Onomasiology is a branch of linguistics
Linguistics is the scientific study of human language. Linguistics can be broadly broken into three categories or subfields of study: language form, language meaning, and language in context....

 concerned with the question "how do you express X?" It is in fact most commonly understood as a branch of lexicology
Lexicology is the part of linguistics which studies words, their nature and meaning, words' elements, relations between words , word groups and the whole lexicon....

, the study of words (although some apply the term also to grammar
In linguistics, grammar is the set of structural rules that govern the composition of clauses, phrases, and words in any given natural language. The term refers also to the study of such rules, and this field includes morphology, syntax, and phonology, often complemented by phonetics, semantics,...

 and conversation).

Onomasiology, as a part of lexicology, starts from a concept which is taken to be prior
(i.e. an idea, an object, a quality, an activity etc.) and asks for its names. The opposite approach is known as semasiology
Semasiology is a discipline within linguistics concerned with the question "what does the word X mean?". It studies the meaning of words regardless of their phonetic expression. Semasiology departs from a word or lexical expression and asks for its meaning, its different senses, i.e. polysemy...

: here one starts with the a word and asks what it means, or what concepts the word refers to. Thus, an onomasiological question is, e.g., "what are the names for long, narrow pieces of potato that have been deep-fried?" (answers: french fries in the US, chips in the UK, etc.), while a semasiological question is, e.g., "what is the meaning of the term chips?" (answers: 'long, narrow pieces of potato that have been deep-fried' in the UK, 'slim slices of potatoes deep fried or baked until crisp' in the US).

Onomasiology can be carried out synchronically or diachronically, i.e. historically. The majority of linguists seem to link onomasiology automatically to diachronic
Historical linguistics
Historical linguistics is the study of language change. It has five main concerns:* to describe and account for observed changes in particular languages...

 questions, i.e. questions on how and why things change their names. Therefore, the following sections refer predominantly to onomasiology in its diachronic perspective.

State of the art

Onomasiology was initiated already in the late 19th century, but it didn’t receive its name until 1902, when the Austrian linguist Adolf Zauner published his study on the body-part terminology in Romance languages
Romance languages
The Romance languages are a branch of the Indo-European language family, more precisely of the Italic languages subfamily, comprising all the languages that descend from Vulgar Latin, the language of ancient Rome...

. And it was in Romance linguistics that the most important onomasiological works were written. Early linguists were basically interested in the etymology (i.e. the word-history) of the various expressions for a concept which was mostly a clearly defined, unchangeable concrete object or action. Later the Austrian linguists Rudolf Meringer and Hugo Schuchardt
Hugo Schuchardt
Hugo Ernst Mario Schuchardt was an eminent linguist, best known for his work in the Romance languages, the Basque language, and in mixed languages, including pidgins, creoles, and the Lingua franca of the Mediterranean.-In Germany:Schuchardt grew up in Gotha...

 started the “Wörter und Sachen” movement, which emphasized that every study of a word needed to include the study of the object it denotes. It was also Schuchardt who underlined that the etymologist/onomasiologist, when tracing back the history of a word, needs to respect both the “dame phonétique” (prove the regularity of sound changes or explain irregularities) and the “dame sémantique” (justify semantic changes). Another branch that developed from onomasiology and, at the same time, enriched it in turn was linguistic geography (areal linguistics), since it provided onomasiologists with valuable linguistic atlases. The first ones are the ALF (Atlas Linguistique de la France) by Jules Gilliéron (1902–20), the AIS (Sprach- und Sachatlas Italiens und der Südschweiz) by Karl Jaberg and Jakob Jud
Jakob Jud
Jakob Jud [ju:t] was a Swiss Romance linguist ....

 (1928–1940), the DSA (Deutscher Sprachatlas) by Ferdinand Wrede et al. (1927–1956). These atlases include maps that show the corresponding names for a concept in different regions as they were gathered in interviews with dialect speakers (mostly old rural males) by means of a questionnaire. Concerning English linguistics, onomasiology as well as linguistic geography has been playing only a minor role (the first linguistic atlas for the US was initiated by Hans Kurath
Hans Kurath
Hans Kurath was an American linguist of Austrian origin. He was full professor for English and Linguistics at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor...

