parts.

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‣ a person has a head, a torso, legs, arms, skin; ‣ a head has a face, hair, forehead, jaw; ‣ a face has a mouth, nose, eyes, cheeks; ‣ a mouth has lips; ‣ a torso has a chest, back, belly, shoulders; ‣ an arm has an upper arm, a forearm, biceps, elbow, wrist, hand; ‣ a hand has a palm, fingers, knuckles; ‣ a person's skin has pores.

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Semantics aim to describe the knowledge about meaning that language users have simply because they use language.

Anatomists, osteopaths, massage practitioners, etc., have a far more detailed vocabulary for talking about body parts than those who are not experts on the subject.

Any user of English understands what the words head, torso, legs mean and the has-relation listed previously are the basis for inferences. Back, legs, neck, foot, for example, are words that exist outside the human body. A prototype chair has a back , a seat , and legs . Bottles have necks , tables have feet , rivers have mouths . A possible indication of the human tendency to interpret and label the world by analogy with what we understand most intimately, such as our body.

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What part does a prototype shoe have? Do these parts have parts? What part does a prototype party have? Do these parts? and can these parts exist alone?

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A prototype shoe has an upper and a sole. The upper has a tongue and the sole has a heel that can be considered part of the shoe of some. Perhaps, a shoe can also have laces, ties, straps or a fastener.

A prototype party has people (more than one), food, music, tables, and chairs. People have a head, torso, legs. Music has verses, chorus, bridge. Tables have a top, legs, feet. If the table is made of wood, then the legs alone could be considered sticks for some; if the top is made of glass, then the glass is just glass out of the table.

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The hyponymy relation is important for describing nouns. For example, a house is one kind of building, and a factory and a church are other kinds of buildings; buildings are one kind of structure; dams are another kind of structure.

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Entailment Pattern

a. There's a house next to the gate. b. There's a building next to the gate. c. (a ↦ b) & (b ↦ a).

If we are given (b) as true information, then we cannot be sure that (a) is true. It might be true, but there are other possibilities: the building next to the gate could be a barn or any other kind of building. That's why the second half of (c) has been scored out; to show that - though it could follow - (a) does not have to follow from (b). TERMINOLOGY : building is a superordinate for house and nouns labelling other kinds of buildings. House, barn, church, factory, hangar, and so forth are hyponyms of building.

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Entailment Pattern

a. There's a house next to the gate. b. There's a building next to the gate. c. (a ↦ b) & (b ↦ a).

It is possible to generalise about the pattern shown in the examples above: a sentence, such as (a), containing a hyponym of a given superordinate entails a sentence that differs from the original one only in that the superordinate has been substituted for its hyponym, as in (b). The sentence with the hyponym entails the corresponding sentence with the superordinate replacing it, but the entailment goes one way only - not from the sentence containing the superordinate.

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Hierarchies of Hyponyms

‣ thing → superordinate of structure ‣ structure → hyponym of thing; superordinate of structure. ‣ building → hyponym of structure; superordinate of house. ‣ house → hyponym of building.

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Superordinates & Hyponyms

‣ structure → hyponym of thing; superordinate of building and house (and some other words) ‣ thing → superordinate of structure, building , and house (and some other words) ‣ building → hyponym of thing and structure; superordinate of house (and some other words) ‣ house → hyponym of thing, structure, and building; superordinate of some other words.

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Superordinates & Hyponyms

‣ structure → 'thing with connections' = 'physical entity with connections'

‣ thing → 'physical entity'

‣ building → 'structure with walls and a roof' = 'thing with connections, with walls and a roof' = 'physical entity with connections, with walls and a roof'

‣ house → 'building for living in' = 'structure, with walls and a roof, for living in' = 'thing with connections, with walls and a roof, for living in' = 'physical entity with connections, with walls and a roof, for living in'

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dam Iben ffntng house uqetndl sew hadeaw

Superordinates & Hyponyms

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Hierarchies of Hyponyms

According to Yule (2006: 105),

"when the meaning of one form is included in the meaning of another, the relationship is described as hyponymy. When we consider hyponymous connections, we are essentially looking at the meaning of words in some type of hierarchical relationship".

