Most words convey several concepts and thus possess the corresponding number of meanings. A word having several meanings is calledpolysemantic, and the ability of words to have more than one meaning is described by the term polysemy.
Most English words are polysemantic. It should be noted that the wealth of expressive resources of a language largely depends on the degree to which polysemy has developed in the language.
The number of sound combinations that human speech organs can produce is limited. Therefore at a certain stage of language development the production of new words by morphological means becomes limited, and polysemy becomes increasingly important in providing the means for enriching the vocabulary. The process of enriching the vocabulary does not consist merely in adding new words to it, but, also, in the constant development of polysemy.
The system of meanings of any polysemantic word develops gradually, mostly over the centuries, as more and more new meanings are either added to old ones, or oust some of them. So the complicated processes of polysemy development involve both the appearance of new meanings and the loss of old ones.Yet, the general tendency with English vocabulary at the modern stage of its history is to increase the total number of its meanings and in this way to provide for a quantitative and qualitative growth of the language's expressive resources.
Thus, stone has the following meanings:
1) hard compact nonmetallic material of which rocks are made, a small lump of rock;
3) the woody central part of such fruits as the peach and plum, that contains the seed;
4) Jewellery, short for gemstone;
5) a unit of weight, used esp. to Brit, a unit of weight, used esp. to express human body weight, equal to 14 pounds or 6.350 kilograms;
6) a calculous concretion in the body, as in the kidney, gallbladder, or urinary bladder; a disease arising from such a concretion.
My brother-in-law, he says gallstones hurt worse than anything. Except maybe kidney stones. (King)
The bank became low again, and Miro crossed the brook by running lightly on the moss-covered stones. (Card)
“Here,” she said, and took off a slim silver necklace with an intricately carved pale jade stone the size of a grape. (Hamilton)
Smoke curled lazily from the brown and gray rock chimney made of rounded river stones. (Foster)
Ukrainian земля is also polysemantic:
1) третя від Сонця планета;
2) верхній шар земної кори;
3) речовина темно-бурого кольору, що входить до складу земної кори;
4) суша (на відміну від водного простору);
5) країна, край, держава.
Polysemy is very characteristic of the English vocabulary due to the monosyllabic character of English words and the predominance of root words. The greater the frequency of the word, the greater the number of meanings that constitute its semantic structure. Frequency − combinability − polysemy are closely connected. A special formula known as Zipf’s law has been worked out to express the correlation between frequency, word length and polysemy: the shorter the word, the higher its frequency of use; the higher the frequency, the wider its combinability, i.e. the more word combinations it enters; the wider its combinability, the more meanings are realized in these contexts.
The word in one of its meanings is termed a lexico-semantic variantof this word. The problem in polysemy is that of interrelation of different lexico-semantic variants. There may be no single semantic component common to all lexico-semantic variants but every variant has something in common with at least one of the others.
All the lexico-semantic variants of a word taken together form its semantic structure or semantic paradigm. The word face, for example, according to the dictionary data has the following semantic structure:
1. The front part of the head: He fell on his face.
2. Look, expression: a sad face, smiling faces, she is a good judge of faces.
3. Surface, facade: face of a clock, face of a building, He laid his cards face down.
4. Impudence, boldness, courage: put a good/brave/boldface on smth, put a new face on smth, the face of it, have the face to do, save one's face.
5. Style of typecast for printing: bold-face type.
Meaning is direct when it nominates the referent without the help of a context, in isolation; meaning is figurative when the referent is named and at the same time characterized through its similarity with other objects, Cf.
| direct meaning
|| figurative meaning
| tough meat
|| tough politician
head of a cabbage
foot of a mountain
put a new face on smth.
Differentiation between the terms primary/secondary main/derived meanings is connected with two approaches to polysemy: diachrpnic and synchronic.
If viewed diachronically, polysemy is understood as the growth and development (or change) in the semantic structure of the word.
primary meaning → secondary meanings
table ― Old Eng “a flat slab of stone or wood”.→ derived from the primary meaning
Synchronically polysemy is understood as the coexistence of various meanings of the same word at a certain historical period of the development of the English language. In that case the problem of interrelation and interdependence of individual meanings making up the semantic structure of the word must be investigated from different points of view, that of main/derived, central/peripheric meanings.
An objective criterion of determining the main or central meaning is the frequency of its occurance in speech. Thus, the main meaning of the word table in Modern English is “a piece of furniture”.
Polysemy is a phenomenon of language, not of speech. As a rule the contextual meaning represents only one of the possible lexico-semantic variants of the word. So polysemy does not interfere with the communicative function of the language because the situation and the context cancel all the unwanted meanings, as in the following sentences:
The steak is tough.
This is a tough problem.
Prof. Holborn is a tough examiner.
When analysing the semantic structure of a polysemantic word, it is necessary to distinguish between two levels of analysis.
On the first level, the semantic structure of a word is treated as a system of meanings. For example, the semantic structure of the noun fire could be roughly presented by this scheme (only the most frequent meanings are given):