, the first one for the UK by Eugen Dieth. ). In 1931 the German linguist Jost Trier
Jost Trier
Jost Trier was a German Germanic linguist .He taught as a professor at Münster University .In 1968 he was awarded the Konrad-Duden-Preis.-Literary works:...

 introduced a new method in his book Der deutsche Wortschatz im Sinnbezirk des Verstandes which is known as the lexical field theory
Lexical field theory
Lexical field theory, or word-field theory, was introduced on March 12, 1931 by the German linguist Jost Trier. Trier argued that words acquired their meaning through their relationships to other words within the same word-field. An extension of the sense of one word narrows the meaning of...

. According to Trier, lexical changes must always be seen, apart from the traditional aspects, in connection with the changes within a given word-field. After World War II only few studies on onomasiological theory have been carried out (e.g. by Cecil H. Brown, Stanley R. Witkowski, Brent Berlin
Brent Berlin
Overton Brent Berlin is an American anthropologist, most noted for his work with linguist Paul Kay on color, Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution .He originally received his Ph.D...

). But onomasiology has recently seen new light with the works of Dirk Geeraerts
Dirk Geeraerts
Dirk Geeraerts holds the chair of theoretical linguistics at the University of Leuven, Belgium. He is the head of the research unit Quantitative Lexicology and Variational Linguistics ....

, Andreas Blank, Peter Koch and the periodical Onomasiology Online, which is published at the Katholische Universität Eichstätt-Ingolstadt by Joachim Grzega
Joachim Grzega
Joachim Grzega studied English and French in Eichstätt, Salt Lake City, Paris-Sorbonne University and Graz. He has taught since 1998 at the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt. Grzega obtain his doctorate in 2000 in the subjects of the Roman, English and German linguistics. His habilitation...

, Alfred Bammesberger and Marion Schöner. A recent representative of synchronic onomasiology (with a focus on word-formation processes) is Pavol Stekauer.

Instruments for the historical onomasiologist

The most important instruments for the historical onomasiologist are:
  • the linguistic atlas
  • the etymological dictionary
    Etymological dictionary
    An etymological dictionary discusses the etymology of the words listed. Often, large dictionaries, such as the OED and Webster's, will contain some etymological information, without aspiring to focus on etymology....

  • the dialect dictionary
  • thesauri
    A thesaurus is a reference work that lists words grouped together according to similarity of meaning , in contrast to a dictionary, which contains definitions and pronunciations...

  • diachronic text corpora
    Text corpus
    In linguistics, a corpus or text corpus is a large and structured set of texts...

Explanations of lexical change

When a speaker has to name something, s/he first tries to categorize it. If the speaker can classify the referent as member of a familiar concept, s/he will carry out some sort of cognitive-linguistic cost-benefit-analysis: what should I say to get what I want. Based on this analysis, the speaker can then either fall back on an already existing word or decide to coin a new designation. These processes are sometimes more conscious, sometimes less conscious.

The coinage of a new designation can be incited by various forces (cf. Grzega 2004):
  • difficulties in classifying the thing to be named or attributing the right word to the thing to be named, thus confusing designations
  • fuzzy difference between superordinate and subordinate term due to the monopoly of the prototypical member of a category in the real world
  • everyday contact situations
  • institutionalized and non-institutionalized linguistic pre- and proscriptivism
  • flattery
  • insult
  • disguising things (i.e. euphemistic
    A euphemism is the substitution of a mild, inoffensive, relatively uncontroversial phrase for another more frank expression that might offend or otherwise suggest something unpleasant to the audience...

     language, doublespeak
    Doublespeak is language that deliberately disguises, distorts, or reverses the meaning of words. Doublespeak may take the form of euphemisms , making the truth less unpleasant, without denying its nature. It may also be deployed as intentional ambiguity, or reversal of meaning...