Words that are hyponyms of the same broader term (that is, a hypernym) are called co-hyponyms. For example, sunflower and peony are co-hyponyms, they belong to the flower hypernym.

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Hyponymy and the Has -Relation

These two semantic relations should not be confused; hyponymy is about categories being grouped under superordinate terms (for example, tandems, ATBs, tourers , and racers are kinds of bicycle ; and bicycles , unicycles , and tricycles are kinds of cycle ), but the has -relation concerns parts that prototypical members of categories have (for instance, a prototype cycle has wheel(s), a frame , handlebars , and pedals ; a prototype bicycle has these parts too, and also has a chain ).

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Hyponymy and the Has -Relation

‣ structure → hyponym of thing ; superordinate of building, has connections ‣ thing → superordinate of structure ; has a top , base , front , back , and sides ‣ building → hyponym of structure ; superordinate of house ; has walls and a roof ‣ house → hyponym of building ; has bedroom ( s ) and a kitchen

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Parent is a superordinate for mother and father . At the level immediately below parent there are only two hyponyms, what is the semantic relation between mother and father ? Is it incompatibility or antonymy?

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Mother and father are incompatible. They cannot be antonyms, since anonymity is reserved for incompatibility between pairs of adjectives or adverbs, and mother and father are nouns.

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A semantic relation called incompatibility holds between the hyponyms of a given superordinate. Hyponymy is about classification: breakfast, lunch, and dinner are kinds of meals. Incompatibility is about contrast: breakfast, lunch, and dinner are different from each other within the category of meals; they are eaten at different times of the day. A small hyponym hierarchy is shown in the figure below:






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Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are hyponyms of meal, their immediate superordinate word. Hyponymy guarantees that if we hear that someone had breakfast in Calais, then we know they had a meal in Calais because breakfast is one kind of meal. However, is no similarly straight entailment from a sentence with the superordinate - from a sentence containing meal to the corresponding sentence with one of its hyponyms. If we are told someone had a meal in Calais, we cannot conclude, just from that, that they had breakfast there; it might have been lunch or dinner.

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a. This is Nameera's breakfast. b. This is Nameera's lunch. c. This is Nameera's dinner. d. (a ↦ NOTb) & (a ↦ NOTc) & (b ↦ NOTa) & (b ↦ NOTc) & (c ↦ NOTa) & (c ↦ NOTb) e. (NOTa ↦ b) & (NOTa ↦ c) & (NOTb ↦ a) & (NOTb ↦ c) & (NOTc ↦ a) & (NOTc ↦ b)

Entailment Pattern

The six entailments above capture the fact that (provided the reference if This stays constant), if one of the sentences (a-c) is true, then the other two sentences - made by substitution of incompatible words - must be false. The scoring through in (e) indicates that a comparable set of entailments is not available from negative versions of sentences (a-c). Knowing that a particular container in the freezer is not Nameera's breakfast does not allow one to infer that it must be her lunch; it might be her dinner, or my lunch (or even a frozen birthday cake).

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Further Points about Incompatibility


The relation of autonymy exhibits the same pattern of entailment: there are entailments from affirmative sentences to negative sentences containing the antonym, but not from negative sentences corresponding affirmatives.

‣ A long ladder is not short and a short ladder is not long . However, a ladder that is not long is not necessarily short , it could just be middling in length. And a ladder that is not short is not necessarily long , it could be somewhere between long and short .

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Antonymy holds between many pairs of adjectives (and adverbs, for example quickly and slowly). It would be correct to say that long and short are incompatibility between pairs of adjectives (or adverbs), it is easier to keep with tradition. When adjectives occur in larger sets than pairs - as with - then the appropriate term for the relation holding within the set is incompatibility.

