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an increase) and arrangement of word-meanings without a single meaning disappearing from its semantic structure.1

§ 25. Summary and Conclusions

1. Not only the sound-form but also the meaning of the word is changed in the course of the historical development of language. The factors causing semantic changes may be roughly subdivided into extra-linguistic and linguistic causes.

2. Change of meaning is effected through association between the existing meaning and the new. This association is generally based on the similarity of meaning (metaphor) or on the contiguity of meaning (metonymy).

3. Semantic changes in the denotational component may bring about the extension or the restriction of meaning. The change in the connotational component may result in the pejorative or ameliorative development of meaning.

4. Causes, nature and result of semantic changes should be regarded as three essentially different but closely connected aspects of the same linguistic phenomenon.


So far we have been discussing the concept of meaning, different types of word-meanings and the changes they undergo in the course of the historical development of the English language. When analysing the word-meaning we observe, however, that words as a rule are not units of a single meaning. Monosemantic words, i.e. words having only one meaning are comparatively few in number, these are mainly scientific terms, such -as hydrogen, moleculeand the like. The bulk of English words are polysemantic, that is to say possess more than one meaning. The actual number of meanings of the commonly used words ranges from five to about a hundred. In fact, the commoner the word the more meanings it has.

§ 26. Semantic Structure of Polysemantic Words

The word table,e.g., has at least nine meanings in Modern English: 1. a piece of furniture; 2. the persons seated at a table; 3. sing. the food put on a table, meals; 4. a thin flat piece of stone, metal, wood, etc.; 5. pl. slabs of stone; 6. words cut into them or written on them (the ten tables); 2 7. an orderly arrangement of facts, figures, etc.; 8. part of a machine-tool on which the work is put to be operated on; 9. a level area, a plateau. Each of the individual meanings can be described in terms of the types of meanings discussed above. We may, e.g., analyse the eighth meaning of the word tableinto the part-of-speech meaning — that of the noun (which presupposes the grammatical meanings of number and case) combined with the lexical meaning made up of two components The denotational semantic component which can be interpreted

1 For details see ‘Semasiology’, §29, p. 36.

2 десять заповедей (библ.)

as the dictionary definition (part of a machine-tool on which the work is put) and the connotational component which can be identified as a specific stylistic reference of this particular meaning of the word table(technical terminology). Cf. the Russian планшайба, стол станка.

In polysemantic words, however, we are faced not with the problem of analysis of individual meanings, but primarily with the problem of the interrelation and interdependence of the various meanings in the semantic structure of one and the same word.

§ 27. Diachronic Approach

If polysemy is viewed diachronically, it is understood as the growth and development of or, in general, as a change in the semantic structure of the word.

Polysemy in diachronic terms implies that a word may retain its previous meaning or meanings and at the same time acquire one or several new ones. Then the problem of the interrelation and interdependence of individual meanings of a polysemantic word may be roughly formulated as follows: did the word always possess all its meanings or did some of them appear earlier than the others? are the new meanings dependent on the meanings already existing? and if so what is the nature of this dependence? can we observe any changes in the arrangement of the meanings? and so on.

In the course of a diachronic semantic analysis of the polysemantic word tablewe 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 word in the Old English period (OE. tabulefrom L. tabula);all other meanings are secondary as they are derived from the primary meaning of the word and appeared later than the primary meaning,

The terms secondary and derived meaning are to a certain extent synonymous. When we describe the meaning of the word as “secondary” we imply that it could not have appeared before the primary meaning was in existence. When we refer to the meaning as “derived” we imply not only that, but also that it is dependent on the primary meaning and somehow subordinate to it. In the case of the word table,e.g., we may say that the meaning ‘the food put on the table’ is a secondary meaning as it is derived from the meaning ‘a piece of furniture (on which meals are laid out)’.

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 the two words are felt as making up one semantic structure. Thus, the human earand the earof corn are from the diachronic point of view two homonyms. One is etymologically related to L. auris, the other to L. acus, aceris. Synchronically, however, they are perceived as two meanings of one and the same word. The earof cornis felt to be a metaphor of the usual type (cf. the eye of the needle, the foot of the mountain) and consequently as one of the derived or, synchronically, minor meanings of the polysemantic word ear.1Cases

1 In dictionaries ear(L. auris)and ear (L. acus, aceris)are usually treated as twohomonymous words as dictionary compilers as a rule go by etymological criterion.

of this type are comparatively rare and, as a rule, illustrative of the vagueness of the border-line between polysemy and homonymy.

Semantic changes result as a rule in new meanings being added to the ones already existing in the semantic structure of the word. Some of the old meanings may become obsolete or even disappear, but the bulk of English words tend to an increase in number of meanings.

