What is hyponymy? Well, the term hyponymy originally derives from the Greek words hypo and onoma which mean 'below' and 'name'. But how can this be used in an everyday sentence?

Hyponymy Hyponymy

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Table of contents

    Hyponymy in semantics

    Hyponymy in semantics roughly illustrates 'the subordinate relation of a word'¹― but what does it mean in practice? To better understand it, let's examine these sentences:

    • Your first task for today is to sweep the floor.
    • Could you wipe the crumbs off the table?
    • Scrub the vegetables clean before cutting them.

    The three sentences have one thing in common: they all mean 'to clean something', but use different verbs (sweep, wipe, and scrub). If we put their relationship in a diagram, we get something like this:

    Hyponymy, Hyponymy verb example, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Clean is the superordinate.

    From this example of hyponymy we can say that:

    • Sweep, wipe and scrub are hyponyms of clean
    • Clean is the hypernym of sweep, wipe and scrub
    • Sweep, wipe and scrub are co-hyponyms of each other

    In other words, hyponymous relations refer to the super- and subordinate relationships between words. Words on the superordinate level are called hypernyms, and words on the subordinate level are called hyponyms.

    The hierarchical relationship is based on the definition of the word. The word meaning of a hyponym (eg sweep, wipe, and scrub) is included in its hypernym (clean). Hypernym is then the “broader term” of its hyponyms (a more “specific term” than the hypernym).

    • sweep: to clean a room using a broom
    • wipe: to clean dirt or liquid by rubbing something against a surface
    • scrub: to clean something by rubbing it hard

    A ↑ ↓ B

    Examples of hyponymy

    Hyponymy isn't restricted to verbs. It can be found in other parts of speech, such as adjectives and nouns. Take a look at an example of hyponymy in an adjective below.

    Hyponymy, Hyponymy adjective example, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Red, blue and yellow are co-hyponyms.

    From this example we can say that:

    • Red, blue, and yellow are the hyponyms of colour.
    • Colour is the hypernym of red, blue, and yellow.
    • Red, blue, and yellow are co-hyponyms of each other.

    Hyponymy, Hyponymy noun example, StudySmarterFig. 3 - The hypernym of bird and dog is animal.

    This example of hyponymy in nouns shows that:

    • Animal is the hypernym of bird and dog; bird and dog are the hyponyms of animal.
    • Bird and dog are co-hyponyms of each other.
    • Bird is the hypernym of robin and parrot; robin and parrot are the hyponyms of bird.
    • Robin and parrot are co-hyponyms of each other.

    Based on the examples we can summarize as follows:

    • Hypernym refers to a general term (superordination).
    • Hyponym refers to a more specific term (subordination). The word meaning of a hyponym is included in its hypernym.
    • Co-hyponym refers to the hyponyms on the same hierarchical level.
    • Hyponyms, hypernyms, and co-hyponyms have a multiple-layers relationship. The classification is based on how many levels there are and what perspective you are looking from, so to speak.

    From Example 3 we can say that:

    • From the perspective of the word robin, robin is the hyponym of bird and bird is the hypernym of robin.
    • However, if seen from the perspective of the word bird, bird is now the hyponym of animal and animal is the hypernym of bird.
    • The same notion applies to co-hyponyms. Bird & dog are co-hyponyms on their level; and robin & parrot are co-hyponyms on their level.

    How to test for a hyponym

    Since hyponymy is about super- and subordinates, you can test for a hyponym by using an 'a kind of' method. Ask this question: "Is X a kind of Y?" If the answer is yes, then X and Y have a hyponymy relationship, with X as the hyponym and Y as the hypernym (Cann, 2011).

    For instance: "Is apple a kind of fruit?" → yes, apple is a kind of fruit.

    • apple is the hyponym of fruit.
    • fruit is the hypernym of apple.

    How to use hyponyms

    Understanding the concept of hyponymy can be useful when you want to substitute a word with a more general term (its hypernym). For example:

    The doves have begun building their nest.

    Since bird is the hypernym of dove, you can also say: the birds have begun building their nest. Be aware that substituting a word with its hypernym won't change the sense of the sentence, but will generalize it (doves → birds).

    Important to note: If you replace a word with its co-hyponym and NOT with its hypernym, the sentence's meaning will change.

    For example, The doves have begun building their nest.

    • Substitute doves with robin (its co-hyponym): 'The robins have begun building their nest' = the meaning of the sentence changes.
    • Thus, to keep the original meaning intact, word replacement only works in one direction: the hypernym replaces the hyponym.

