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THE PROBLEMS OF “PARTS OF SPEECH” CLASSIFICATION
The classification of word classes has always been one of the major controversial issues in linguistics. To start with, the term “parts of speech” itself presents a certain problem: it was developed in Ancient Greek linguistics and reflects the fact that at that time there was no distinction between language as a system and speech, between the word as a part of an utterance and the word as a part of lexis. The term “parts of speech” is accepted by modern linguistics as a conventional, or “non-explanatory” term (“name-term”) to denote the lexico-grammatical classes of words correlating with each other in the general system of language on the basis of their grammatically relevant properties.
Traditionally, there are three types of grammatically relevant properties of words that differentiate “parts of speech”: semantic, formal and functional properties. They make the criteria for the traditional classification of parts of speech. The semantic criterion refers to the generalized semantic properties common to the whole class of words, e.g.: the generalized (or, categorial) meaning of nouns is “thingness”, of verbs process, of adjectives substantive property, of adverbs non-substantive property. The formal criterion embraces the formal features (word-building and word-changing) that are characteristic for a particular part of speech, e.g.: the noun is characterized by a specific set of word-building affixes, cf.: property, bitterness, worker, etc., and is changed according to the categories of number, case and article determination: boy-boys, boy – boy’s, boy – the boy – a boy, etc. Combinability is also a relevant formal feature for each particular part of speech; for example, verbs can be modified by adverbs, while nouns cannot (except in specific contexts). The functional criterion is based on the functions that the words of a particular class fulfill in the sentence, e.g.: the most characteristic functions of the noun are those of a subject and an object; the only function of the finite form of the verb is that of a predicate; the adjective functions in most contexts as an attribute; the adverb as an adverbial modifier.
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In general, classifications may be based either on one criterion (such classifications are called homogeneous, or monodifferential), or on a combination of several criteria (such classifications are called heterogeneous, or polydifferential). The traditional classification of parts of speech is polydifferential (heterogeneous); it is based on the combination of all the three criteria mentioned above: ‘meaning – form – function’. The employment of the three criteria combined, in present-day mainstream linguistics, was developed mainly by V. V. Vinogradov, L. V. Scherba, A. I. Smirnitsky, B. A. Ilyish and others.
Traditionally, all parts of speech are subdivided on the upper level of classification into notional words and functional words. Notional words, which traditionally include nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns and numerals, have complete nominative meanings, are in most cases changeable and fulfill self-dependent syntactic functions in the sentence. Functional words, which include conjunctions, prepositions, articles, interjections, particles, and modal words, have incomplete nominative value, are unchangeable and fulfill mediatory, constructional syntactic functions.
There are certain limitations and controversial points in the traditional classification of parts of speech, which make some linguists doubt its scientific credibility. First of all, the three criteria turn out to be relevant only for the subdivision of notional words. As for functional words, they are rather characterized by the absence of all three criteria in any generalized form. Second, the status of pronouns and the numerals, which in the traditional classification are listed as notional, is also questionable, since they do not have any syntactic functions of their own, but rather different groups inside these two classes resemble in their formal and functional properties different notional parts of speech: e.g., cardinal numerals function as substantives, while ordinal numerals function as adjectives; the same can be said about personal pronouns and possessive pronouns. Third, it is very difficult to draw rigorous borderlines between different classes of words, because there are always phenomena that are indistinguishable in their status. E.g., non-finite forms of verbs, such as the infinitive, the gerund, participles I and II are actually verbal forms, but lack some of the characteristics of the verb: they have no person or number forms, no tense or mood forms, and what is even more important, they never perform the characteristic verbal function, that of a predicate. Equally dubious is the part-of-speech characterization of auxiliary verbs, intensifying adverbs, conjunctive adverbs and pronouns, and of many other groups of words which have the morphological characteristics of notional words, but perform mediatory constructional functions in a sentence, like functional words. There are even words that defy any classification at all; for example, many linguists doubt whether the words of agreement and disagreement, yes and no, can occupy any position in the classification of parts of speech.