§ 28. Synchronic. Approach

Synchronically we understand polysemy as the coexistence of various meanings

of the same word at a certain historical period of the development of the English language. In this case the problem of the interrelation and interdependence of individual meanings making up the semantic structure of the word must be investigated along different lines.

In connection with the polysemantic word table discussed above we are mainly concerned with the following problems: are all the nine meanings equally representative of the semantic structure of this word? Is the order in which the meanings are enumerated (or recorded) in dictionaries purely arbitrary or does it reflect the comparative value of individual meanings, the place they occupy in the semantic structure of the word table? Intuitively we feel that the meaning that first occurs to us whenever we hear or see the word table, is ‘an article of furniture’. This emerges as the basic or the central meaning of the word and all other meanings are minor in comparison.1

It should be noted that whereas the basic meaning occurs in various and widely different contexts, minor meanings are observed only in certain contexts, e.g. ‘to keep- the table amused’, ‘table of contents’ and so on. 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 hard to grade them in order of their comparative value. Some may, for example, consider the second and the third meanings (‘the persons seated at the table’ and ‘the food put on the table’) as equally “important”, some may argue that the meaning ‘food put on the table’ should be given priority. As synchronically there is no objective criterion to go by, we may find it difficult in some cases to single out even the basic meanings since two or more meanings of the word may be felt as equally “central” in its semantic structure. If we analyse the verb to get, e.g., which of the two meanings ‘to obtain’ (get a letter, knowledge, some sleep) or ‘to arrive’ (get to London, to get into bed) shall we regard as the basic meaning of this word?

A more objective criterion of the comparative value of individual meanings seems to be the frequency of their occurrence in speech. There is a tendency in modern linguistics to interpret the concept of the central meaning in terms of the frequency of occurrence of this meaning. In a study of five million words made by a group of linguistic scientists it was found that the frequency value of individual meanings is different. As far as the word table is concerned the meaning ‘a piece of furniture’ possesses

1 There are several terms used to denote approximately the same concepts: basic (majоr) meaning as opposed to minor meanings or central as opposed to marginal meanings. Here the terms are used interchangeably.

2* 35

the highest frequency value and makes up 52% of all the uses of this word, the meaning ‘an orderly arrangement of facts’ (table of contents) accounts for 35%, all other meanings between them make up just 13% of the uses of this word.1

Of great importance is the stylistic stratification of meanings of apolysemantic word as individual meanings may differ in their stylistic reference. Stylistic (or regional) status of monosemantic words is easily perceived. For instance the word daddycan be referred to the colloquial stylistic layer, the word parentto the bookish. The word movieis recognisably American and barnieis Scottish. Polysemantic words as a rule cannot be given any such restrictive labels. To do it we must state the meaning in which they are used. There is nothing colloquial or slangy or American about the words yellowdenoting colour, jerkin the meaning ‘a sudden movement or stopping of movement’ as far as these particular meanings are concerned. But when yellowis used in the meaning of ’sensational’ or when jerkis used in the meaning of ‘an odd person’ it is both slang and American.

Stylistically neutral meanings are naturally more frequent. The polysemantic words workerand hand,e.g., may both denote ‘a man who does manual work’, but whereas this is the most frequent and stylistically neutral meaning of the word worker,it is observed only in 2.8% of all occurrences of the word hand,in the semantic structure of which the meaning ‘a man who does manual work’ (to hire factory hands)is one of its marginal meanings characterised by colloquial stylistic reference.

It should also be noted that the meaning which has the highest frequency is the one representative of the whole semantic structure of the word. This can be illustrated by analysing the words under discussion. Forexample the meaning representative of the word handwhich first occurs to us is ‘the end of the arm beyond the wrist’. This meaning accounts for at least 77% of all occurrences of this word. This can also be observed by comparing the word handwith its Russian equivalents. We take it for granted that the English word handis correlated with the Russian рука, but not with the Russian рабочий though this particular equivalent may also be found, e.g. in the case of to hire factory hands.

§ 29. Historical Changeability of Semantic Structure

From the discussion of the diachronic and synchronic approach to polysemy it follows that the interrelation and theinterdependence of individual meanings of the word may be described from two different angles. These two approaches are not mutually exclusive but are viewed here as supplementing each other in the linguistic analysis of a polysemantic word.

It should be noted, however, that as the semantic structure is never static, the relationship between the diachronic and synchronic evaluation of individual meanings may be different in different periods of the historical development of language. This is perhaps best illustrated by

1 All data concerning semantic frequencies are reproduced from M. A. West. General Service List of English Words. London, 1959.

the semantic analysis of the word revolution.Originally, when this word first appeared in ME. 1350 — 1450 it denoted ‘the revolving motion of celestial bodies’ and also ‘the return or recurrence of a point or a period of time’. Later on the word acquired other meanings and among them that of ‘a complete overthrow of the established government or regime’ and also ‘a complete change, a great reversal of conditions. The meaning ‘revolving motion’ in ME. was both primary (diachronically) and central’ (synchronically). In Modern English, however, while we can still diachronically describe this meaning as primary it is no longer synchronically central as the arrangement of meanings in the semantic structure of the word revolution has considerably changed and its central and the most frequent meaning is ‘a complete overthrow of the established government or the regime’. It follows that the primary meaning of the word may become synchronically one of its minor meanings and diachronically a secondary meaning may become the central meaning of the word. The actual arrangement of meanings in the semantic structure of any word in any historical period is the result of the semantic development of this word within the system of the given language.

