Is there such thing as complete synonymy?

Complete synonymy is rare, and absolute synonymy hardly exists. Lyons (1981:148). Fromkin et al. (2003: 181) state that no two words ever have exactly the same meaning. These quotations seem odd and unfamiliar to many people in general and I in particular.

It is conventionally known that there are many synonyms in the lexicon sharing the same meaning. If a teacher asks one of his students what the opposite of the adjective ‘big’ is, the student, based on his previous knowledge, will directly answers ‘large’. Languages in general- as to speak- have many synonyms, particularly the English language. It is rich in many examples such as plentiful and rich, pretty and attractive, combine and mix, student and pupil, sick and ill, happiness and joy and many others, just to name a few. These words share the same denotation- literal meaning which makes them synonyms and can be used as substitutes for each others to avoid repetition in writing and speaking.

As to the complexity of meaning, a person looking for replacing a word with another word must choose a precise and accurate synonym. In this regard, many semanticists have presented studies on synonymy from different perspectives. Thus, there is a consensus regarding the difficulty of finding two perfect, absolute or complete words sharing the same synonymy. Semanticists have attacked the translation of words in two different languages as these words cannot mean exactly the same because of the different linguistic and social contexts they occur. But what about two synonyms in the same language?. The rarity or impossibility of perfect synonymy can clearly be discussed through the definition of synonymy, types- scale of synonymy and conditions of perfect synonymy, substitution tests and reasons of rarity.

Synonymy by definition is “the relationship between two words when they have the same denotation” (Yule, 2006: 23). In simple words, synonymy is the similarity or exact correspondence in meaning between two lexical items. It is considered as a lexical phenomenon which arises within one language. In order to qualify for synonymy, the two words must share the same or very similar denotation. The denotation is the literal or dictionary meaning of a word without taking the context into account. For instance, the English words ‘joy’ and ‘happiness’ share the same denotation, which is a feeling of great pleasure and happiness. Cognates are words which share the same etymological origin as well as the same denotation. However, they might have different connotations and belong to different semantic fields. For example, the words ‘love’, ‘amor’, ‘amour’, ‘liebe’, ‘l’amore’ share the same Latin etymological origin and denotation, which is a feeling of strong affection. But they have different connotations and belong to different semantic fields.

Types (scale) of synonymy are words which share the same or very similar denotation. They can be classified into three main types: complete synonyms, near-complete synonyms, and partial synonyms. Complete synonyms are also called absolute or perfect synonyms. They share the same denotation and connotation and belong to the same semantic field. They are also interchangeable in all contexts without changing the meaning of the message. For example, the words ‘small’ and ‘little’ are complete synonyms. They can be used interchangeably in all contexts without changing the meaning of the message. Near-complete synonyms are also called quasi-synonyms. They share the same denotation but have different connotations. They can also be used interchangeably in some contexts without changing the meaning of the message. For example, the words ‘beautiful’ and ‘gorgeous’ are near-complete synonyms. They can be used interchangeably in some contexts without changing the meaning of the message. Partial synonyms are also called semi-synonyms. They share the same denotation but have different connotations and belong to different semantic fields. They cannot be used interchangeably in all contexts. For example, the words ‘happy’ and ‘glad’ are partial synonyms. They cannot be used interchangeably in all contexts.

In order for two words to be considered as perfect or absolute synonyms, they must share the same denotation and connotation. They must also be interchangeable in all contexts without changing the meaning of the message. For example, the words ‘red’ and ‘scarlet’ are absolute or perfect synonyms. They share the same denotation and connotation. They can also be used interchangeably in all contexts without changing the meaning of the message. Substitution tests are also used to determine whether two words are synonyms or not. If the meaning of the message is unchanged after substituting one word for another, then they are considered to be synonyms. For example, the words ‘happy’ and ‘glad’ are not synonyms because the meaning of the message changes after substituting one word for the other.

The rarity of perfect synonymy can be explained by the fact that words are often used in different contexts with different connotations. They also belong to different semantic fields. For example, the word ‘love’ can be used in different contexts with different connotations. It can be used to express the feeling of strong affection between two people or the feeling of strong affection for a particular thing. It can also be used in the context of religion to express the feeling of strong affection for God.