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Synonyms, on the other hand, yield an exception to the generalisation that hyponyms of a given superordinate are incompatible with each other. The following are all hyponyms of seat : chair, bench, stool, sofa, settee . The relation of incompatibility holds between most of them.

‣ If we know Hazel is sitting on a chair , then we know that she is not (at the moment) sitting on a bench, stool, sofa, or settee ; and so on. However sofa and settee , because they are synonyms, are not incompatible with each other. If Hazel is sitting on a sofa, then she is sitting on a settee, and vice versa.

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(Non-synonymous) hyponyms of a word immediately superordinate to them are not incompatible with each other but are also incompatible with hyponyms of their higher-level superordinates.



drinking vessel glass cup mug

glass, cup, mug wineglass, martini glass, tumbler coffee cup, tea cup coffee mug, beer mug

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A tea cup is not only not a coffee cup or any other kind of cup . It is also not a glass or a mug , nor any of the hyponyms of glass or mug . It might seem that this is boringly obvious: no given thing can be something else. That is not true, however. A cup can be a present , a possession , a piece of crockery , and various other things. Incompatibility is not pure unconstrained difference. Incompatibility is difference against a background of similarity. Remember that hyponyms of any superordinate have as their meaning the meaning of the superordinate plus some modification, for instance, a tumbler is a 'glass without a stem' and a glass is a 'drinking vessel made of glass'. In the meaning given here for tumbler , the modifier 'without a stem' records the difference between a tumbler and other glasses , and 'glass' represents the similarity that the meaning of tumbler has with the meanings of wineglass , martini glass , and all the other kinds of glasses .

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Count Nouns and Mass Nouns

In the grammar of English, there is a clear distinction between count nouns, exemplified by loaf and coin , and mass nouns, exemplified by bread and money . The whole noun vocabulary divides into words that almost always are count nouns ( garment , for instance), ones that almost always are mass nouns (like clothing ), and ambiguous ones which can be used as either mass or count nouns (like cake ).

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Mass Nouns

Mass nouns resist being quantified with numbers and plural suffixes or the word many or the singular indefinite article a . They are quantified with the word much . They denote undifferentiated substances, like dough or water or lava.

Count Nouns

Count nouns can be quantified with numbers and plural suffixes. Count nouns denote distinguishable whole entities, like beans or people or shirts. They can be counted.

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Hyponymy and incompatibility exist among mass nouns.

‣ velvet → cloth with a silky nap; ‣ corduroy → cloth with a corrugated nap

mass nouns that are incompatible hyponyms of the mass noun cloth

Only individuated wholes are represented in English as having parts. Homogenous substance is not separable into distinct parts. Therefore, only count nouns bear has -relations to labels for their parts; mass nouns do not enter the has -relation (except in physical chemistry, but that is another story).

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Paper , glass , and cheese are ambiguous between a count sense and a mass sense. a. Devise a pair of example sentences for each of them that clearly brings out the count-mass difference. b. Find some hyponyms for each of the words in its senses.

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COUNT: a) There is a paper lying on my desk. How many glasses shall I wash? Whole cheeses are on sale at that stall. b) broadsheet, tabloid, goblet, wineglass


MASS: a) We use too much paper. It can be expensive to recycle glass. Feta cheese is used in spinach pies. b) newsprint, typing paper, window glass, bullet-proof glass, gouda, gorgonzola

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Bibliographic Reference

GRIFFITHS, Patrick. Noun Vocabulary. In:___ An Introduction to English Semantics and Pragmatics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press Ltd. 2006, (41-58).

YULE, George. The Study of Language. New York: Cambridge University Press. Third Edition. 2006.

NORDQUIST, Richard. What Are Hyponyms in English? ToughtCo. New York. September 2019. Available in: <> Access on June 23rd, 2021.

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