These, and a number of other problems, made linguists search for alternative ways to classify lexical units. Some of them suggested that the contradictions should be settled if parts of speech were classified a unified basis of subdivision; in other words, if a homogeneous, or monodifferential classification of parts of speech were undertaken. It must be noted that the idea was not entirely new. The first classification of parts of speech was homogeneous: in ancient Greek grammar the words were subdivided mainly on the basis of their formal properties into changeable and unchangeable; nouns, adjectives and numerals were treated jointly as a big class of “names” because they shared the same morphological forms. This classical linguistic tradition was followed by the first English grammars: Henry Sweet divided all the words in English into “declinables” and “indeclinables”. But the approach which worked well for the description of highly inflectional languages turned out to be less efficient for the description of other languages.
The syntactic approach, which establishes the word classes in accord with their functional characteristics, is more universal and applicable to languages of different morphological types. The principles of a monodifferential syntactico-distributional classification of words in English were developed by the representatives of American Descriptive Linguistics, L. Bloomfield, Z. Harris and Ch. Fries. Ch. Fries selected the most widely used grammatical constructions and used them as substitution frames: the frames were parsed into parts, or positions, each of them got a separate number, and then Ch. Fries conducted a series of substitution tests to find out what words can be used in each of the positions. Some of the frames were as follows: The concert was good (always). The clerk remembered the tax (suddenly). The team went there. All the words that can be used in place of the article made one group, the ones that could be used instead of the word “clerk” another, etc. The results of his experiments were surprisingly similar to the traditional classification of parts of speech: he distinguished four major classes of what he called “positional words” (or “form-words”) – the words which can be used in four major syntactic positions without affecting the meaning of the structures; generally speaking, these classes coincide with the four major notional parts of speech in the traditional classification: nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. Besides, Ch. Fries distinguished 15 limited groups of words, which cannot fill in the positions in the frames. These “function words” are practically the same as the functional words in the traditional classification.
So, the syntactico-distributional classification of words distinguished on a syntactic basis testifies to the objective nature of the traditional classification of parts of speech. More than that, in some respects the results of this approach turn out to be even more confusing than the allegedly “non-scientific” traditional classification: for example, one word might be found in different distributional classes. Thus, the syntactico-distributional classification cannot replace the traditional classification of parts of speech, but the major features of different classes of words revealed in syntactico-distributional classification can be used as an important supplement to the traditional classification.
The combination of syntactico-distributional and traditional approaches proves the unconditional subdivision of the lexicon into two major supra-classes: notional and functional words. The major formal grammatical feature of this subdivision is their open or closed character. The notional parts of speech are open classes of words, with established basic semantic, formal and functional characteristics. There are only four notional classes of words, which correlate with the four main syntactic positions in the sentence: nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. They are interconnected by the four stages of the lexical derivational paradigm, e.g.: to decide – decision – decisive – decisively. The functional words are closed classes or words: they cannot be further enlarged and are given by lists. The functional words expose various constructional functions of syntactic units, and this makes them closer to grammatical rather than to lexical means of the language. As for pronouns and the numerals, according to the functional approach they form a separate supra-class of substitutional parts of speech, since they have no function of their own in the sentence, but substitute for notional parts of speech. The difference between the four notional parts of speech and substitutional parts of speech is also supported by the fact that the latter are closed groups of words like functional parts of speech. The three supra-classes are further subdivided into classes (the parts of speech proper) and sub-classes (groups inside the parts of speech).
Another advanced approach which also helps clarify many disputable points in the traditional classification of parts of speech, is connected with the implementation of the linguistic field theory to the parts of speech classification. It was formulated by the Russian linguists G. S. Schur and V. G. Admoni. According to this approach, the borderlines between the classes of words are not rigid; instead of borderlines there is a continuum of numerous intermediary phenomena, combining the features of two or more major classes of words. Field theory states that in each class of words there is a core, the bulk of its members that possess all the characteristic features of the class, and a periphery (marginal part), which includes the words of mixed, dubious character, intermediary between this class and other classes of words. For example, the non-finite forms of the verb (the infinitive, the gerund, participles I and II) make up the periphery of the verbal class: they lack some of the features of a verb, but possess certain features characteristic to either nouns, or adjectives, or adverbs.
These are the major advanced linguistic approaches, which supplement and significantly improve the traditional classification of word classes.
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