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date: 21 September 2021

Abstract and Keywords

The lexicon constitutes the basic raw material of natural language. The article starts by clarifying the various meanings of the term ‘word’: tokens, types, lemmas, phrasemes, and lexical entries. It goes on to ask whether names are words. Next, it asks whether the lexicon of a language is a finite set. Word frequencies in text can now be computed and compared, using data from large corpora. The distribution of words in any text or collection of texts conforms approximately to Zipf’s prediction of a harmonic progression down the frequency ranks from a few exceptionally frequent words to a large number of very rare words. The article goes on to summarize the main European theories of word use and word meaning, including semasiological approaches (Wikins and Roget), necessary and sufficient conditions for definition (Leibniz), prototype theory (Rosch), stereotype theory (Putnam), preference semantics (Wilks), selectional restrictions (Chomsky), generative lexicon theory (Pustejovsky), lexical functional grammar (Bresnan and Kaplan), frame semantics (Fillmore), and the contrast between the ‘idiom principle’ and the ‘open-choice principle’ (Sinclair). The article also discusses the views of modern lexicographers such as Sinclair, Kilgarriff, Atkins, and Hanks, who reject the notion that words have meaning, typically in favour of the idea that phraseology is equally important (if not more so) for understanding meaning.

Keywords: words, type–token relationship, lemmas, lexemes, phrasemes, multiword expressions, lexical entries, hapaxes, Zipf, distributional semantics, lexical sets, syntagmatics, collocations

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