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Homonymy in English. Polysemy vs homonymy

Homonyms are words that sound alike but have different semantic structure. The problem of homonymy is mainly the problem of differentiation between two different semantic structures of identically sounding words.

When analysing different cases of homonymy we find that some words are homonymous in all their forms, i.e. we observe full homonymy of the paradigms of two or more different words, e.g., in seal1 — ‘a sea animal’ and seal2 — ‘a design printed on paper by means of a stamp’. The paradigm “seal, seal’s, seals, seals’ ” is identical for both of them and gives no indication of whether it is seal1 or seal2, that we are analysing. In other cases, e.g. seal1 — ‘a sea animal’ and (to) seal, — ‘to close tightly’, we see that although some individual word- forms are homonymous, the whole of the paradigm is not identical. Compare, for instance, the paradigms:

seal1 (to) seal3

seal -seal


seals- sealed

seals’-sealing, etc.

It is easily observed that only some of the word-forms (e.g. seal, seals, etc.) are homonymous, whereas others (e.g. sealed, sealing) are not. In such cases we cannot speak of homonymous words but only of homonymy of individual word-forms or of partial homonymy.

Homonyms may be also classified by the type of meaning into

1. Lexical - seal1denotes ‘a sea animal’, ‘the fur of this animal’, etc., seal2 — ‘a design printed on paper, the stamp by which the design is made’.совпод только гр зн и часть речи

2. lexico-grammatical - seal1 — ‘a sea animal’, and (to) seal3 — ‘to close tightly, we shall observe not only a difference in the lexical meaning of their homonymous word-forms but a difference in their grammatical meanings as well. Identical sound-forms, i.e. seals[si:lz] (Common Case Plural of the noun) and (he) seals[si:lz] (third person Singular of the verb) possess each of them differentgrammatical meanings. Lexico-grammatical homonyms are not homogeneous. Homonyms arising from conversion have some related lexical meanings in their semantic structure. Though some individual meanings may be related the whole of the semantic structure of homonyms is essentially different.

3. grammatical - In seal1n and seal2n, e.g., the part-of-speech meaning of the word and the grammatical meanings of all its forms are identical (cf. seal[si:l] Common Case Singular, seal’s [si:lz] Possessive Case Singular for both seal1and seal2).


The two classifications: full and partial homonymy and lexical, lexico-grammatical and grammatical homonymy are not mutually exclusive. All homonyms may be described on the basis of the two criteria — homonymy of all forms of the word or only some of the word-forms and also by the type of meaning in which homonymous words or word-forms differ. So we speak of the full lexical homonymy of seal1n and seal2n, of the partial lexical homonymy of lie1vand lie2 v,and of the partial lexico-grammatical homonymy of seal1n and seal3v.

Homographs['hɔməgrɑːf]омограф are words identical in spelling, but different both in their sound-form and meaning, e.g. bown [bou] — ‘a piece of wood curved by a string and used for shooting arrows’ and bown [bau] — ‘the bending of the head or body’; tearn [tia] — ‘a drop of water that comes from the eye’ and tearv [tea] — ‘to pull apart by force’.

Homophones['hɔməfəun] омофон are words identical in sound-form but different both in spelling and in meaning, e.g. sean and seev; son n and sunn.

Homonyms['hɔmənɪm омоним are words identical both in spelling and in sound-form but different in meaning, e.g. case1 n — ’something that has happened’ and case2 n — ‘a box, a container’.

The sources of homonymy are:

1.Phonetic changes which word undergo in the course of theis history develop:night,knigh.In OE they pronounced dif.

2.The appearance of borrowings:bank.


4.Shortening:fan fr fanatic and fan-веер.

5.The loses of ending (cf. MnE. love — (to) loveand OE. lufu — lufian).

6.Split polysemi:цветок и мука

Words borrowed from other languages may through phonetic convergence become homonymous. ON. rasand Fr. race are homonymous in Modern English (cf. race1 [reis] — ‘running’ and race2 [reis] — ‘a distinct ethnical stock’)

Polysemy vs homonymy

The most debatable problem of homonymy is the demarcation line “between homonymy and polysemy, i.e. between different meanings of one word and the meanings of two or more phonemically different words.

1. 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 race2can 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.COURS OF BOR

2. Synchronically the differentiation between homonymy and polysemy is as a rule 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.

Semantic and estymological criteria+

·the semantic criterion of related or unrelated meanings;

·the criterion of spelling;

·the criterion of distribution.

There are cases of lexical homonymy when none of the criteria enumerated above is of any avail. In such cases the demarcation line between polysemy and homonymy is rather fluid.

The problem of discriminating between polysemy and homonymy in theoretical linguistics is closely connected with the problem of the basic unit at the semantic level of analysis

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Pol`ysemy in English | Semantic and non-semantic classification of English words

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