Lexical and functional parts of speech

March 3rd, 20126:18 am


Lexical and functional parts of speech

The problem of different values of certain word classes is one of the is­sues widely discussed in linguistics. Emilia Morokhovskaya suggests divid­ing words (or parts of speech) into lexical and functional. In this book, we will stick to these terms and use the terms “lexical words” and “function-words” alongside of “lexical parts of speech” and “functional parts of speech.”

Lexical parts of speech are linguistic signs that possess denotative abil­ity. They are names of extralingual objects and phenomena: a door, a state, to create, bright, directly, etc. Their nominative character enables them to perform various syntactic functions in a sentence, i.e. they may function as a sentence part and represent the nucleus of a word combination. Thus, both lexical and syntactic criteria are equally applied when lexical words are contrasted to so-called functional parts of speech (sometimes referred to as functional words, function-words or grammatical words). The mor­phological criterion is applied to lexical words alone, since inflections are characteristic exclusively of these parts of speech. However, some lexical words may be deprived of inflections, so one cannot fully rely on morphol­ogy in this type of wordstock division.

Function-words do not denote any object, concept, quality, or action. In other words, they do have a specific meaning, different from that of lexical words. For example, such words as of, and, since, the cannot express the subject of one’s thought because these words do not name separate concepts. Function-words are used to mark certain types of relation between lexical words, word combinations and sentences. Function-words may also specify grammatical meaning of lexical words: the bend in the road, villages and cities, a village, the city. Function-words possess significative ability. They are significators of general conceptual notions. The significative character of function-words is obvious. This results from their function of significa­tion, i.e. the representation of general conceptual notions (categories) not in the way of nominating but by signifying or marking them grammatically. These word classes function to signify conceptual categories, to form up language units in their relationships or to provide orientation in speech situ­ations. Articles, for example, are indicators of a category, peculiar to the English noun, namely, definiteness or indefiniteness. Prepositions, for ex­ample, signify spatial or temporal relations. Conjunctions mark logical rela­tions (coordination, disjunction, implication etc.) between sentence parts or clauses in compound and complex sentences. In other words, the speaker distinguishes some logical relation between the situations or parts of a situ­ation and expresses this relation by means of conjunctions. Particles in their turn explicate logical relations between certain components of communica­tion. For example, in the sentence Jack loved her. He even married her the particle even correlates the two actions – to love and to marry – and marks the implication that To love does not always mean marrying; that for some reasons Jack was not expected to marry her. It should be noted that, with particles, units larger than a sentence may be involved. Moreover, particles may appeal to the audience’s background knowledge for correlation. In the sentence Only the company employees are invited to the party, the speaker, using the particle, implies that outsiders and members of the employees’ families are excluded from the guest list. Interestingly, the correlation be­tween these persons is established without even naming them – the particle activates the possible oppositions in our background knowledge.

There used to be disputes as to the status of function-words. For exam­ple, some linguists denied their status as words: “There are serious doubts whether function words can be called words. It is known that function-words devoid of the main peculiarity of a word – of referential mean­ing…” (Synic, 1968). Supporters of this point of view think that function-words help speakers to indicate certain abstract relations; these relations, however, are too abstract and general which brings function-words closer to morphemes rather than notional words. These scientists also point out that function-words are weakened phonetically against the background of the following accented lexical word.

Even if the existence of function-words is recognized, it appears a controversial issue to define a certain part of speech in terms of the “lexi­cal – function” dichotomy. Nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs undoubt­edly represent lexical words. The majority of scholars do not question such groups as prepositions and conjunctions (though some linguists, e.g. Jes­persen, doubt whether differentiation between them is justified). On the other hand, there is no unanimity among scientists as to the status of modal words; the boundary between particles is also not quite clear and varies with authors; some researchers find it disputable to grant the article the part-of-speech status; some linguists do not agree to treat a so-called postpositive as a part of speech. However, the majority recognizes prepositions, conjunc­tions, particles and articles as separate parts of speech.

In conclusion, it is necessary to warn against mixing up function-words and auxiliary words. Auxiliaries belong to lexical parts of speech but under certain conditions they lose their lexical meaning and preserve only their grammatical function. Auxiliary verbs are probably the best example to il­lustrate this peculiarity. These verbs are capable of conveying their own lexical meaning;

I have a new car.

They also may lose their lexical meaning: I have sold my car.

In the second example, the verb have does not turn into a function but into an auxiliary word.

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