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Concourse 2

Polysemy and Homonymy

pickwick Mr. Stiggins, with several most indubitable symptoms of having quite as much pine-apple rum-and-water about him as he could comfortably accommodate, took his hat, and his leave.
Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers, Chapter XXVII

He carried a strobe light and the responsibility for the lives of his men.
Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried

You are free to execute your laws, and your citizens, as you see fit.
Star Trek: The Next Generation

The farmers in the valley grew potatoes, peanuts, and bored
Kevin Flynn

All the citations above are examples of a literary device called zeugma.  Their effect lies in the fact that a single verb is applied to two objects, one of which is appropriate, the other not.  It can be defined as:

a figure of speech in which a word applies to two others in different senses (e.g., John and his license expired last week) or to two others of which it semantically suits only one (e.g., with weeping eyes and hearts).

There are four verbs above which operate like this in these examples (take, carry, execute and grow) and they all exhibit polysemy: they have more than one meaning in English.  If it weren't for polysemy, zeugma creation would not be possible.


Homonymy, Polysemy and Monosemy

refers to words which look and sound the same but are unrelated and have different, unrelated meanings.  They are usually distinguished from homographs (words which look the same but are differently pronounced, e.g., lead [the metal] and lead [the verb]) and homophones (words which look different but are pronounced the same, e.g., rights, rites, writes, no, know etc.).  Homonyms are usually derived differently, i.e., they have different etymologies.
refers to the fact that a word or phrase can have a variety of related meanings.  For example,
    He was booked into the hotel
    He was booked by the referee
Both these meanings of book imply some kind of registration (in a book of some kind) so they are clearly related but have different definitions.  A phrase such as on the rocks exhibits the same phenomenon.
It's pronounced /pɒ.ˈlɪ.siː.mɪ/, incidentally, and the adjective is polysemous, pronounced /pɒ.ˈlɪ.siː.məs/.
refers to a word having only one possible meaning in a language and which cannot lead to ambiguity.  For example, the word orrery has no meaning in English other than a clockwork model of the solar system (Riemer, 2010:161).

Homonymy and polysemy occur in all natural languages.  Artificial languages avoid both on the principle that, in an ideal world, any word should have a single unambiguous meaning.  You may have noticed that the world is not ideal.

And here's the snag:

the problem of distinguishing between homonymy and polysemy is, in principle, insoluble.
Lyons, cited in Laufer, in Schmitt and McCarthy (1997:152)


So what's the problem?

Primarily it is Lyons' problem, cited above, that it is in principle impossible to distinguish between homonymy, monosemy and polysemy.  For example, would you classify the following as a word:

  1. having only one meaning (monosemy)
  2. having two different but related meanings (polysemy)
  3. having two completely unrelated meanings (homonymy)
1 I keep the car in the garage vs. I keep a dog and two cats
2 I kept the change vs. I kept him waiting
3 My only grandmother is my father's mother vs. My only grandmother is my mother's mother
4 The car took off down the street vs. The plane took off on time
5 I've smoked too many fags today vs. This work is a real fag
6 The chalk quarry is now disused vs. They chased their quarry for miles
7 I got the bus to work vs. I got $10 for the work
8 I took a short holiday vs. I took a shower
9 The fruit punch was delicious vs. The punch was vicious
10 That's a vital difference vs. He has no vital signs

Click here for some notes when you have made your decisions.


Metaphor: obscure and transparent meaning

Obscure and transparent meanings are relative terms not absolute categories.  For example:

There is an argument that alternative meanings of a word which are easily and obviously just a metaphorical extension of the base meaning do not constitute examples of polysemy.  Prepositions are good examples of simple metaphorical extensions of meaning which are not too difficult to work out providing one knows the usual, locative meaning of the preposition.  Examples are:
    to agree among ourselves
    to have people working under you
    to be in danger
    to be beyond help
and so on.  All these prepositional uses are metaphorical extensions of the locative (place) meaning of the preposition, and therefore examples of polysemy, but the meaning is usually transparent.

For more on the meaning of meaning, consult the guide to semantics.


