About Mark Lencho

Associate Professor at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater (Department of Languages and Literatures) and Visiting Professor at University of Constantine the Philosopher (Faculty of the Arts) , with an interest in finding out more about oneself by being willing to step outside of oneself.

Does being an American mean only knowing one language?

“Prišla som, videla som, nechápem, odchádzam.” (I came, I saw, I don’t understand, I’m leaving . . .)

Recently, I found out that the university is considering adding a foreign language requirement for all UW-W students seeking a Bachelor of Arts degree: regardless of high school experience, at least two years of foreign language courses at the university. Though there are many institutional-internal reasons behind this movement, on a broader  dimension of what it takes to be a good global citizen,  there is the perception that American university students lack for foreign language skills.

As the world’s only superpower, the United States has its hands in every economy and culture around the globe.  In Europe, though only the United Kingdom and Ireland are English speaking countries, close to 50% of all business deals are brokered in English (Bryson 182).

When my brother, who lives in Dallas and works for the All-American  corporation  JCPenny, nevertheless must go to China, or India or Germany, to work on marketing products, his interpreters are native Chinese, Indian, and German.  The lynchpin of international communication, the person who makes the connection between nations, is more than likely to not be a native speaker of English, not an American.  And if language begets understanding, what does it say when so many foreigners know our language while we remain ignorant of theirs?

Rivaling America’s superpower status is the low regard so many other countries have for our nation.  A November 2006 opinion poll conducted by the British newspaper The Guardian found that President Bush was regarded as nearly the most dangerous person in the world, more dangerous than everyone except Bin-Laden, this coming from our closest ally in the world (Glover).

So that leaves me wondering if you, the professional class in training,  think there is a fundamental responsibility for US professionals trained in the humanities and arts-the communicators, the cultural vanguard–to have some foreign language skills.  Here we are in the middle of a presidential campaign where candidates from both parties are expounding on American values and goals, yet I haven’t heard anyone talking about the importance of being a good neighbor in the community of nations.  Is not the essential, core ingredient in moving down that road to be able to talk to at least one of our “neighbors” in their own language?  I just finished spending a year in Slovakia, in central Europe. Of all the people I met that had native-like fluency in both English and Slovak, none were native born Americans . . . . including all the embassy personnel I met . . . . . including the US Ambassador. Can any of these people fully appreciate the limitations (and appearance of arrogance) of  having to conduct all international business in (on?) our terms?

As it stands, the BS at UW-W requires additional math and lab sciences, the BA has a foreign language requirement that can be entirely discharged by retro credits from high school work on the college prep track.  There is also an acknowledged (extreme) deficiency in international experience among our students (last time I checked, UW-Eau Claire had something like 17% of its students having some international education; whereas our percentage was less than 1%).  More foreign language classes would in all probably increase interest in study abroad programs.

Bryson, Bill. The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got that Way. New York:  Avon. 1990.

Glover, Julian. “British Believe Bush is more dangerous than Kim Jong-il.” The Guardian Limited. 3 Nov 2006. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/usa/story/0,,1938434,00.htmlhttp://www.guardian.co.uk/usa/story/0,,1938434,00.html>

Zen and the Act of being an American

One of the features of my job as a university professor is that I am always in an environment of young people: my classes are populated mostly by teenagers and twenty-somethings, and throughout the campus community, whether in the dining halls, library, department workroom, bookstore, or computer labs, UW-W students are at the counters.  One of my favorite places to go on campus is the Williams-Katchel fitness complex.  I have a year’s membership and work out in the spacious, well-appointed weight room nearly every day.   Every time I arrive, hand over my faculty ID to a student at the counter, who then files it away.  My customary encounter when I finish my work out and need to retrieve my ID card is to approach the desk . . .

Me: “Hi!”

Student: (Looks at me in anticipation, though without any verbal response)

Me: “Lencho” . . . . with an “L” . . . .  L-E-N-C-H-O . . .

Student: (Finds my ID card in the card file and hands it to me)

Me: “Thanks, you have a nice day.”

Student (optionally): “You too.”

