In this talk I will deal with the problem of near-synonymy by looking at two Russian adjectives: nizkij ¡¥low¡¦ and nevysokij ¡¥unhigh¡¦. It has been suggested in literature (Raxilina 2000; Sharoff 2004) that the two adjectives display a complementary distribution: nizkij is used with reference to entities shorter than a human being, whereas nevysokij applies to referents that are as tall or taller than humans.
A corpus study has shown that this is not quite so. Nizkij can also modify nouns whose referents are taller than humans (36% in the Russian National Corpus), and nevysokij can be employed with reference to entities lower than people (12%). The corpus data suggest that the two adjectives are co-extensive in the sense proposed by MacLaury (1997), i.e. they provide two different views on the same category. Nizkij represents a dominant vantage with an overall focus on similarity. Nevysokij is a recessive vantage, whose primary focus is EGO. As a result, the former adjective is more frequent and is used for a broader range of referents, whereas the use of the latter is largely confined to objects commensurate with a human being.
MacLaury, R.E. (1997). Color and Cognition in Mesoamerica: Constructing Categories as Vantages. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Raxilina, E.V. (2000). Kognitivnyj analiz predmetnyx imen. Semantika i sočetaemost¡¦. Moscow: Russkie slovari.
Sharoff, S. (2004). How to handle lexical semantics in SFL: a corpus study of purposes for using size adjectives. In: S.Hunston, G.Thompson (eds.) Systemic Linguistics and Corpus. London: Equinox.