  • taboo
  • avoidance of words that are phonetically similar or identical to negatively associated words
  • abolition of forms that can be ambiguous in many contexts
  • word play/punning
  • excessive length of words
  • morphological misinterpretation (creation of transparency by changes within a word = folk-etymology)
  • deletion of irregularity
  • desire for plastic/illustrative/telling names for a thing
  • natural prominence of a concept
  • cultural-induced prominence of a concept
  • changes in the world
  • changes in the categorization of the world
  • prestige/fashion (based on the prestige of another language or variety, of certain word-formation patterns, or of certain semasiological centers of expansion)

The following alleged motives found in many works have shown to be invalid by Grzega (2004): decrease in salience, reading errors, laziness, excessive phonetic shortness, difficult sound combinations, unclear stress patterns, cacophony.

Processes of lexical change

In the case of intentional, conscious innovation speaker has to pass several levels of a word-finding, or name-giving, process: (1) analysis of the specific features of the concept, (2) onomasiological level (where the semantic components for the naming units are selected [“naming in a more abstract sense”]), (3) the onomatological level (where the concrete morphemes are selected [“naming in a more concrete sense”]). The level of feature analysis (and possibly the onomasiological level) can be spared if the speaker simply borrows a word from a foreign language or variety; it is also spared if the speaker simply takes the word s/he originally fell back to and just shortens it.

If the speaker does not shorten an already existing word for the concept, but coins a new one, s/he can select from several types of processes. These coinages may be based on a model from the speaker’s own idiom, on a model from a foreign idiom, or, in the case of root creations, on no model at all. In sum, we get the following catalog of formal processes of word-coining (cf. Koch 2002):
  • adoption of either
  1. an already existing word of speaker’s own language (semantic change
    Semantic change
    Semantic change, also known as semantic shift or semantic progression describes the evolution of word usage — usually to the point that the modern meaning is radically different from the original usage. In diachronic linguistics, semantic change is a change in one of the meanings of a word...

    ) or (b)
  2. a word from a foreign language (loanword
    A loanword is a word borrowed from a donor language and incorporated into a recipient language. By contrast, a calque or loan translation is a related concept where the meaning or idiom is borrowed rather than the lexical item itself. The word loanword is itself a calque of the German Lehnwort,...

    • conversion
      Conversion (linguistics)
      In linguistics, conversion, also called zero derivation, is a kind of word formation; specifically, it is the creation of a word from an existing word without any change in form...

       (e.g. to e-mail from the noun e-mail)
    • composition (in a broad sense, i.e. compounds
      Compound (linguistics)
      In linguistics, a compound is a lexeme that consists of more than one stem. Compounding or composition is the word formation that creates compound lexemes...

       and derivations, which are, very consciously, not further subclassified)
    • ellipsis
      Elliptical construction
      In linguistics, ellipsis or elliptical construction refers to the omission from a clause of one or more words that would otherwise be required by the remaining elements.-Overview:...

       (i.e. morpheme deletion, e.g. the noun daily from daily newspaper)
    • clipping
      -Words:* Clipping , the cutting-out of articles from a paper publication* Clipping , shortening the articulation of a speech sound, usually a vowel* Clipping , the formation of a new word by shortening it, e.g...

       (i.e. morpheme shortening, e.g. fan from fanatic)
    • acronyms (e.g. VAT from value added tax)
    • blend
      In linguistics, a blend is a word formed from parts of two or more other words. These parts are sometimes, but not always, morphemes.-Linguistics:...

      ings (including folk-etymologies, although these come up non-intentionally, e.g. sparrow-grass for asparagus)
    • back-derivation (e.g. to baby-sit from babysitter)
    • reduplication
      Reduplication in linguistics is a morphological process in which the root or stem of a word is repeated exactly or with a slight change....

       (e.g. goody-goody)
    • morphological
      Morphology (linguistics)
      In linguistics, morphology is the identification, analysis and description, in a language, of the structure of morphemes and other linguistic units, such as words, affixes, parts of speech, intonation/stress, or implied context...

       alteration (e.g. number change as in people as a plural word instead of a singular word)
    • tautological
      Tautology (rhetoric)
      Tautology is an unnecessary or unessential repetition of meaning, using different and dissimilar words that effectively say the same thing...

       compounds (e.g. peacock for original pea, which already meant 'peacock')
    • wordplaying/pun
      The pun, also called paronomasia, is a form of word play which suggests two or more meanings, by exploiting multiple meanings of words, or of similar-sounding words, for an intended humorous or rhetorical effect. These ambiguities can arise from the intentional use and abuse of homophonic,...