There is something mildly disconcerting to me about this exchange, as it seems that it is hard for the student to actually play a verbal role in the conversation.   Although some of my colleagues think that students on our campus and across the nation are increasingly disrespectful and rude, I am reluctant to agree, and am more inclined to think that there is a linguistic explanation for this behavior:  in English, we have no simple grammatical program to allow different social classes to interact.   Like many European languages, Slovak has “T” forms and “V” forms, corresponding to when speakers are talking within their social network (= “T” form) or across the social divide (= “V” form).  Customarily, these distinctions are said to reflect the hierarchical relationship between speaker and audience, but my experience with American students makes me wonder if the honorific distinction in other languages not only instructs the nature of hierarchical conversation, but also in some crucial manner actually encourages it to take place.

My Slovak students could pop their heads into my office with the engaging yet deferential . . .

Slovak: “Dobrý deň, pan profesor, môžem vas vyrušovať?”

English: “Excuse me, sir, but may I disturb you for a second?”

Deference in English is not obligatorily displayed throughout the inflectional system of the language, as it is in Slovak (in the passage above, “vas” would be expressed “ta” in a conversation of “in-group” participants).  Instead, English requires  the use of titles and various rhetorical devices, leaving  an obsequious, groveling aftertaste that young people in the land where “all men are created equal” just naturally avoid.  In Slovak, class distinction is simply registered as it must simply to establish the full speaking context; there is nothing intentional or designing about it, hence no self-diminishing overtones.

Risking a certain amount of overstatement, Americans seem to live without role models or a sense of history.  This here-and-know, nobody-is-any-better-than-me, “zen” aspect of the American sensibility may have something to do with American can-do spirit, a sense of limitless possibilities, of personal innocence leading to a sense of entitlement.  However, knowing your place, and having a language which can readily express it in every act of communication is no small thing. There is an element of . . . . if not friendliness, maybe something akin to connectedness . . . that allows Slovaks across the age divide to talk to one another naturally, in fact, spurring them on to do so, and in the process, nurturing a kind of social involvement that I can only envy as a “Slovak living abroad.”

Excuse me?

For me and my family, Easter holidays were celebrated with relatives in Žilina. Admidst all the whipping and splashing, no one was to find out that it was also my birthday: I wished to keep that under wraps, for a variety of reasons, but maybe most importantly, out of a (polite?) instinct that I did not wish to draw any attention to myself, and I did not want my relatives running around buying me presents, in addition to hosting our family.

Unfortunately for me and my secret, my relatives have a big print of a painting on their living room wall showing our family tree, along with birthdates. And conversation the first evening just naturally gravitated to the family tree, and after a little inspection on their part, the jig was up . . . they were reminded of my birthday.

So I woke up the following morning to a little birthday package . . . a picture book of Slovak places of interest, and a T-Shirt with a very interesting message:

Prišiel som
Videl som

So here is my quandary: it was certainly nice to get a gift (helping to bolster my “positive face”), but the message was, while right-on-the-mark appropriate in my case, not exactly something a Roman emperor would say (could it even be a face threatening act??). However, the present was offered in a spirit of hilarity and good humor, with everyone laughing and offering “na zdravie’s” (redressing a FTA?), so even if the humor was at my expense, we were among friends and family, so maybe I should view the message as a “solidarity strategy” where a little bit of abuse is meant to emphasize social closeness (Yule 64).

Question: Was the gift an example of politeness?

I should say that I have been wearing the shirt nearly every day since, not without some sense of pride mixed with humility, self-irony and well-being. It seems not only to strike to the heart of my predicament with my beloved Slovak (I have worked so hard, and yet know so little), but it also seems to rise up almost to the level of lifetime credo. I envision the gravestone marking my final resting place . . . .

I came
I saw
I never understood
I left

Everything was fine, and then I ran into one of my fellow American sojourners here, young Katie from my hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin (she is in high school here in Nitra for a year as a Rotary exchange student), she looked at me and rather dryly wondered out loud how I had the courage to wear a shirt that made me look stupid.

Well, I heard
I pondered
I can’t make up my mind . . .
So I’m asking you . . .

What do you think?


Yule, G (1996) Pragmatics. Oxford University Press.

