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Synchronic approach to polysemy
Diachronic approach to polysemy
Approaches to polysemy
Polysemy viewed diachronically is a historical change in the semantic structure of the word resulting in disappearance of some meanings and in new meanings being added to the existing ones, and also in the rearrangement of these meanings in its semantic structure.
For example, in the course of a diachronic semantic analysis of the word table we find that of all the meanings it has in Modern English, the primary meaning is ‘a flat slab of stone or wood’ which is proper to the OE word tabule from Latin tabula; all other meanings are secondary as they are derived from the primary meaning of this word and appeared later than the primary one. It follows that the main source of polysemy is a change in the semantic structure of the word.
Polysemy may also arise from homonymy. When two words become identical in sound-form, the meanings of them are felt as making up one semantic structure. Thus, for example, the human ear and the ear ‘ a spike of corn’ (колос, початок) are from the diachronic point of view two homonyns. The first ear (OE ēāre) is etymologically related to the Lat auris; the second word ear (OE Northumbrian eher, Goth ahs) is related to the Lat acus, aceris. Synchronically, however, they are perceived as two meanings of one and the same word. The ear of corn is felt to be a metaphor of the usual type; cf. the eye of the needle) and consequently as one of the derived or, synchronically, minor meanings of the polysemantic word ear.
Polysemy viewed synchronically is understood as co-existence of various meanings of the same word at a certain historical period and the arrangement of these meanings in the semantic structure of the word.
In connection of the polysemantic word table we feel that the first meaning occurring to us in this word is ‘an article of furniture’. This meaning is defined as the basic, major or centralmeaning of this word as opposed to its minor or marginalmeanings. The basic meaning occurs in various contexts, whereas minor meanings are observed only in certain contexts; for example, ‘ table of contents ’.
Thus we can assume that the meaning ‘a piece of furniture’ occupies the central place in the semantic structure of the word table. As to other meanings of this word we find it difficult to grade them in order of their comparative value.
A more objective criterion of the comparative value of individual meanings seems to be the frequency of their occurrence in speech. The central meaning has the highest frequency value.
Of great importance is the stylistic stratification of meanings of a polysemantic word as individual meanings may differ in their stylistic reference. Stylistically neutral meanings are more frequent.
As the semantic structure of a polysemantic word is never static the relatioship between the diachronic and synchronic evaluation of individual meanings of the same word may be different in different periods of the historical development of language.