    • stress alteration (e.g. stress shift in E. ímport vs. impórt)
    • graphic alteration (e.g. E. discrete vs. discreet)
    • phraseologism
      In linguistics, phraseology is the study of set or fixed expressions, such as idioms, phrasal verbs, and other types of multi-word lexical units , in which the component parts of the expression take on a meaning more specific than or otherwise not predictable from the sum of their meanings when...

    • root creation
      Root (linguistics)
      The root word is the primary lexical unit of a word, and of a word family , which carries the most significant aspects of semantic content and cannot be reduced into smaller constituents....

       (including onomatopoetic and expressive words)

The name-giving process is completed with (4) the actual phonetic realization on the morphonological level.

In order to create a new word, the speaker first selects one or two physically and psychologically salient aspects. The search for the motivations (iconemes) is based on one or several cognitive-associative relations. These relations are:
  • contiguity relations (= “neighbor-of” relations)
  • similarity relations (= “similar-to” relations)
  • partiality relations (= “part-of” relations)
  • contrast relations (= “opposite-to” relations)

These relations can be seen between forms, between concepts and between form and concept.

A complete catalog reads the following associative relations (cf. also Koch 2002):
  • identity (e.g. with loans)
  • “figurative”, i.e. individually felt, similarity of the concepts (e.g. mouse for a computer device that looks like a mouse)
  • contiguity of concepts (e.g. a Picasso for a painting by Picasso or glass for a container made out of glass)
  • partiality of concepts (e.g. bar 'place of an inn where drinks are mixed' for the entire inn)
  • contrast of concepts (e.g. bad in the sense of "good")
  • “literal” or “figurative” similarity between the forms of a sign and the concept (e.g. with onomatopoetic words like purr)
  • strong relation between contents of signs and “literal” similarity of concepts (e.g. with generalization of meaning, e.g. Christmas tree for any kind of fir tree or even any kind of conifer)
  • strong relation between contents of signs and contrast of concepts (e.g. with learn in the sense of "teach" in some English dialects)
  • strong relation between contents of signs and “literal” similarity of concepts (e.g. corn in the English sense of "wheat" or Scottish sense of "oats" instead of "cereal")
  • (“literal”) similarity of the forms of signs (e.g. sparrow-grass for asparagus)
  • contiguity of the forms of signs (e.g. brunch from breakfast + lunch, VAT from value added tax)
  • “literal”, i.e. objectively visible, similarity and contiguity of concepts (e.g. with the transfer of names among spruce and fir in many dialects)
  • “literal” similarity of referents and strong relation between contents of signs
  • multiple associations (e.g. with certain forms of word-play)

The concrete associations can or cannot be incited by a model which may be of speaker’s own idiom or a foreign idiom.

Works cited

  • Grzega, Joachim (2004), Bezeichnungswandel: Wie, Warum, Wozu? Ein Beitrag zur englischen und allgemeinen Onomasiologie. Heidelberg: Winter, ISBN 3-8253-5016-9. (reviewed by Bernhard Kelle in Zeitschrift für Dialektologie und Linguistik vol. 73.1 (2006), p. 92-95)
  • Koch, Peter (2002), “Lexical Typology from a Cognitive and Linguistic Point of View”, in: Cruse, Alan et al. (eds.), Lexicology: An International Handbook on the Nature and Structure of Words and Vocabularies / Lexikologie: Ein internationales Handbuch zur Natur und Struktur von Wörtern und Wortschätzen, (Handbücher zur Sprach- und Kommunikationswissenschaft 21), Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, vol. 1, p. 1142-1178.

External links

  • Onomasiology Online (academic journal, internet dictionary links, bibliography of onomasiological works and onomasiological sources, edited by Joachim Grzega, Alfred Bammesberger and Marion Schöner)
  • free teaching materials: English and General Historical Lexicology (by Joachim Grzega and Marion Schöner)
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