Taking Turns

As we have already discussed, initiating encounters in an American context tend to be more broadly involving than in a Slovak context, while departures in the two cultures are inversely related (Slovaks have good-bye rituals where they are absent in English-speaking settings). Between an initiation and a closure, discourse can be structured around a series of turns, each containing its own beginning and end point. Differences in initiation strategies between Slovak and American speakers can reverberate across a larger more complex discourse, as revealed in classroom interaction between an American teacher and students in a Slovak university.

How is it that we take turns? In an American university setting, the common understanding is that there is an unstated invitation to take a turn . . . that class activities transpire in the form of dialogue. The default reaction to interruption is that it represents buy-in to the communication. Silence is also seen as a cue to participate. Overt questions coming from the teacher are tricky in this context . . . in an ideal dialogue (as opposed to an interrogation), participants extend questions regarding things they do not know but anticipate that audience knows. This is one reason why I am always asking for applications to Slovak. I look forward to your responses as expert information in an area that I am very interested in, but where I know little. It also provides an excellent opportunity to make applications of theoretical principles and terminology. In an ideal dialogue there are multiple sources of direction. This is a momentum-gathering phenomenon, isn’t it? Don’t you feel more inclined to take a turn when there are many students taking turns?

Technological support often can be used to underscore the essential dialogic nature of the teacher-student relationship. Our blog space, for instance, prompts for commentary; I get the first word, usually, but really I recognize that I am not the most important participant, as your commentary always makes up the bulk of every week’s dialogue. The e-mail channel through which contributions are made give further structured opportunities for dialogue. Skyping always involves turn-taking, and unlike our e-mails, it is typically the case that students initiate the dialogue in Skype. Similarly, the wiki space provides a format for interactive, group productions.

What are the specific things that prompt you to take a turn? And how “real” is that turn? That is, what distinguishes between honest participation and just going through the motions? How important is it for me to take the first turn in the week’s proceedings? What if we started class next week with it your turn? That is, I come to class looking forward to a cue to take the first turn, and not assuming that I am to fulfill this role myself? What if our class was organized like Tesco, so that my first appearance was at the back of the line of interactions, rather than at the front?

Greener Grass

Reading in between the lines, I feel your postings last week on ťaháky reveal some interesting extended „Conversations“ on such things as the nature of the student-teacher relationship, individual responsibility and socialism, and the state of education in Slovakia. Underlying your comments, I detected a „Discourse model“ at play that I have begun to notice and get accustomed to here in Slovakia; I will call it the „Grass is greener on the other side of the fence“ model: People in Slovakia seem to have a keen interest in how things are done elsewhere, and have the attitude that much can be learned from examining those comparisons. Thus, writers made comparisons to Denmark, Scandanavian countries, the UK and the US all with the intention of suggesting some corrective measure that could be used here in Slovakia.

The reason why this way of thinking was at first surprising may come from the fact that I am an American, and in my country there seems to be, as one writer recently referred to it*, a „myth of enviability“. That is, Americans think that other people around the world want to be like us, live like we do, have what we have, and, ideally, move next door to us.

This model has many manifestations. As a Fulbright scholar, one of the most important things I have been asked to do is to strive to help out my host country. Frequently my conversations with other American teachers and scholars in the Fulbright program center around how we can make our jobs more like the ones we have back home, with the assumption that this is how we could be most helpful.

This model meshes quite interestingly with the Slovak ‚grass is greener‘ model, as on more than one occasion important people in Slovakia (a majoral candidate, a Vice-Rector, a store owner/operator) have worked to arrange meetings with me so that I could help them understand how things (running a city, a private enterprise, a university) are done in the US . . . so that some of these ideas may be incorporated here.

As gratifying as these conversations can be, there are some interesting limitations. Under these circumstances it seems to cut across the grain for me to criticize things that I feel are bad about the American lifestyle with its focus on consumption, material well-being, self-gratification, competition and specialization . . . the cult of the expert. . . . at the expense of spiritual and aesthetic nourishment, a sense of community and a shared history and future, and an overarching inter-dependence. Likewise, maybe these two models, coming together as they do, make is hard for Slovaks to advance their own point of view, at variance with any international one, unique to Slovakia, and important for that very reason. That is, if you have as a working model the idea that „the grass is greener“ on my side of the fence, then what motivation do you have to solve my problems and to find things that are both valuable and life-enriching on your side of the fence? That is, what motivation do you have to unveil your own hidden treasures for all the world to see?