§ 30. Polysemy and Arbitrariness of Semantic Structure

The words of different languages which are similar or identical in lexical meaning, especially in the denotational meaning are termed correlated words. The wording of the habitual question of English learners, e.g. “What is the English for стол?”, and the answer “The English for стол is ‘table'” also shows that we take the words tableстол to be correlated. Semantic correlation, however, is not to be interpreted as semantic identity. From what was said about the arbitrariness of the sound-form of words and complexity of their semantic structure, it can be inferred that one-to-one correspondence between the semantic structure of correlated polysemantic words in different languages is scarcely possible.1

Arbitrariness of linguistic signs implies that one cannot deduce from the sound-form of a word the meaning or meanings it possesses. Languages differ not only in the sound-form of words; their systems of meanings are also different. It follows that the semantic structures of correlated words of two different languages cannot be coextensive, i.e. can never “cover each other". A careful analysis invariably shows that semantic relationship between correlated words, especially polysemantic words is very complex.

The actual meanings of polysemantic words and their arrangement in the semantic structure of correlated words in different languages may be altogether different. This may be seen by comparing the semantic structure of correlated polysemantic words in English and in Russian. As a rule it is only the central meaning that is to a great extent identical, all other meanings or the majority of meanings usually differ. If we compare, e.g., the nine meanings of the English word tableand the meanings of the Russian word стол, we shall easily observe not only the difference in the arrangement and the number of meanings making up their

1 See ‘Semasiology’, § 1, p. 13,

respective semantic structures, but also the difference in the individual meanings that may, at first sight, appear similar.


table стол
1.a piece of furniture 1. предмет обстановки (сидеть за столом)
2. the persons seated at a table 2. Ср. арх. застолица
3. the food put on a table, meals; cooking 3. пища (подаваемая на стол), еда
Note. This meaning is rare in Modern English. Usually the word board(or cooking)is used. Note. Commonly used, stylistically neutral.
(Cf. board and lodging, plain cooking.) (стол и квартира, простой, сытный, вегетарианский стол).
4.a flat slab of stone or board 5. slabs of stone (with words written on them or cut into them) 4. Ср. плита 5. Ср. скрижали
6. Bibl. Words cut into slabs of stone (the ten tables). 6. Ср. заповеди
7. an orderly arrangement of facts, figures, etc. 7. Ср. таблица
8. part of a machine-tool 8. Ср. планшайба
9. a level area, plateau 9. Ср. плато

As can be seen from the above, only one of the meanings and namely the central meaning ‘a piece of furniture’ may be described as identical. The denotational meaning ‘the food put on the table’ although existing in the words of both languages has different connotational components in each of them. The whole of the semantic structure of these words is altogether different. The difference is still more pronounced if we consider all the meanings of the Russian word стол, e.g. ‘department, section, bureau’ (cf. адресный стол, стол заказов) not to be found in the semantic structure of the word table.

§ 31. Summary and Conclusions

1.The problem of polysemy is mainly the problem of interrelation and interdependence of the various meanings of the same word. Polysemy viewed diachronically is a historical change in the semantic structure of the word resulting in disappearance of some meanings (or) and in new meanings being added to the ones already existing and also in the rearrangement of these meanings in its semantic structure. Polysemy viewed synchronically is understood as coexistence of the various meanings of the same word at a certain historical period and the arrangement of these meanings in the semantic structure of the word.

2. The concepts of central (basic) and marginal (minor) meanings may be interpreted in terms of their relative frequency in speech. The meaning having the highest frequency is usually the one representative of the

semantic structure of the word, i.e. synchronically its central (basic) meaning.

3. As the semantic structure is never static the relationship between

the diachronic and synchronic evaluation of the individual meanings of the same word may be different in different periods of the historical development of language.

4. The semantic structure of polysemantic words is not homogeneous as far as the status of individual meanings is concerned. Some meaning (or meanings) is representative of the word in isolation, others are perceived only in certain contexts.

5. The whole of the semantic structure of correlated polysemantic words of different languages can never be identical. Words are felt as correlated if their basic (central) meanings coincide.


Words identical in sound-form but different in meaning are tradition-ally termed homonyms.