    What is the difference between hyponymy and polysemy?

    The difference between hyponymy and polysemy is that polysemy is about one word with more than one meaning. To explain the difference, let's take the word mouse as an example.

    • What does mouse mean?
    • Mouse has two meanings: an animal (meaning 1) and a computer device (meaning 2).

    Because the word mouse has multiple meanings, it should be used clearly. Otherwise, it can cause lexical ambiguity: "Do you mean the animal mouse or the computer device?"

    Hyponymy describes a super- and subordinate relationship between words.

    • What are the kinds of mouse?
    • There are two kinds of mouse (superordinate): house mouse (subordinate 1) and field mouse (subordinate 2).

    Hence, even if the word mouse is used without a specific reference to the house mouse or field mouse, it still indicates the animal (mouse). It doesn't cause lexical ambiguity with another meaning of mouse (a computer device).

    Polysemy vs. hyponymy

    • From the perspective of polysemy, house mouse and field mouse aren't the two different meanings of mouse. Both types of mouse refer to one meaning, mouse the animal.
    • From the perspective of hyponymy, mouse the computer device isn't a kind of mouse. It is a mouse (the connotation meaning of mouse = polysemy).

    Based on these two different concepts, we can say:

    Bring me the mouse!

    • Polysemy: can cause misunderstanding. Does it refer to the animal mouse or the computer device?
    • Hyponymy: doesn't cause misunderstanding. It clearly refers to the animal mouse and not the other meaning of mouse, eg the computer device
    • "Is a house mouse a kind of mouse?" → yes → house mouse is the hyponym of mouse.
    • "Is a mouse the computer device a kind of mouse?" → no, mouse the computer device is the connotative meaning of mouse → mouse the computer device is not the hyponym of mouse.

    Study tip: Remember, you can always use the 'a kind of' method to test whether the words are hyponyms.

    What is the difference between hyponymy and meronymy?

    While hyponymy is about 'a kind of' relation, meronymy shows a part / whole relationship between words. A has B; that means B is a part of A.

    For example, a human has two arms - an arm has a hand - a hand has five fingers.

    This means fingers, hands, and arms are all meronyms of humans. They're parts of the human body. The same applies to lips, teeth, and tongues. They are meronyms to mouth, which in turn, is a meronym to face.

    Hyponymy, Meronymy, StudySmarterFig. 4 - Meronymy shows a part/whole relationship.

    Study tip: like before, use the 'a kind of' method to test whether the words are hyponyms.

    • "Are fingers a kind of hand?" → no, fingers are a part of hand = meronymy relationship.
    • "Are teeth a kind of mouth?" → no, teeth are a part of mouth = meronymy relationship.

    Hyponymy - Key takeaways

    • Hyponymy explains a super and subordination relationship between words. To test this, use the 'a kind of' method by asking "Is X a kind of Y?" If yes, X and Y have a hyponymy relationship, with Y as the hypernym of X.
    • Hypernym (general term) is the superordinate of hyponym.
    • Co-hyponyms are hyponyms on the same hierarchical level.
    • Hyponymy has a multi-layer relationship: bird is the hyponym of animal but at the same time, a hypernym of parrot and robin.
    • To keep the original sentence's meaning, only the hypernym of a word can substitute its hyponym.
    ¹ R. Cann, "Sense Relations," Semantics: An International Handbook of Natural Language and Meaning. (2011)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Hyponymy

    What does hyponymy mean?

    Hyponymy defines a more specific word for a broader term, eg TV, radio, telephone, and fridge are the hyponyms of electronic devices (hypernym).

    What are some examples of hyponymy?

    Some examples of hyponyms are rose, lily, and orchid. The hypernym in this case is flower.

    How do you use hyponymy in a sentence?

    Hyponymy in a sentence is used to replace a word with its hypernym. A hyponym can't be replaced with its co-hyponym. For instance, I planted the rose. Since flower is the hypernym of rose, you can also say: I planted the flower. Replacing rose with flower won't change the sense of the sentence but generalizes it.

    What does a hypernym mean?

    A hypernym is the superordinate of hyponyms. For example, the hypernym of car, train, bus, and bicycle is a mode of transportation.

    What is a co-hyponym?

    Co-hyponym is a hyponym that is on the same hierarchical level. For example, television, radio, newspaper, and the internet are co-hyponyms of each other with mass communication medium as their hypernym.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Are these words co-hyponyms to each other: pop, jazz, rock, and blues? 

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    How to test whether a set of words are hyponyms?

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