* Tom Nicholson „Tiso myth appalling and dangerous“ in Spex: Slovakia’s Monthly English Magazine p. 3.

Building Tasks

„Vezmi si do rúk jednu paličku a prelom ju. Teraz s vezmi dve a skús ich prelomiť. Nakoniec skús prelomiť naraz tri paličky. Su také pevné, že sa ti to nepodarí. Vidiš? Jedna palička je slabí, ale ked sú tri spolu, sú silné. Nikdy nezabudni spolupracovať s priatelmi!“*

There recently appeared an article in the Slovak Daily SME titled Ťahákom sa u nás stále darí. ( ‘Crib notes are still with us’; 12.2.2007, Weekend section). The thrust of the article is that Slovak students používaju ťaháky (cheat on examinations, e.g., by using crib notes) more than students in other countries. But what does it really mean that Slovak students cheat more than other students? According to the article, to cheat, students do one of two things when they are working on a problem: i) they communicate with their classmates, or ii) they consult notes or other reference material they have brought with them.

Now from a certain standpoint it may not seem like such a problem that students collaborate, prepare notes, and consult reference material to gain information to solve problems. In fact, the research and collaboration model has been put foward in some circles as one of the major goals of education. So why are notes and classroom discussion viewed as a problem in a Slovak context? Doesn’t it boil down to the bare fact of the teacher’s interest in not wanting it to happen? Such reluctance might reflect a culture of assessment in which it is most likely that exam questions ask students to repeat information that they have been assigned. If tests simply are an indication of the students’ ability to replicate what has been lectured or assigned to them, then allowing students to consult one another and their notes would reduce the exam situation to an exercise in stenography. Such exams test primarily the students capacity to memorize. But in a computerized world where information is ever more readily available, is it really important to test a student’s store of information? The human memory is a relatively weak and unreliable tool in comparision to today’s information technology. If we move from a content-oriented pedagogy, to one that prizes above all skills and proficiencies, then it is not the amassing of information that is the ultimate goal of education, but rather the nurturing of an ability and disposition to access and make the best use of information.. Now if examinations tested thinking skills, then crib notes could serve as an enhancement that would permit the teacher to test higher order thinking skills, make more challenging questions, and get more interesting results. This uncovers another assumption about exam taking where “cheating” can occur, and that is that these exams are meant in part to probe students’ limitations–exams as instruments of diagnosis. Alternatively, examinations might be viewed as a learning tool, constituting a very special situation in which students are highly motivated (especially in high-stakes exit and entrance exams) to use all the resources available to create the best result.

And what about students relying on their classmates to solve their problems? This is only a problem if the students are working on the same problem. So if students have their own distinctive set of problems, which ask them to employ logical methods to infer or extrapolate results framed with appropriate qualifications, then any collaboration would be subordinate to the individual agendas of each of the collaborators, again a desirable result if the intention is to create a learning-rich environment leading to the highest quality outcomes.

How to stop cheating? One answer is to have the teachers and institutions build towards a different type of test, one which relates students with other students and teachers as partners working to maximize the quality of product of everyone’s efforts, not as potential adversaries.

Quoted from the column „Masahikovými očami” in the Weekend Edition of SME 24.2.07. The English translation is as follows: “Take in your hand a single stick and break it. Now take two and try to break them. Finally try to break three sticks at once. They are so strong, that you are not able. Do you see? One stick is weak, but when there are three together, they are strong. Never forget to work with your friends!” The picture appearing in this blog is taken from the SME article on cheating in schools.

Finish Line

As we wind up the semester, it is natural to reflect back on the course description for ‘lexical semantics’:

“Lexical Semantics,” informally speaking, is the study of the meaning of words. Both “meaning” and “word” are actually extremely challenging concepts to understand, so much of the class will be devoted to unpacking these two concepts. In the process, we will overview various dimensions of meaning, how meaning is structured within words, and, conversely, how the context in which a word occurs interacts with its internal meaning. We will also consider relationships that exist among words and among elements out of which words are composed.