Teaching in this area

learner difficulties

  1. Homonymy is common to all languages but, of course, is also different in all languages.  For example, in English, the word bank may refer to a place to keep money or the side of a river or take the meaning of the verb rely.  Similarly, in German, arm may mean poor or an upper limb, in French, pic may mean peak or woodpecker and louer means both hire and praise although the words are unrelated, having different origins (Riemer, 2010:162).
    There are no predictable cross-language patterns so we have to be alert to the fact that, e.g., since will only be recognised as a time preposition (since last weekend) and not as a subordinating conjunction (He paid since he had the money).
  2. Polysemy is likewise not a predictable pattern.  The word head in English may mean boss, lead, foam on beer, tip, top etc. but each of these meanings (all of which are related and so polysemous) would require a different word altogether in most languages.  In German, the word Leiter is polysemous and has the meaning of leader but also, by metaphorical extension, ladder.  Translation is perilous.
  3. Verbs present particular difficulties, especially those described as delexicalised, such as make, do, pay, get etc., because patterns of meaning and their concepts will not translate, with the meaning often reliant on the noun with which they collocate.  Most such verbs are polysemous insofar as they take their meaning from the noun with which they appear.
  4. A verb like paint, in the sense of apply liquid colour to a surface, is, on the face of it, uncomplicated and monosemous.  However, there is clearly a cline from the uncomplicated sense to the polysemous uses in the distinction between
        paint the house
        paint a picture of the house
    and the metaphorical extension of, e.g.:
        he painted a depressing picture of the future of the country.
    Armed only with the base meaning, a learner may be excused for being confused by the existence of the polysemes.
  5. Connotation (i.e., the emotional meaning we attach to words) is also unpredictable.  For example, pig may have an alternative meaning in English of glutton but that is more to do with cultural and historical issues than with the polysemous nature of the word.

presenting the data to our learners

Whether we consider that words have a single meaning, two (or more) related meanings or two (or more) wholly unrelated meanings matters.  Many very common words in English are polysemous and to deny our learners the data they need to be able to deploy the words accurately would seem perverse.
Consider the word play as an example in these sentences:

  1. Arsenal are playing tonight.
  2. I'm playing football tomorrow.
  3. I'm playing John in the final.
  4. Who plays the hero?
  5. She plays the piano beautifully.
  6. Which orchestra is playing?
  7. He's playing you for a fool.
  8. Which play are you going to see?

If you have doubts about the polysemous nature of the word, try the so-called 'and / and-so' test, constructing sentences such as
    I am playing darts and John
    Moscow Dynamo are playing tonight and so is the Royal Philharmonic
    He played chess and the violin
    He played a trick on me and a waiter on stage
If you create a zeugma, that's evidence of polysemy.

How would you present this data to learners?  Think for a moment and then click here eye to reveal an idea.

The fact that polysemy is so common, underlines the need to make sure our learners have the data they need to understand lexis.
For example, one could present the meaning of wake up as:

wake = to stop sleeping: she woke up at 8 o'clock feeling good

That would effectively provide your learners with the base meaning but provide none of the sense of any polysemes.  Alternatively, you could use the idea above but extend it with:

goal = to become more active: their first goal made us wake up and play better
wake up = become aware of problems: The President told the people it was time to wake up to the danger

This doesn't have to be done graphically, of course.  It is often just as effective to present alternative meanings (dealing with homonymy or polysemy) in words.
For example:

Task: Match the meaning of set to the example by drawing a line to connect them. 

to fix at a place or time (transitive verb)          Are we all set?  Can we go now? 
to go down (intransitive verb) he has a full set of Dickens' novels 
to put (transitive verb) set the clock for 6: we have to leave early 
to become solid (intransitive verb) there's only a set number of hours we can work without a break 
a collection (count noun) set it on the table by the door 
ready (as an ungradable adjective) the sun set slowly into the sea 
fixed (as an ungradable adjective) the glue has set now so it's safe to move it 

Focusing learners on word class is helpful.
Arguably, by the way, only the notion of set as a collection and set meaning go down are true homonyms of set.  The others are polysemes.  Some would even see the sense of a collection as derivable from the idea of a fixed number (so polysemy) but it is unlikely that most learners would draw that out for themselves.  Whether most learners would make the connection between:
    a set number
    the glue has set
    set an alarm clock
which are all linked to a meaning of fix, without help is also open to question but they can be led there.
Noticing metaphorical extensions of meaning or similarities of meaning is an important skill to foster.
Unless we understand the nature of homonymy and polysemy, of course, we can't do that.

Related guides
semantics for more on the meaning of meaning
synonymy for a guide to synonymy and five other related ideas: Metonymy, Synecdoche, Simile, Metaphor, Hyponymy
context for more on what it affects and sources of context for teaching

Riemer, N, 2010, Introducing Semantics, New York: Cambridge University Press
Schmitt, N and McCarthy, M, 1997, Vocabulary - Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press