Field structure of parts of speech – Parts of speech as discourse-cognitive classes

March 2nd, 20123:46 pm


Field structure of parts of speech – Parts of speech as discourse-cognitive classes

One cannot but notice that there is no rigid boundary between parts of speech. For example, if one takes numerals, one will arrive at the conclusion that cardinal numerals are similar to adjectives in their syntactic functions, whereas ordinal numerals obviously have much in common with nouns: they may appear in a sentence as subjects and objects.

In addition, one cannot overlook the problem which arises every time when the semantic criterion is taken as the starting point of the vocabulary classification. Word classes are not as semantically homogeneous as the theory implies. How can such words as table, development, and blackness be squeezed into one and the same class of nouns, if only the first of them fits the classical definition of the noun – both semantically and morphologi­cally. Indeed, of the three, only table denotes a thing and has a plural form The noun development denotes a process, which brings it closer to the class of verbs, while the noun blackness denotes a quality (that is, colour), com­mon for adjectives, and has no plural.

This complexity of relations between language units within a part of speech, first noticed by Gleason, fits well into the field theory. The field theory was first suggested by Jost Trier, Leo Weissgerber and other Western linguists. The concept of the grammatical (or, to be more precise, morpho­logical) field was later put forward by Vladimir Admoni (Admoni, 1968) in his research of the German language and further elaborated by Georgiy Shchur (Shchur, 1974).


Proponents of the field theory state that every part of speech may be represented by items endowed with typical qualities – semantic, syntactic, morphological and so on. These words are thought to make up a nucleus (or core) of this part of speech, whereas the words that have some spe­cific qualities, common for some other parts of speech, form the periphery. Thus, such nouns as table belong to the nucleus, whereas development and blackness, with their peculiar characteristics, belong to the peripheries that overlap with the field of the verb when the noun development is concerned, while the noun blackness may be placed on the overlapping part of the field of the noun with that of the adjective.

The movement from the core of the stable grammatical behaviour and semantic properties to a more irregular periphery has been called gradience. Adjectives may be taken as an example. As a rule, five main criteria are used to identify the central class of English adjectives:

(A) they occur after forms of to be, e.g. he is sad;

(B) they occur after articles and before nouns, e.g. the big car,

(C) they occur after very, e.g. very nice;

(D) they occur in the comparative or superlative form, e.g. sadder/sad­dest, more/most impressive;

(E) they occur before -ly to form adverbs, e.g. quickly.

We can now use these criteria to test how much like an adjective a word is. In the matrix below, candidate words are listed on the left, and the five criteria are along the top. Here, sad, for instance, is clearly an adjective. One finds absolutely appropriate such forms and phrases as he is sad, the sad girl, very sad, sadder/saddest, sadly. The last word in the list, want, is noth­ing like an adjective because it has none of the listed peculiarities.

The pattern in the diagram below is of course wholly artificial because it depends on the way which criteria are placed in sequence, but it does help to show the gradual nature of the changes as one moves away from the core adjective, represented by sad. Some adjectives, it seems, are more adjec­tive-like than others.

The very notion of periphery is quite complicated. Contrary to the clas­sical field structures in physics, the grammatical field structure has unevenly represented periphery sectors. The distance of these sectors from the centre is denned in terms of properties that their lexical units share with the core.

Besides, some part of the periphery may overlap with two or more other parts of speech.

Field structure of parts of speech – Parts of speech as discourse-cognitive classes – Part 2

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