CAN ANY ORDER BE BROUGHT INTO THIS JUMBLE?

2017-07-17cartoon foreign languageIn the process of cognition we try to discover a pattern (structure, system, model, etc.) that is inherent in the object of our observation. At first sight, the lexicon of language seems to be a chaotic accumulation of words and word combinations in a “dictionary bag.” The alphabetic arrangement of lexical unites contributes to this impression. I’ve just opened at random The Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English by A.S. Hornby and found three words immediately following each other which were semantically as disconnected as anything could be: hagiology (literature treating of the lives and legends of saints), ha-ha (wall or fence bounding a park of garden, built low in a hollow, so as not to interfere with the view), and hail (frozen raindrops falling from the sky). After going through 10-15 of such words you feel emotionally exhausted and floored and have hardly any more wish to continue reading the dictionary.

However, we can discover a logical arrangement of lexical units and their meanings by reading through a chain of definitions, making some key words in every definition objects of our further search. This simple approach was recommended to us, then first-year university students, by our lecturer. “Read explanatory dictionaries,” he said. “I understand that such dictionaries cost a pretty penny, but just cough up – you’ll never be sorry.” And we dipped into our pockets, sometimes spending our monthly stipend on a unilingual Oxford or Webster dictionary, and (the lecturer was right!) we were never sorry.

By way of example, I’ve picked up the word summer at the address thefreedictionary.com. The word is defined through key words spring and autumn (the time between spring and autumn). Each of these keywords has corresponding adjectives: vernal and autumnal. The adjectives which relate to the word summer are summery and estival (the US spelling is aestival), Quotes for estival: estival winds, the sky was a burnished estival blue. The verb to summer means to keep in summer (to summer the cattle in the mountains) and to pass the summer in/at (they summered in the Bahamas). Another key word in the summer’s definition is month. The set of months is either June, July and August (for the Northern Hemisphere) or December, January and February (for the Southern Hemisphere). Poetically summer means year (a girl of thirteen summers). It’s also a period of fruition, fulfillment, happiness and beauty.

The word which is usually opposed to summer in mundane usage is winter. Besides wintry, this unit has its adjectival “companions” of Latin origin: hibernal, brumal (bears in brumal sleep), and hiemal (the dormancy of turtles occurs in the hiemal period). The verb to winter that parallels the verb to summer has an additional meaning with the preposition on (to winter on something): deer wintered on cedar bark. Besides, there is a derivative: to overwinter (= to survive, to remain alive through the winter).

Interestingly, just the same as the word summer, the poetical word winter means year (a man of 72 winters). The dictionary doesn’t explain it, but my guess is that winter in this sense can be applied to a more advanced age – we can hardly say: a girl of 13 winters. Probably, this is also due to the fact that one other meaning of winter is time of decline, decay.

Thus, our reading through words and their definitions in an English-English dictionary has resulted in the following lexical field and sub-fields of interconnected components:

  1. summer (summery, estival/Am aestival) – autumn/Am. fall (autumnal) – winter (wintry, hibernal, brumal, hiemal);
  2. year (poetical), with different combinability depending upon how long is the length of a period;
  3. two sets of summer months: June, July and August for the Northern Hemisphere and December, January and February for the Southern Hemisphere – plus the opposite set of winter months for each Hemisphere.
  4. transferred meanings of opposed groups (happiness, beauty for summer vs. decay and decline for winter);
  5. the verbs to summer and to winter, with additional meanings (to feed on) and derivatives or the word winter (to overwinter = to survive, to live through).

I haven’t explored the field further, though there’s much more to study here. Take only the key word warm (with summer) and cold (with winter) and their field extensions: enthusiastic, ardent (warm support), heated (warm debate), fresh (warm trail), uncomfortable – because of danger or annoyance (things are warm for bookies), to make or become ready (to warm up), lacking emotion, objective (cold logic), having little appeal (cold décor), unfriendly (cold nod), so intense as to be most uncontrollable (cold fury), etc., etc.

The approach may be useful when applied to learning a foreign language –to build up one’s vocabulary. Of course, a learner should select a dictionary which will correspond to his/her level of knowledge. Another helpful prompt may be to use a foreign-native dictionary as an auxiliary means – when, in the process of reading a foreign unilingual dictionary, there crops up an unknown foreign word that will require too much time to understand when you limit yourself only to this unilingual dictionary.

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