Modern English is exceptionally rich in homonymous words and word-forms. It is held that languages where short words abound have more homonyms than those where longer words are prevalent. Therefore it is sometimes suggested that abundance of homonyms in Modern English is to be accounted for by the monosyllabic structure of the commonly used English words.1

§ 32. Homonymy of Words and Homonymy of Word-Forms

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

seal’s seals

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

1 Not only words but other linguistic units may be homonymous. Here, however, we are concerned with the homonymy of words and word-forms only, so we shall not touch upon the problem of homonymous affixes or homonymous phrases.

homonymy of individual word-forms or of partial homonymy. This is true of a number of other cases, e.g. compare find[faind], found [faund], found[faund], and found[faund], founded['faundid], founded['faundid]; know[nou], knows[nouz], knew[nju:], and no[nou]; nose[nouz], noses ['nouzis]; new[nju:] in which partial homonymy is observed.

§ 33. Classification of Homonyms

Consequently all cases of homonymy may be classified into full and partial homonymy — i.e. homonymy of words and homonymy of individual word-forms.

The bulk of full homonyms are to be found within the same parts of speech (e.g. seal1n— seal2n), partial homonymy as a rule is observed in word-forms belonging to different parts of speech (e.g. seal1nseal3v). This is not to say that partial homonymy is impossible within one part of speech. For instance in the case of the two verbs — lie[lai] — ‘to be in a horizontal or resting position’ and He [lai] — ‘to make an untrue statement' — we also find partial homonymy as only two word-forms [lai], [laiz] are homonymous, all other forms of the two verbs are different. Cases of full homonymy may be found in different parts of speech too; e.g. for [fo:] — preposition, for[fo:] — conjunction and four[fo:] — numeral, as these parts of speech have no other word-forms.

Homonyms may be also classified by the type of meaning into lexical, lexico-grammatical and grammatical homonyms. 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 difference is confined to the lexical meaning only: seal1denotes ‘a sea animal’, ‘the fur of this animal’, etc., seal2 — ‘a design printed on paper, the stamp by which the design is made’, etc. So we can say that seal2and seal1 are lexical homonyms because they differ in lexical meaning.

If we compare 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 different grammatical meanings. As both grammatical and lexical meanings differ we describe these homonymous word-forms as lexico-grammatical.

Lexico-grammatical homonymy generally implies that the homonyms in question belong to different parts of speech as the part-of-speech meaning is a blend of the lexical and grammatical semantic components. There may be cases however when lexico-grammatical homonymy is observed within the same part of speech, e.g., in the verbs (to) find[faind] and (to) found[faund], where the homonymic word-forms: found[faund] — Past Tense of (to) findand found[faund] — Present Tense of (to) founddiffer both grammatically and lexically.

Modern English abounds in homonymic word-forms differing in grammatical meaning only. In the paradigms of the majority of verbs the form of the Past Tense is homonymous with the form of Participle II, e.g. asked[a:skt] — asked[a:skt]; in the paradigm of nouns we usually

find homonymous forms of the Possessive Case Singular and the Common Case Plural, e.g. brother’s ['br0Dqz] — brothers['br0Dqz]. It may be easily observed that grammatical homonymy is the homonymy of different word-forms of one and the same word.

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 sea1n and seal2n, of the partial lexical homonymy of lie1vand lie2 v,and of the partial lexico-grammatical homonymy of seal1n and seal3v.

§ 34. Some Peculiarities of Lexico-Grammatical Homonymy

It should be pointed out that in the classification discussed above one of the groups, namely lexico-grammatical homonymy, is not homogeneous. This can be seen by analysing the relationship between two pairs of lexico-grammatical homonyms, e.g.

1. seal1 n — ‘a sea animal’; seal3v — ‘to close tightly as with a seal’;

2. seal2 n — ‘a piece of wax, lead’; seal3v— ‘toclose tightly as with a seal’.

We can see that seal1n and seal3vactually differ in both grammatical and lexical meanings. We cannot establish any semantic connection between the meaning ‘a sea animal’ and ‘to close tightly’. The lexical meanings of seal2 n and seal3v are apprehended by speakers as closely related. The noun and the verb both denote something connected with “a piece of wax, lead, etc., a stamp by means of which a design is printed on paper and paper envelopes are tightly closed". Consequently the pair seal2 nseal3 v does not answer the description of homonyms as words or word-forms that sound alike but differ in lexical meaning. This is true of a number of other cases of lexico-grammatical homonymy, e.g. workn — (to) work v; papern — (to) paperv; loven(to) lovev and so on. As a matter of fact all homonyms arising from conversion have related meanings. As a rule however the whole of the semantic structure of such words is not identical. The noun paper,e.g., has at least five meanings (1. material in the form of sheets, 2. a newspaper, 3. a document, 4. an essay, 5. a set of printed examination questions) whereas the verb (to) paperpossesses but one meaning ‘to cover with wallpaper’.


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