Our course description raises many questions, and I look forward to your attempts to answer them . . .

• What are problems with the concept “word,” and why is it not used as a technical term in and of itself?
• How do we analyze the internal contents of words?
• How is the meaning of a word represented?
• What are some properties about the way the meaning of words is represented?
• How do we explain how words are related to one another?
• What do we know when we know a word, in addition to its meaning?
• What do we have to learn when we learn a word? What properties of words don’t we learn?
• What other information is there besides information provided by the meaning of the words we use?

I will be constructing our final test this week, partially in response to your feedback in this blog space. The test will contain three types of questions. Part I will be in an objective format. I’m interested in your understanding of concepts like “listeme,” “function,” “content,” “argument,” “semantic feature,” “synonymy,” “antonymy,” “hyponymy,” “semantic rule as opposed to syntactic rule,” and the relationship of word meaning to overall information. Here is a sample question:

Parker and Riley (Linguistics for Non-Linguists) point out in their textbook that “linguists have been unable to agree on exactly how many and which features constitute the universal set of semantic properties.” Which of the following features for the word “dog” looks most problematic, from the perspective of the argument over what constitutes a member in the universal set of features. That is, which of the following features would most likely not be a member of the set of semantic features we are born with?

1. [-human] 2. [+canine] 3. [+living] 4. [+countable]

Part II will concern your ability to problem solve, to carry out a linguistic analysis. I might ask you to look at a set of data, evaluate generalizations about the data, and then to test the generalizations against additional data, somewhat in the spirit of our work comparing Harley’s and Plag’s analysis of affixation.

Finally, part III of the test will be a question that you yourself write and answer in essay format. This question should serve as a platform for you to reveal an important theme in our course. The ensuing treatment of the theme should involve both a conceptual and technical dimension. You should connect to the class discussion, but you should also touch upon material in the reading that we haven’t discussed in class or in our blog space. You should reveal some ability to use the technicalities of the discipline and to open new ground, while making some sense out of it.

Plan on approximately 20 minutes for each part. Bring paper to class, but you will need to leave your reference material and class notes at home. Be prepared, you don’t want the wheels to come off ’round the final curve!

Mixed Messages

Uncovering the social motivations of language-boundary-crossing choices . . . is a sociolinguistic task on a par with investigating the social motivations of dialect choice, gender-specific speech forms, or age grading.” -Florian Coulmas

Slovakia is definitely a very interesting place for anyone interested code-switching: socially motivated movement from one language to another in the course of making a message. Slovak, of course, is always around us, but from a global perspective the community of Slovak speakers is small enough that other ‘world’ languages, in particular German, French, Italian, and, especially, English, seem to always pop up.

Take the storefront advertisement pictured above, one of many on the pedestrian zone in Nitra’s centrum that mixes English and Slovak: “big bag outlet športový a modný textil z anglicka.” On the surface, we have three words of English followed by six in Slovak. It only requires a little reflection to see that the transition from one language to the other is not at all arbitrary. The transition point underscores the structure of the message: shop name (in English), followed by a summary of inventory or services offered (in Slovak). What is accomplished by ‘mixing the message’ in this way? The Slovak part of the message, I would guess, has a very practical value: it explains to a predominantly Slovak speaking public assembly just what it might find in the store.

It’s tempting to think of the first part of the message, the English part, as a type of ‘branding’: the English brings to the message a certain ‘cachet,’ a certain status and prestige that results from the fact that English is a language used for international commerce, that goods and people associated with predominantly English-speaking countries, especially the United States, have global exposure. And to the degree that breadth of exposure contributes to degree of fashion and appeal, it is logical to conclude that the English part of the message is an attempt at a stylish enticement to get the consumer to engage with the business.

