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Полисемия и омонимия. Проблема разграничения полисемии и омонимии

One of the most debatable problems in semasiology is the demarcation line between homonymy and polysemy, i.e. between different meanings of one word and the meanings of two homonymous words.

If homonymy is viewed diachronically then all cases of sound convergence of two or more words may be safely regarded as cases of homonymy, as, e.g., race1and race2 can be traced back to two etymologically different words. The cases of semantic divergence, however, are more doubtful. The transition from polysemy to homonymy is a gradual process, so it is hardly possible to point out the precise stage at which divergent semantic development tears asunder all ties between the meanings and results in the appearance of two separate words.

Synchronically the differentiation between homonymy and polysemy is as a rule wholly based on the semantic criterion. It is usually held that if a connection between the various meanings is apprehended by the speaker, these are to be considered as making up the semantic structure of a polysemantic word, otherwise it is a case of homonymy, not polysemy. Thus the semantic criterion implies that the difference between polysemy and homonymy is actually reduced to the differentiation between related and unrelated meanings. This traditional semantic criterion does not seem to be reliable, firstly, because various meanings of the same word and the meanings of two or more different words may be equally apprehended by the speaker as synchronically unrelated.

Secondly, in the discussion of lexico-grammatical homonymy it was pointed out that some of the meanings of homonyms arising from conversion are related, so this criterion cannot be applied to a large group of homonymous word-forms in Modern English. This criterion proves insufficient in the synchronic analysis of a number of other borderline cases, e.g. brother — brothers — ’sons of the same parent’ and brethren — ‘fellow members of a religious society’. The meanings may be apprehended as related and then we can speak of polysemy pointing out that the difference in the morphological structure of the plural form reflects the difference of meaning. Otherwise we may regard this as a case of partial lexical homonymy. It is sometimes argued that the difference between related and unrelated meanings may be observed in the manner in which the meanings of polysemantic words are as a rule relatable. It is observed that different meanings of one word have certain stable relationship which are not to be found between the meanings of two homonymous words. A clearly perceptible connection, e.g., can be seen in all metaphoric or metonymic meanings of one word (cf., e.g., foot of the man — foot of the mountain, loud voice — loud colours, etc., cf. also deep well and deep knowledge, etc.). Such semantic relationships are commonly found in the meanings of one word and are considered to be indicative of polysemy. It is also suggested that the semantic connection may be described in terms of such features as, e.g., form and function (cf. horn of an animal and horn as an instrument), or process and result (to run — ‘move with quick steps’ and a run — act of running).

Similar relationships, however, are observed between the meanings of two partially homonymic words, e.g. to run and a run in the stocking. Moreover in the synchronic analysis of polysemantic words we often find meanings that cannot be related in any way, as, e.g. the meanings of the word case discussed above. Thus the semantic criterion proves not only untenable in theory but also rather vague and because of this impossible in practice as in many cases it cannot be used to discriminate between several meanings of one word and the meanings of two different words.

The criterion of distribution suggested by some linguists is undoubtedly helpful, but mainly in cases of lexico-grammatical and grammatical homonymy. For example, in the homonymic pair paper <— (to) paper v the noun may be preceded by the article and followed by a verb; (to) paper can never be found in identical distribution. This formal criterion can be used to discriminate not only lexico-grammatical but also grammatical homonyms, but it often fails in cases of lexical homonymy, not differentiated by means of spelling.

Homonyms differing in graphic form, e.g. such lexical homonyms as knight — night or flower — flour, are easily perceived to be two different lexical units as any formal difference of words is felt as indicative of the existence of two separate lexical units. Conversely lexical homonyms identical both in pronunciation and spelling are often apprehended as different meanings of one word.

It is often argued that in general the context in which the words are used suffices to establish the borderline between homonymous words, e.g. the meaning of case1 in several cases of robbery can be easily differentiated from the meaning of case2 in a jewel case, a glass case. This however is true of different meanings of the same word as recorded in dictionaries, e.g. of case, as can be seen by comparing the case will be tried in the law-court and the possessive case of the noun.

Thus, the context serves to differentiate meanings but is of little help in distinguishing between homonymy and polysemy. Consequently we have to admit that no formal means have as yet been found to differentiate between several meanings of one word and the meanings of its homonyms.

In the discussion of the problems of polysemy and homonymy we proceeded from the assumption that the word is the basic unit of language. Some linguists hold that the basic and elementary units at the semantic level of language are the lexico-semantic variants of the word, i.e. individual word-meanings. In that case, naturally, we can speak only of homonymy of individual lexico-semantic variants, as polysemy is by definition, at least on the synchronic plane, the coexistence of several meanings in the semantic structure of the word.


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