Units of language

Units of language are divided into segmental and suprasegmental. Segmental units consist of phonemes, they form phonemic strings of various status (syllables, morphemes, words, etc.). Supra-segmental units do not exist by themselves, but are realized together with segmental units and express different modificational meanings (functions) which are reflected on the strings of segmental units. To the supra-segmental units belong intonations (intonation contours), accents, pauses, patterns of word-order.

The segmental units of language form a hierarchy of levels. This hierarchy is of a kind that units of any higher level are analysable into (i.e. are formed of) units of the immediately lower level. Thus, morphemes are decomposed into phonemes, words are decomposed into morphemes, phrases are decomposed into words, etc.

But this hierarchical relation is by no means reduced to the mechanical composition of larger units from smaller ones; units of each level are characterised by their own, specific functional features which provide for the very recognition of the corresponding levels of language.

The lowest level of lingual segments is phonemic: it is formed by phonemes as the material elements of the higher -level segments. The phoneme has no meaning, its function is purely differential: it differentiates morphemes and words as material bodies. Since the phoneme has no meaning, it is not a sign.

Phonemes are combined into syllables. The syllable, a rhythmic segmental group of phonemes, is not a sign, either; it has a purely formal significance. Due to this fact, it could hardly stand to reason to recognise in language a separate syllabic level; rather, the syllables should be considered in the light of the intra-level combinability properties of phonemes.

Phonemes are represented by letters in writing. Since the letter has a representative status, it is a sign, though different in principle from the level-forming signs of language.

Units of all the higher levels of language are meaningful; they may be called “signemes” as opposed to phonemes (and letters as phoneme-representatives).

The level located above the phonemic one is the morphemic level. The morpheme is the elementary meaningful part of the word. It is built up by phonemes, so that the shortest morphemes include only one phoneme. E.g.: ros-y [-1]; a-fire [э-]; come-s [-z].

The morpheme expresses abstract, “significative” meanings which are used as constituents for the formation of more concrete, “nominative” meanings of words.

The third level in the segmental lingual hierarchy is the level of words, or lexemic level.

The word, as different from the morpheme, is a directly naming (nominative) unit of language: it names things and their relations. Since words are built up by morphemes, the shortest words consist of one explicit morpheme only. Cf.: man; will; but; I; etc.

The next higher level is the level of phrases (word-groups), or phrasemic level.

To level-forming phrase types belong combinations of two or more notional words. These combinations, like separate words, have a nominative function, but they represent the referent of nomination as a complicated phenomenon, be it a concrete thing, an action, a quality, or a whole situation. Cf., respectively: a picturesque village; to start with a jerk; extremely difficult; the unexpected arrival of the chief.

This kind of nomination can be called “polynomination”, as different from “mononomination” effected by separate words.

Notional phrases may be of a stable type and of a free type. The stable phrases (phraseological units) form the phraseological part of the lexicon, and are studied by the phraseological division of lexicology. Free phrases are built up in the process of speech on the existing productive models, and are studied in the lower division of syntax. The grammatical description of phrases is sometimes called “smaller syntax”, in distinction to “larger syntax” studying the sentence and its textual connections.

Above the phrasemic level lies the level of sentences, or “proposemic” level.

The peculiar character of the sentence (“proposeme”) as a signemic unit of language consists in the fact that, naming a certain situation, or situational event, it expresses predication, i.e. shows the relation of the denoted event to reality. Namely. it shows whether this event is real or unreal, desirable or obligatory, stated as a truth or asked about, etc. In this sense, as different from the word and the phrase, the sentence is a predicative unit. Cf.: to receive — to receive a letter — Early in June I received a letter from Peter Mel« rose.

The sentence is produced by the speaker in the process of speech as a concrete, situationally bound utterance. At the same time it enters the system of language by its syntactic pattern which, as all the other lingual unit-types, has both syntagmatic and paradigmatic characteristics.

But the sentence is not the highest unit of language in the hierarchy of levels. Above the proposemic level there is still another one, namely, the level of sentence-groups, “supra-sentential constructions”. For the sake of unified terminology, this level can be called “supra-proposemic”.

The supra-sentential construction is a combination of separate sentences forming a textual unity. Such combinations are subject to regular lingual patterning making them into syntactic elements. The syntactic process by which sentences are connected into textual unities is analyzed under the heading of “cumulation”. Cumulation, the same as formation of composite sentences, can be both syndetic and asyndetic. Cf.:

He went on with his interrupted breakfast. Lisette did not speak and there was silence between them. But his appetite satisfied, his mood changed; he began to feel sorry for himself rather than angry with her, and with a strange ignorance of woman’s heart he thought to arouse Lisette’s remorse by exhibiting himself as an object of pity (S. Maugham).

In the typed text, the supra-sentential construction commonly coincides with the paragraph (as in the example above). However, unlike the paragraph, this type of lingual signeme is realized not only in a written text, but also in all the varieties of oral speech, since separate sentences, as a rule, are included in a discourse not singly, but in combinations, revealing the corresponding connections of thoughts in communicative progress.

We have surveyed six levels of language, each identified by its own functional type of segmental units. If now we carefully observe the functional status of the level-forming segments, we can distinguish between them more self-sufficient and less self-sufficient types, the latter being defined only in relation to the functions of other level units. Indeed, the phonemic, lexemic and proposemic levels are most strictly and exhaustively identified from the functional point of view: the function of the phoneme is differential, the function of the word is nominative, the function of the sentence is predicative. As different from these, morphemes are identified only as significative components of words, phrases present polynominative combinations of words, and supra-sentential constructions mark the transition from the sentence to the text.

Furthermore, bearing in mind that the phonemic level forms the subfoundation of language, i.e. the non-meaningful matter of meaningful expressive means, the two notions of grammatical description shall be pointed out as central even within the framework of the structural hierarchy of language: these are, first, the notion of the word and, second, the notion of the sentence. The first is analyzed by morphology, which is the grammatical teaching of the word; the second is analyzed by syntax, which is the grammatical teaching of the sentence.

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