These messages also are another example of the dual function of language. The English part of the message is clearly a play for status, and does very little in the way of communicating practical information. In fact, the very necessity of the informational, Slovak segment of the message serves to underscore that many passers-by may not attach any informational meaning whatsoever to the English part. Indeed, discerning shoppers who know something about the meaning of a ‘big bag outlet’ store in an English context realize that this phrase is used there to describe downscale discount stores, where people who don’t have a lot of money go, wishing to buy something cheap. Therefore, in an English context, advertising that you are an outlet store has a very different social function, I would think.

Having spent a little time now dissecting this particular advertisement formula, I nevertheless would have to admit that this tidy little case really doesn’t represent the phenomenon of code-switching in its purist sense, but I’ll leave it to you in your postings to make it clear why.

Attractive Opposites

Philosophers and others from Heraclitus to Jung have noted the tendency of things to slip into their opposite states; and many have remarked on the thin dividing line between love and hate, genius and madness, overlook (a mistake) and (scenic) overlook . . . . The paradox of simultaneous difference and similarity is partly resolved by the fact that opposites typically differ along only one dimension of meaning: in respect of all other features they are identical, hence their semantic closeness; along the dimension of difference, they occupy opposing poles, hence the feeling of difference.” D.A. Cruse

Last week, I approached the idea of synonymy from the perspective of semantic feature theory. If two words share all the same semantic features, they qualify as synonyms. Hence, “girl” and “lassie” are synonyms on the basis of sharing the feature set ([+person], [-mature], and [-male]). It is necessary to concede that even though these two words ‘mean the same thing’ according to this theory, they are certainly not always naturally interchangeable. Thus, there are other things which determine the appropriateness of a word in a particular situation, having to do with the linguistic location of the speaker (is the person in the US or Scotland, for instance?), what is the intended referent (is the named object a young female human or a personified entity, like a pet dog?), the feelings that the speaker has for the referent (does the speaker wish to express emotional neutrality or avuncular familiarity?), the formality of the situation (is the word used in a professional conference or in a personal reflection at home in front of the fireplace?), the modality of the expression (written or spoken?) and so on. So the total information conveyed by any expression will be much more than the meaning associated with a word. One advantage of this theoretical approach to synonymy in comparison to Cruse’s careful descriptive approach is that it establishes that synonymy is something that is real, and not a hypothetical ideal at the unreachable end of a gradient scale.

In contrast with ‘synonymy,’ the definition of ‘antonymy’ in the framework of lexical semantic feature theory declares this condition to hold whenever two words have all the same semantic features, though for one and only one binary feature, the two words are oppositely specified. If we return to our thesaurus entry for ‘girl,’ the one antonym that is given is ‘boy.’ We can confirm this antonymy by noting that ‘boy’ will have all the same semantic features of ‘girl’ in terms of personhood and maturity level, but will be specified oppositely on the feature of sex.

Interestingly, in our explorations of the synonymy of ‘girl,’ we ended up ruling out many of the candidates provided by the thesaurus, narrowing down the list substantially. Thesaurus lists of antonyms tend to be much smaller than lists for synonyms (why might this be the case?). In this case, it is natural to see if we can extend the list somewhat. Now our theory provides us with exactly the direction to explore, as we look for other antonyms of ‘girl’: What other words have all the same semantic features as ‘girl,’ with the exception of one oppositely specified? If we hold personhood and sex the same, we can modulate the feature for maturity and get ‘woman’ (and all of its synonyms) as another antonym of ‘girl.’ Psycholinguistic tests could be constructed to investigate whether ‘woman’ is as intuitively antonymous to ‘girl’ as ‘boy’ is. Note that we do not have the option of finding non-person antonyms for ‘girl,’ that is, something that would be identical in sex and maturity level, but a non-person. So ‘heifer’ (young, female, bovine) would not have a feature specifying personhood, but would have one identifying its particular place in the animal kingdom, and, hence, would not qualify as an antonym. This outcome may alert us to potential words that do not yet exist! Something like a “non-girl” would not help to fill this gap, because the prefix ‘non-‘ would overshoot the class of potential antonyms by covering everything that did not have all the features of ‘girl.’

Note finally that a single referent could be named in a variety of ways leading to all kinds of different antonymous sequences. So Miska, the little girl in our photograph, is a natural referent for ‘young’ (antonymous with ‘old’), ‘child’ (antonymous with ‘parent’), ‘small’ (antonymous with ‘big’), etc.

