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Homonymy & polysemy.

Ranez.Ru > Помощь в учебе абитуриентам и студентам > Студенту > Английский язык > Лексикология >

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Most of lex. items in English are polysemantic.

Michael Breat: “Polysemy is a semantic universal”.

“The alternative to it is quite unthinkable: it would mean that we would have to store in our brains a tremendous stock of words with separate names for any possible subject we might wish to talk about. It would also mean that there would be no metaphors & that language would be robbed of much of its expressiveness & flexibility.”

Urban: “The double reference of verbal signs is precisely what makes language an instrument of knowing”.


  • family - She lost both of her parents.
  • parent - Envy is the parent of all evils.

  • My family comes from Scotland.
  • The cat family includes lions & tigers. (семейство кошачьих)
  • A family of languages, etc.

There are monosemantic words:


  • a lorry
  • a loudspeaker

In case of polysemy, we deal with modification of the content plane.

Different meanings of one & the same word are closely interrelated.

Polysemy is a result of:

1.   Shifts in application (сдвиг в употреблении)

Ex.:   adj. red

  • red ink (is really red)
  • red hair
  • red deer
  • red cabbage
  • red Indian


2.   Specialization

Ex.: partner

Basic meaning; a type of relationship between 2 or more people.

  • - business partner
  • - marriage partner
  • - partner in crime


3.   Metaphorical extension (a fundamental feature of any language)


  • leaf of a tree – leaf of a book
  • hands of a person – hands of a clock

Polysemy has been complicated by the tendency of words to pick up the meanings from other dialects, languages & slang. 

Ex.: executive

BrE – one who acts under the direction of somebody – исполнитель
AmE – a manager

            now: AmE meaning is more widely used.

New & old meanings become interrelated, form a hierarchy.

They have some common semantic features, which preserve the integrity of the word.



Homonyms can be of 3 kinds:

  • 1. Homonyms proper (the sound & the spelling are identical)
  • 2. Homophones (the same sound form but different spelling)
  • 3. Homographs (the same spelling)


1. bat – bat  - flying animal (летучая мышь)
                           - cricket bat (бита)

2. flower – flour
            sole – soul
            rain – reign

3. tear [iə] – tear [εə]
            lead [i:] – lead [e]


One of the sources is its development from polysemy.

At a certain point, variation within a word may bring to a stage when its semantic core is no longer elastic. It can’t be stretched any further & as a result a new word comes into being.

Homonymy differs from polysemy because there is no semantic bond (связь) between homonyms; it has been lost & doesn’t exist.

Homonyms appear as a result of:

1.  The phonetic convergence of 2 words of different pronunciation & meaning.

Ex.: race → a) people derives from Old Norwegian “ras”
                    b) running, from French “race”

2.   The semantic divergence or loss of semantic bond between 2 words polysemantically related before.

Ex.: pupil→ a) scholar
                     b) apple of an eye (зрачок)

To distinguish between polysemy & homonymy 3 factors should be taken into account:

  • 1.   The semantic proximity of them
  • 2.   The derivation capacity
  • 3.   The range of collocability


1.  The semantic proximity.
The 1st way to establish polysemy or homonymy is to look for a central core meaning.
It’s easier when we have examples of metaphor or transfer meanings.
(adj-s are particularly interesting in this respect because they often develop polysemy by adding new nominative-derivative meanings to their semantic structure).

Ex.: sour – кислый
               - disagreeable (new meaning)
       juicy – сочный
                -  scandalous
                    The media were delighted to have a juicy news story.
         Board – a piece of wool
- a company or council (комиссия)
- meals (пансион)

Whether it is a case of polysemy or homonymy?

          Set up – to establish (basic meaning)
                     It has a number of nominative & nom.-derivative meanings.
          a) the derivative meaning
                              - to arrange
               We need to set up emergency procedures to deal with this problem.
                              - to equip
               The next band was already setting up on the other stage.
                               - to build
               The army has set up roads round the city.
    They are related to the core meaning.
           b) the nominative meanings.
                                - to cause, to begin
                 The reactor car set up a chain reaction.
                      - to make smb seem guilty, to deceive smb
                 We sent our money but it turned out that the company didn’t exist and we
                 were just set up.
                      - to make smb healthy, full of energy
        Full breakfast will set you up for the day.
Nominative meanings are more isolated & may give rise to homonyms.

2.   Derivation capacity
Potential homonyms typically develop their own sets of derivatives.
Ex.: custom – 1. обычай, 2. клиентура, 3. (мн.ч.) таможня.
            1. custom – customary
                It is customary for the most important person to sit at the end of the table.
            2. We don’t want to lose our customers.
            3. Customs officer, customs shed
“custom” 1,2,3 are potential homonyms because they have different derivatives.

3.    The range of collacability.
The word’s collacability is the functioning of the word in speech & the company it keeps with other items.
Potential homonyms have quite different range of phraseology.

Ex.: charge 1. price
                                             free of charge
                                             of no extra charge
                    2. (when smb is guilty)
                                              to bring charges
                                              to press charges
                                              to drop the charges
       “charge” 1,2 are potential homonyms.

Прислала Алена Жильцова



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Дата: 10.05.2007 18:53
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very interesting

Дата: 16.12.2009 12:30
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please, explain the full and partial homonyms. with examples. I want to know more information about these homonyms.

Дата: 14.05.2012 10:24
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Please give more information

Дата: 14.05.2012 10:56
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Please give more information

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