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19 April 2016

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The term HYPONYMY is of recent creation, which has not found its way to some small dictionaries yet. But the notion of meaning inclusiveness is not new. For example, the meaning of desk is included in that of furniture, and the meaning of rose is included in that of flower. In other words, hyponymy is a matter of class membership.

The upper term in this sense relation, i.e. the class name, is called SUPERORDINATE, and the lower terms, the members, HYPONYMS. A superordinate usually has several hyponyms. Under flower, for example, there are peony, jasmine, chrysanthemum, tulip, violet, carnation and many others apart from rose. These members of the same class are CO-HYPONYMS.

Sometimes a superordinate may be a superordinate to itself. For instance, the word animal may only include beasts like tiger, lion, elephant, cow, horse and is a co-hyponym of human. But it is also the superordinate to both human and animal in contrast to bird, fish, and insect, when it is used in the sense of mammal .It can still further be the superordinate to bird, fish, insect and mammal in contrast to plant.

From the other point of view, the hyponym’ s point of view, animal is a hyponym of itself, and may be called auto-hyponym.

A superordinate may be missing sometimes. In English there is no superordinate for the colour terms red, green, yellow, blue, white, etc. The term colour is a noun, which is not of the same part of speech as the member terms. And the term coloured does not usually include white and black. When it is used to refer to human races, it means “non-white” only. The English words beard, moustache and whiskers also lack a superordinate.

Hyponyms may also be missing. In contrast to Chinese, there is only one word in English for the different kinds of uncles:伯伯,叔叔,舅舅,姑姑,姨父. The word rice is also used in the different senses of 稻,谷,米,饭. Most people are familiar with the terms synonymy and antonymy. Both refer to a relationship
between words: synonymy to words having the same meaning, and antonymy to words having the opposite meaning. Fewer people, however, are familiar with a term that refers to an even more important sense relationship between words: hyponymy, the relationship between a specific word and a general word when the former is included within the latter.

That relationship is illustrated by the common formula “An A is a kind of B.” For example, “A dog is a kind of animal,” or simply “A dog is an animal.” The specific word, “dog,” which is included within, or under, the general word, is known as a hyponym (Greek “under” + “name”). The general word, “animal,” which heads a list of many specific words under it, is a hypernym (Greek “above” + “name”). In this case, those other specific words, or hyponyms, could include, besides “dog,” a vast number of other animal names, such as “bird,” “horse,” and “monkey.”

Those specific words under the same hypernym are related to each other as cohyponyms. Some words belong to no clear, useful hypernym. Abstract nouns, such as “chaos,” and adjectives, such as “interesting,” are among the words that have only vague general terms, like “state,” as possible hypernyms. Nevertheless, hyponymy is an important study for at least two major reasons. One of those reasons is that understanding hyponymy helps people define and differentiate many words used in everyday life.

Hyponymous relationships form the basic framework within standard dictionaries. A typical definition of a specific word (hyponym) consists of a general classification word (hypernym) along with modifying details that distinguish the specific word from similar words in the same group (cohyponyms). For example, a clarinet is “a single-reed woodwind instrument having a cylindrical tube with a moderately flared bell…” (Webster’s).

The hypernym is “woodwind instrument,” and among the cohyponyms (words whose definitions begin with the same hypernym) are “bassoon,” “flute,” and “oboe.” Experienced dictionary users know that they can trace many hierarchical paths of increasingly abstract hypernyms through a dictionary. For example, starting with “cheddar,” one path of hypernyms would be “cheese,” “food,” “material,” “substance,” “essence.”

A different path leading to the same abstract hypernym would be “sapphire,” “corundum,” “mineral,” “substance,” “essence.” Another major reason for studying hyponymy is its usefulness in building a vocabulary. The process of learning about sets of hyponyms begins in early childhood, when infants soon
recognize both similarities and differences in the meanings of sounds (Crystal, pp. 167, 430). Later in life people intuitively use the concept of hyponymy to add words to their vocabulary.

For example, most people know that “alligator” and “crocodile” are words denoting similar reptiles, but many people are not sure how to tell the animals apart. Exploring the sense relationship that binds the words together (as cohyponyms of the hypernym “reptile”) and examining the modifying details that differentiate them, people can add these two clarified words to their permanent vocabulary.

The term hyponymy is relatively new, being recorded only since the mid-1900s (Oxford English Dictionary). However, the study of hyponymy has quickly proven to be one of the most useful ways of understanding how words relate to each other, an understanding that can lead to clearer communication between users of the English language. (Principal sources: David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language; Oxford English Dictionary; Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary)

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