Defining synonymy is a difficult process. Maja, (2009) has argued that when it comes to giving a clear, precise and correct definition of synonymy, many difficulties arise. There are many approaches with many definitions of synonymy and types of synonyms because there are different ways in which synonyms may differ. Maja, (2009) has defined synonymy as the phenomenon of two or more different linguistic forms with the same meaning. Those linguistic forms are called synonyms, e.g. danger and risk can be substituted with one another in certain contexts. Synonymy in semantics is an inter-lexical sense relation. Synonymy is sameness of meaning (Palmer F. R. 1996:88, Lyons John 1996:60). Fromkin et al. (2003:181) has stated that: ”there are words that sound different but have the same or nearly the same meaning, such words are called synonyms.”. John (1995) has also presented a definition indicating that expressions with the same meaning are synonyms. Two important points should be noted about the definition. Firstly, it does not restrict relation of synonymy to lexemes; it allows for the possibility that lexically simple expressions may have the same meaning as lexically complex expressions. Secondly, it makes identity, not merely similarity, of meaning the criterion of synonymy. It is noteworthy that all linguists and semanticists such as Palmer, Lyons and Fromkin agree that synonymy means two words with the same meaning. I completely agree with these definitions from the perspective of sameness. However, I feel that such synonyms may resemble in meaning but they would differ in formality, style, or of some other aspects of connotations. All in all, the definition of synonymy is still a controversial subject among semanticists and difficult to find a specific definition for synonymy.

The scale of synonymy is important for all to figure out the relationship between two synonyms. Cruse (2000:157) claims that a scale of synonymy can be established. The scale consists of absolute synonymy, cognitive synonymy and near-synonymy. First, absolute synonymy is set as the complete identity of all meanings of two or more lexemes in all contexts. However, it is unnatural for a language to have absolute synonyms, or lexemes with exactly the same meaning. It is generally accepted that absolute synonymy is impossible or non-existent. It is regarded only as a referential point on the alleged scale of synonymy or the initial criterion for the defining of synonymy (Cruse, 2000, 157). Second, as there are no two lexemes with absolutely the same meaning and no real synonyms, cognitive synonymy is what most semanticists would regard as synonymy. Lyons (1996:63) claims that many theories of semantics would restrict the notion of synonymy to what he calls descriptive or cognitive synonymy, which is the identity of descriptive meaning. Third, near-synonyms are lexemes whose meaning is relatively close or more or less similar (mist/fog, stream/brook, dive/plunge). However, the given definition of near-synonymy is vague, because there isn’t a precise correlation between synonymy and semantic similarity. Near-synonymy is associated with overlapping of meaning and senses. The senses of near-synonyms overlap to a great degree, but not completely (Murphy, 2003, 155). Moreover, unlike cognitive synonyms, near-synonyms can contrast in certain contexts: He was killed, but I can assure you he was NOT murdered, madam (Cruse, 2000, 159). Near-synonymy is regularly found in dictionaries of synonyms or thesauri where most of the terms listed under a single dictionary entry are not considered to be cognitive synonyms (e.g. govern – direct, control, determine, require).

The scale presented by Cruse is the most general. There are also other views. Lyons (1981:148) claims that there are absolute synonymy, complete synonymy, descriptive synonymy and near-synonymy. Noticeably, there is a new type compared to Cruse. According to Lyons (1981), complete synonyms must have the identity of all descriptive, social and expressive meaning in all contexts. Since most lexemes are polysemous- have different senses in different contexts, Murphy (2004:146) introduces logical synonyms- which include full synonyms and sense synonyms and near-synonyms. Denotationally equivalent words, whose all senses are identical such as (toilet/john), are called full synonyms, whereas sense synonyms share one or more senses, but differ in others, i.e. they have at least one identical sense (sofa/couch). Near-synonyms, as words with similar senses, are context-dependent. Cognitive synonyms are arguably what Murphy (2003) regards as sense synonyms. At last, there are many types of synonyms proposed by linguists and semanticists regarding the types of synonymy.

By now, it is almost true that absolute synonymy is extremely rare- at least a relation between lexemes- in natural languages. According to John (1995), two or more expressions are perfectly or absolutely anonymous if, and only if, they satisfy three conditions. First, all their meanings are identical. In other words, standard dictionaries of English treat the adjectives ‘big’ and ‘large’ as polysemous. For instance, ‘they live in a big/large house’. The two words would generally be regarded as synonymous. However, it is easy to show that these adjectives are not synonymous in all their meanings: i.e., that they fail to satisfy condition (1) and so are only partially, not absolutely or perfectly. ‘I will tell my big sister’ is lexically ambiguous, by virtue of ‘big’; in a way that ‘I will tell my large sister’ is not. All three sentences are well-formed and interpretable. They show that ‘big’ has at least one meaning which it does not share with large. Second, they are synonymous in all contexts. The main issue here is what we call collocations- a set of contexts where an expression can occur. It might be thought that the collocational range of an expression is wholly determined by its meaning, so that synonyms must of necessity have the same collocational range. But this does not seem to be so. For example, ‘big’ and ‘large’ can be used as a good example. There are many contexts in which ‘big’ cannot be substituted for ‘large’ (in the meaning which ‘big’ shares with’ large’) without violating the collocational restrictions of the one or the other. For example, ‘large’ is not interchangeable with ‘big’ in: you are making a big mistake. The sentence ‘you are making a large mistake’ is not only grammatically well-formed, but also meaningful. It is however collocationally unacceptable or unidiomatic. And yet ‘big’ seems to have the same meaning in ‘you are making a big mistake’ as it does in phrases such as ‘a big house’, for which we could, as we have seen, substitute ‘ a large house’.