Conceptually, the theory of semantic features is quite attractive, but, as we have already considered, just what constitutes a feature is a difficult problem to resolve. Again, the close descriptive work that Cruse carries out in his chapter on ‘opposites’ gives us some sense of the challenges facing any theory of semantic features.

Sameness and Difference

It seems probable, and many semanticists have maintained, that natural languages abhor absolute synonyms just as nature abhors a vacuum.” D. A. Cruse

In my last blog essay, I defined “girl” as something that could be considered as comprised of the set of semantic features ([+human], [-male], [-mature]). I went on to suggest that other words that have the same set of semantic features would constitute synonyms for “girl.”

Now the thesaurus at www.dictionary.com lists the following entries as synonyms of “girl”:

babe, baby doll, bird, blonde, bobby-soxer, boytoy, broad, butterfly, canary, chick, coed, cupcake, cutie, dame, damsel, daughter, deb, debutante, doll, female, filly, gal, jail bait, lady, lassie, mademoiselle, maid, maiden, minx, miss, missy, mouse, nymph, nymphet, piece, queen, schoolgirl, she, sis, skirt, spring chicken, teenybopper, tomato, tomboy, virgin, wench, witch, woman

Just how many of these words are really synonyms, according to our technical definition? Many of these words are disqualified as synonyms because they differ according to the feature [-mature]. They may either be unmarked for this feature, as in the case of “female” and “she,” which are technical superordinates of “girl,” or they may be positively specified for the feature, in which case they would be antonyms (!) These include the following:

dame, gal, lady, and woman

So a first important lesson to be gleaned here is that relatedness does not mean synonymy. There are also many items in the thesaurus listing that contain additional semantic features distinct from ‘girl,’ yet without all the features constituting “girl,” making them technical overlaps . . .

Blonde, daughter, maid, queen, sis, virgin, and witch

or, in the case of words having all the features of ‘girl’ and then some, hyponyms . . .

bobby-soxer, cutie, deb, debutante, schoolgirl, tomboy, and teenybopper

Items in the list like the following appear to suggest sexual maturity, but not necessarily full social and intellectual maturity, and pose a challenge to our system of features.

Babe, baby doll, broad, coed, piece, and skirt

From these examples, it looks like the feature [mature] itself should be broken down further, if we are looking for the basic semantic building blocks of language in these semantic features.

Many of the words remaining on the short list of potential synonyms for “girl” are obvious metaphorical usages of words that have quite divergent meanings. If we understand metaphors as words which by definition violate a semantic feature, then we can eliminate the following:

bird, boytoy, butterfly, canary, cupcake, filly, jailbait, minx, mouse, nymph, nymphet, spring chicken, tomato.

We are left with the following ‘pure’ synomyms (I leave it to you to check whether they ‘cognitive synonyms’ according to Cruse’s definition):

Damsel, lassie, mademoiselle, maiden, miss, and missy

Saying that these words ‘mean the same thing’ or ‘have the same semantic features’ or are ‘synonymous,’ does not mean that they are interchangeable, can occur in the same contexts, or are exactly alike. That is because word meaning is only one ingredient in any instance of language use. Critically, in addition to meanings of words, there are speakers of words and referents for words. A speaker who refers to a girl as a ‘mademoiselle’ is saying something about his own social affliliations, quite apart from the meaning of ‘girl.’ Likewise, words occur in situations, which are always nuanced. So I can use “miss” to get a girl’s attention (maybe a young sales clerk at a store), where the use of ‘girl’ could perform the same function but with less politeness. “Damsel” is conceivable only in a somewhat archaic, poetic context. (Cruse would say that is has a very different “field” of usage), and “lassie” may say something about both the regional, dialectal affiliations of a speaker as well as something about the closeness of feeling the speaker has for the referent.

Recognizing that a language event is more than word ‘meaning,’ but also people interacting in a variety of relationships and with a variety of social affiliations and communicating in a variety of forms helps us to understand how there can be a significant amount of synonymy, while at the same time no two words are truly alike.