Semantics is the scientific study of meaning in language and deals with a lot of complex subjects, such as utterances and sentences, reference, sense relation or lexical ambiguity. Semantics often appears in other disciplines, for example in philosophy, anthropology, psychology and communication theory and it is closely connected with pragmatics. As already mentioned the study of meaning is the main point in semantics. It is well known that meaning is an ordinary English word, which like most other words can be used in a number of different ways, but this is rather a very simple view on this matter. Actually, we distinguish two different kinds of meaning, the speaker meaning and the sentence or word meaning.
The former expresses what a speaker intends to convey by using a piece of language, the latter what exactly the sentence or a single word means. However, our task in this seminar paper is rather abstract and a bit more complex, because we are going to explain the dimensions of meaning with special regard on homonymy and polysemy. First of all we are going to describe the characteristics of homonymy and polysemy in detail and thus try to explain how both of them can be distinguished from each other, which involves a precise analysis of the meaning of several words. Afterwards we will analyse the distinction between homophony and homography and finish our paper with a brief conclusion.
Homonyms are lexemes, like for example bank as ‘a financial institution’ and bank as ‘the edge of a stream’, that have the same spelling and pronunciation, but their meanings are completely unrelated. Lexemes, which are spelt differently, but pronounced in the same way, are called homophones. Two examples for homophony are site and sight or rite and right. Homographs have the same spelling, but their pronunciation is different, for example bow referring to an instrument for shooting arrows and bow indicating a bending of the body as a form of respectful greeting. In addition we can also speak of absolute and partial homonymy. Absolute homonyms can only be words, whose forms are identical, completely unrelated in meaning and their identical forms must be syntactically equivalent, for example ‘They found hospitals and charitable institutions’.
Every homonymy that has not these three criteria is a partial homonymy and it is known that this kind of homonymy can lead to ambiguity. (p.101; Kreidler, 1998: 52) A polysemous lexeme is a word with several closely related senses. Usually, native speakers of a language have a clear intuition if these different senses are related to each other or not. For example, the majority of native speakers will agree on the fact that the polysemic noun head has related meanings, when we speak of the head of a person, the head of a company or the head of a bed. This example shows that polysemy has a close relatedness in meaning, which is often connected to metaphorical extension.
However, it is important to notice that this relatedness has to be synchronic. (Kreidler, 1998: 52) Dictionaries differentiate between polysemy and homonymy by making a single dictionary entry for a polysemous lexeme and by making two or more separate entries for homophonous lexemes. So the word head has only one entry, whereas bank has two separate entries.
The word homonym has been derived from Greek term 'homoios' which means identical and 'onoma' means name. Homonyms are the words that have same phonetic form (homophones) or orthographic form (homographs) but different unrelated meanings. The ambiguous word, whose different senses are far apart from each other and are not obviously related to each other in any way is called as homonymy. Words like tale and tail are homonyms. There is no conceptual connection between its two meanings. For example the word ‘bear’, as a verb means ‘to carry’ and as a noun it means ‘large animal’. An example of homonym which is both homophone and homograph is the word ‘fluke’. Fluke is a fish as well as a flatworm.
Other examples are bank, anchor, etc. (Lexical relations) In English, homonymy is a relationship between words. Two words are homonyms if they sound alike but have different spellings, or at least different meanings. From a modern philosophical viewpoint, this at once raises questions about whether it is words or occurrences of words that are homonymous and what the identity conditions are for words. Those issues do not really arise for Aristotle's distinction, however, since for him it is things, not words, which are homonymous. Things are homonymous or 'like-named', in Aristotle's sense, if the same word applies to them both but not in virtue of the same definition. Though Aristotle does not mention this criterion, one frequent characteristic of homonymous things is that they usually do not remain homonymous under translation.
The examples consider the word 'pen' in the following three sentences. 1. I always write with a fountain pen 2. I put my ostrich in the ostrich pen 3. I did three years in the pen There is obviously no common definition of 'pen' that fits all three of these cases. In fact, it is a mere accident of the history of English that we use 'pen' for each of these. The first 'pen' is derived from Latin 'penna', 'feather,' reflecting the practice of writing with quill pens; the second descends from an Anglo-Saxon word , meaning a corral or enclosure; and the third is a slang abbreviation for 'penitentiary.' The fact that we call a fountain pen, a playpen, and a prison by the same name thus reflects no very interesting similarity about them, only a curious fact about the history of English.
We can call caseslike the above coincidental or accidental homonyms. Do all cases of homonymy meet this description? We have to consider these examples: Socrates is healthy Socrates' diet is healthy Any definition we supply for 'healthy' as it applies to Socrates will likely be nonsensical when applied to Socrates' diet, and conversely. Nevertheless, these cases are not merely coincidentally related, since both are connected with what it is to be healthy for a human being. Socrates is healthy because the definition of 'healthy' applies to him; his diet is healthy because it is the sort of diet which tends to sustain and improve his health. We can easily find hosts of other cases like this, in which things appear to be homonymous but not just accidentally so. (Predication, Homonymy, and the Categories).
The study of polysemy, or of the 'multiplicity of meanings' of words, has a long history in the philosophy of language, linguistics, psychology, and literature. Polysemy is rarely a problem for communication among people. We are so adept at using contextual cues that we select the appropriate senses of words effortlessly and unconsciously. Although rarely a problem in language use, except as source of humor and puns, polysemy poses a problem in semantic theory and applications, such as translation and lexicography. As we can see it with the verb run in Webster's Seventh Dictionary, where it has 29 senses, further divided into nearly 125 subsenses, which is a traditional lexicographic practice.