It is attempting to argue, in cases like this, that there must be some subtle difference of lexical meaning which accounts for the collocational differences, such that it is not synonymy, but near-synonymy, that is involved. Third, they are semantically equivalent i.e., their meaning or meanings are identical on all dimensions of meaning, descriptive and non-descriptive. The most widely recognized dimension of meaning that is relevant to this condition is descriptive or propositional meaning. I think it is sufficient to say that two expressions have the same descriptive meaning if propositions containing the one necessarily imply otherwise identical propositions containing the other, and vice versa. By this criterion, ‘big’ and ‘large’ are descriptively synonymous (in one of their meanings and over a certain range of contexts). For instance, one cannot assert that someone lives in a big house and deny that they live in a large house. Another example is between the words ‘bachelor’ and ‘unmarried’. Some people deny that these two expressions are descriptively synonymous on the grounds that a divorced man who is not married is not a bachelor. As for expressive or socio-expressive meaning, in order to determine that two or more descriptively synonymous expressions differ in respect of the degree or nature of their expressive meaning, it is obvious that a whole set of words including huge, enormous, gigantic and colossal are more expressive of their speakers’ feelings towards what they are describing than very big or very large, with which they are perhaps descriptively synonymous. It is difficult to compare huge, enormous, gigantic and colossal in terms of their degree of expressivity. But speakers may have clear intuitions about two or more of them. In the end, such conditions must be used to identify whether the two lexemes are synonyms or not and the three conditions have proved that perfect synonyms are not available in any language.

Palmer (1981) differentiates between synonyms in terms of dialects, styles, emotive and evaluative values, collocational constraints and overlap of meanings of words. First, some synonyms go with different dialects of the language. For instance, the word movie is used in the United States and film is used in Britain. Second, some synonyms are used in different styles based on formality; colloquial, formal. For instance, depart (formal), go (informal). Third, some words differ only in their emotive or evaluative values but their cognitive meaning is the same. For instance, hide, conceal. Fourth, some words are subject to collocational restraints, i.e. they occur only with specific words. For instance, rancid occurs with butter, addled with eggs. Fifth, the meanings of some words overlap. For instance, mature, adult, ripe. If we take each of these words, we will have a larger set of synonyms. Palmer suggests a substitution test for judging whether two linguistic items are synonyms or not. Because perfect synonyms are mutually interchangeable in all contexts, it is rare to find perfect synonyms in a specific language. Anonyms are another way of testing synonymy. For instance, superficial is the opposite of deep and profound, while shallow is the opposite of deep only. Briefly, the true test of synonymy is substitutability: the ability of two words to be substituted for one another without a change in meaning. For instance, the example below contains the verb assist. The research assistant was available to assist patients completing the survey. If help is a synonym of assist, then it should be able to be substituted for assist in the above example without a change in meaning: The research assistant was available to help patients completing the survey. Help and assist can be considered as absolute synonyms, because the two sentences are identical in meaning, at least in the above contexts.

Linguists and semanticists have extensively studied synonymy. Consequently, many reasons have been suggested regarding the impossibility of finding perfect synonyms. Firstly, Maja (2009) argued that the function or use of one of the two lexemes would gradually become unnecessary or unmotivated and, as a result, it would soon be abandoned or dropped. Secondly, their interchangeability in all the contexts can neither be demonstrated nor proved, for, on one hand, the number of contexts is infinite, and, on the other hand, the exceptions from absolute interchangeability are inevitable. Therefore, the lexicons of natural languages do not have absolute synonymy. Thirdly, Edmonds and Hirst (2002) also argued that if words were truly synonymous, they would need to “be able to be substituted one for the other in any context in which their common sense is denoted with no change to truth value, communicative effect, or ‘meaning’. Fourthly, each linguistic form is polysemous so that it is difficult to two lexemes sharing whose all meanings are identical in all contexts.

In conclusion, there is a consensus among linguists and semanticists about the impossibility of finding two perfect linguistic forms in any language. They have attributed the impossibility to many reasons. Some semanticists tried to simplify the matter of types of synonymy by classifying synonyms based on their own perspectives. Therefore, there are many types suggested by them so that it is difficult to find a specific definition set by them. All studies conducted on synonymy have proved that no perfect synonyms are found in a language.