What does the term lexeme mean? What are some examples of lexeme?

The term lexeme means a language's most basic unit of meaning, often also thought of as a word in its most basic form. Not all lexemes consist of just one word, though, as a combination of words are necessary to convey the intended meaning. Examples of lexemes include walk, fire station, and change of heart.

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A lexeme represents the most basic building block of a language. If you open a typical dictionary, the entries there are lexemes. Most lexemes have variations which build upon its most basic form. Thus, the lexeme walk could vary in form, such as in walks, walked, and walking. The lexeme slow also varies in form: slower, slowest, slowly.

A lexeme can thus be broken down into two large categories: invariable lexemes and variable lexemes. An invariable lexeme means that there is only one form of the word; it isn't altered in any way for meaning. The and a are examples of invariable lexemes. Variable lexemes, then, do exist in numerous forms. The word pretty is variable, as it also takes the forms of prettier and prettiest. The word be also takes the forms am, is, are, was, were, being, and been.

Sometimes a lexeme consists of more than one word because the meaning relies on a combination of words. Fire station is one example of a multiword lexeme. Phrasal verbs also represent this combination of words as one lexeme: pick up, put away, pass out, and look out.

A language's idioms are anther example of its lexemes. The meaning of this lexeme depends on an understanding of those words based in usage that does not break down into a literal translation. In English, some of those lexemes include the following:

  • think outside the box
  • change of heart
  • piece of cake
  • cutting corners
  • the last straw
Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on December 16, 2020
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A lexeme is the basic unit of meaning in the lexicon, or vocabulary of a specific language or culture. It may be either an individual word, a part of a word, or a chain of words, the last known as a 'catena'.

One example of a lexeme would be the word 'create'. When appearing alone, it conveys a single meaning. But when used as the stem, it can take on inflected forms such as 'created' and 'creating', which alter the grammatical function of the original stem. It can also take a on a derived form such as 'creator', which is a more distinct, though related, lexical unit. When the same lexeme appears in the form of a 'catena', or chain of words, such as the Biblical phrase, 'crown of creation' to describe mankind, one can still see its relationship with the original lexeme.

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A lexeme is the smallest or minimal unit of lexicon in a language that bears some “meaning”. A lexeme has a morphological form, semantic content (or meaning) and a syntactic category. Lexeme is basically an abstract notion used in linguistic morphology, the concrete realisation of which is a word.

One lexeme can take up more than one inflection to form a set of many words known as inflected variants. For example, the lexeme PLAY can take up many forms like play, playingplays, and played. All of these word forms have the same basic meaning (which is denoted by an action) and, hence, will be categorised under the same lexeme. The word playing is the participle form of the verb that is used to denote the same action in continuous aspect. Likewise, the word played is used to denote the past form of the action, the word play when the subject of the verb is present first and second person or third person plural, the word plays when the subject of the verb is present third person singular in English (subject-verb agreement).

All the inflectional manifestations of the lexeme will still belong to the same syntactic category (in our example case, it is the “verb”). Note, however, that the word player won’t belong to the same lexeme PLAY. This is because the word player is a derived (and not inflected) form of play that has a different syntactic category (in this case, it is Noun).

Lexeme is not equivalent to a word or morpheme in a language. Sometimes, one lexeme can be formed of more than one word and morpheme also. For example, the lexemes like take off and put up with consist of two and three words respectively. The meaning of these lexemes can be determined by taking the constituents together, and not from the individual words taken separately.

Lexemes are the headwords that you find listed separately in a dictionary, under which all the inflected variants are included.

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A lexeme is the smallest semantic language unit. This may sound complicated, but in fact any word with meaning constitutes the voiced or written expression of a lexeme. What is the difference between a word and a lexeme? That the latter is an abstract notion, while the former is its materialization.

We name lexemes by their bare forms. For example, "work" is a lexeme,  but the different forms it can take -"works," "working," "worked"- are its variations.

It's necessary to bear in mind that homographs (words with the same spelling but different meanings) do not represent the same lexeme.Look at these two sentences:

Dogs bark.    

The bark of the tree was rough.

Though the word "bark" appears in both, it refers to two different lexemes, as is clear from its contextual meaning in each sentence.

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