There is little agreement among lexicographers as to the degree of polysemy and the way in which the different senses are organized. In fact, there are some problems that occur with dictionary definitions: 1. Mapping the definitions from one dictionary onto another is often not possible e.g. the verb whistle is defined in one dictionary as make a shrill clear sound by rapid movement but as move with a whistling sound in another. The genus terms and differentia are reversed. 2. Another problem is their use of polysemous defining terms, further obscuring the relation between dictionary senses.
One of the definitions of the noun whistle is whistle is the sound produced by a whistle, but which sense of whistle is intended, the instrument, the device (as in a factory whistle), or both? 3. A third problem arises when actual uses of words encountered in context cannot be mapped to any dictionary definition, as in whistling up the NATO forces if need be, revealing the senses missing in the dictionary. These examples indicate that lexicogrpahers tend to disagree as to the number of senses a word has, the semantic content of these senses and their grouping. (Leacock, Ravin: p1-2).
Traditionally, polysemy is distinguished from homonymy. Strictly speaking, homographes are etymologically unrelated words that happen to be represented by the same string of letters in a language. For example, bass the fish is derived from Old English barse (perch) while bass the voice is derived from Italian basso. Conversely, polysemes are etymologically and therefore semantically related, and typically originate from metaphoric usage. Line in a line of people and a line drawn on a piece of paper are etymologically related, and it is easy to see their semantic relation.
The distinction is not always straightforward, especially since words that are etymologically related can, over time, drift so far apart that the original semantic relation is no longer recognizable. The distinction between polysemy and homonymy is important because it separates the principled from the accidental and poses the following questions: If different senses of polysemous words are systematically related, how do they derive from each other, and how should they be organized to reflect this regularity? (Leacock, Ravin: p2-5).
Semantic theories account for polysemy as one semantic phenomenon in a comprehensive theory of meaning. Taken in the most general terms, semantics relates the extralinguistic world to the linguistic expressions that describe it. Semantic theories are guided by two sometimes contradictory principles: generalize (or reduce polysemy) as much as possible in order to increase the explanatory power of the theory; and make distinctions (or increase polysemy) in order to account for as much semantic details as possible. Theories differ in the degree of abstraction they allow. Some postulate one sense where others postulate many, for very similar data.
Three principles of the classical theory of definition bear on the problem of polysemy: 1. senses are represented as sets of necessary and sufficient conditions, which fully capture the conceptual content conveyed by words. 2. there are as many distinct senses for a word as there are differences in these conditions 3. senses can be represented independently of the context in which they occur Apresjan (1974) defines polysemy as the similarity in the representation of two or more senses of a word: The definition does not require that there be a common part for all the meanings of a polysemantic word; It's enough that each of the meanings be linked with at least one other meaning.
Regular polysemy is governed by processes which are productive, rule-governed, and predictable, very much like processes of word formation. One such process is metonymical transfer, responsible for creating senses such as foot in the foot of the mountain. Another is the systematic relation between words denoting vessels and the quantity that the vessel holds, such as spoon, the utensil and spoon meaning spoonful, such as in spoon of sugar. While the phenomenon of regular polysemy is not a major problem for the classical approach, sense distinctions may be. If the classical approach postulates new senses with every conceptual difference, there is a danger of an infinite proliferation of senses. (Leacock, Ravin: p7-13).
The prototypical approach has been adopted by many linguists to explain the meaning of words. While classical approaches have an affinity with philosophy and logic, prototypical approaches have an affinity with psychology. They emphasize meaning as part of a larger cognitive system and relate it to mental representations, cognitive models and bodily experiences. Prototypicality characterizes the degree to which the situation in the world, or our understanding of it, fits the assumptions that form part of the idealized concept.
An example is bachelor. The classical definition of an unmarried adult male fits best only when other assumptions about society are true: Male participants in long-term unmarried couplings would not ordinarily be described as bachelors; a boy abandoned in the jungle and grown to maturity away from contact with human society would not be called a bachelor; John Paul II is not properly thought of as a bachelor. Lakoff (1987) adds another type of prototypical concept – the cluster concept. Without mentioning the word polysemy, Lakoff discusses the range of meaning a word can have, as the result of the process of meaning extension.
Mother, for example, forms a radial conceptual model: it has a central category (the birth model, the genetic model, the marital model and the genealogical model) and then more marginal categories, its meaning extensions, such as surrogate mother, adoptive mother or stepmother, that are linked to its central meaning along various dimensions. The meaning extensions of radial concepts are not generated from the prototypical concept by rules, but rather by convention. They must be learned. They are motivated by two general principles: metaphor and metonymy.(Leacock, Ravin: p15-18).
Representing polysemy within a relational framework is problematic. Word senses that exhibit regular polysemy can be very distant from each other in the semantic network's conceptual space. For example, the noun ash has three senses in WordNet, one appears as plant material (as in an ash baseball bat) and the other as a woody plant (as in ash tree). The senses are quite distant and their semantic relation cannot be determined through proximity in the network. Working with verbs, Fellbaum takes advantage of WordNet's troponym relation to discover non-regular polysemous verb senses. She identifies a class of autroponyms – verb senses that have been conflated with their complement meanings. For example, consider the sentences: The fish smells good.