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5.1. Polysemantic and monosemantic words. Classification

5.2. Diachronic approach to polysemy.

5.3. Synchronic approach to polysemy.

5.4. The semantic structure of correlated words in English and Russian.

5.5. The national character of the semantic structure.

5.1. Polysemy is the ability of words to have more than one meaning. A word with several meanings is called polysemantic. Monosemantic words, which have only one meaning, are comparatively few; they are mainly scientific terms (e.g. hydrogen) or rare words (e.g. flamingo).

The bulk of English words are polysemantic. All the meanings of a polysemantic word make up a system which is called the semantic structure of the word.

e.g. The word TABLE has the semantic structure made up of at least 9 meanings:

1) piece of furniture;

2) the persons seated at a table;

3) (sing.) food put on the table;

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);

7) an orderly arrangement of facts, figures, etc.;

8) part of a machine tool on which work is put;

9) a level area, a plateau.

5.2. Polysemy can be viewed diachronically and synchronically.

The system of meanings of a polysemantic word develops gradually, mostly over centuries, as new meanings are added to old ones or oust some of them. As a result, the total number of meanings grows, and the vocabulary is enriched.

Thus, polysemy viewed diachronically is a historic change in the semantic structure of a word that results in disappearance of some meanings and appearance of new meanings, and also in the rearrangement of the meanings in the semantic structure.

Diachronically, we distinguish between the primary meaning and secondary meanings of a word.

The primary meaning is the oldest meaning of the word, its original meaning with which the word first appeared in the language,

e.g. the primary meaning of TABLE is "slabs of stone": O.E. tabule f. Lat tabula.

All the other meanings appeared later than the primary meaning.

When we describe a meaning as secondary we imply that it can't have appeared before the primary meaning; when we say a meaning is derived we imply not only that but also that it is dependent on another meaning and subordinate to it,

e.g. TABLE 1,2,3 are secondary, appeared later than TABLE 5;

TABLE 2, 3 are derived from TABLE 1.

The main source of polysemy is semantic derivation (radiation of meanings; adding new meanings to the existing ones).

Polysemy may also result from homonymy. When two words coincide in sound-form, their meanings come to be felt as making up one semantic structure.

e.g. the human EAR (f. Lat auris) and the EAR of corn (f. Lat acus, aceris) diachronically are homonyms. Synchronically, however, they are perceived as two meanings of one polysemantic word ear. The ear of corn is felt to be a metaphoric meaning (Of.: the eye of a needle, the foot of the mountain) and thus, as a derived meaning of the word. Cases of this type are comparatively rare.

5.3. Viewed synchronically, polysemy is understood as co-existence of several meanings of the same word and their arrangement in the semantic structure.

The status of individual meanings is not the same. We distinguish between the central (=basic, major) meaning and minor meanings.

How do we determine which meaning is the basic one?

(1) The basic meaning occurs in various and widely different contexts. It is representative of the word taken in isolation, i.e. it occurs to us when we hear/see the word in isolation; that is why it is called a free meaning.

e.g. the central meaning of TABLE is "a piece of furniture" Minor meanings occur only in specific contexts, e.g. to keep the table amused (TABLE 2) or the table of contents (TABLE 7).

(2) The basic meaning has the highest frequency in speech,

e.g. TABLE 1 has the highest frequency value and makes up 52% of all the uses of the word; TABLE 7 accounts for 35%; all the other meanings between them make up just 13% of all the uses.

(3) The basic meaning is usually stylistically neutral and minor meanings are as a rule stylistically coloured,

e.g. YELLOW 1) coloured like egg yoke or gold (neutral),

2) sensational (Am slang),

3) cowardly (coll).

Synchronically, we also distinguish between direct meanings and figurative (transferred) meanings,

e.g. YELLOW 4) (fig) (of looks, mood, feelings, etc.) jealous, envious, suspicious.

We should note that a word may have two or more central meanings,

e.g. GET "obtain" and "arrive" are equally central in the semantic structure.

As the semantic structure of a word is never static, the status (type) of its meanings may change in the course of time. The primary meaning may become a minor one; a secondary meaning may become the central meaning of a word.

e.g. The primary meaning of QUICK is "living"; it is still retained in the semantic structure but has become a minor meaning which occurs only in some expressions: to touch/ wound to the quick, the quick and the dead; "rapid, fast" has become the central meaning.

5.4. Words of different languages are said to be correlated when their central meanings coincide,

e.g. table – cтол "piece of furniture".

But there is practically no one-to-one correspondence between the semantic structures of correlated polysemantic words of different languages. The relations between correlated words are quite complicated, and we may single out the following cases (and show them graphically).

The semantic structures of two correlated words may coincide; usually they are monosemantic words,

e.g. flamingo.

We can show this relationship like this: two overlapping circles.



If the number of meanings is different, the semantic structure of one word may include that of its correlate it is the relationship of inclusion,

e.g. MEETING 1) a gathering of people for a purpose

2) the people in such a gathering

3) the coming together of two or more people, by chance or arrangement

МИТИНГ a (political) gathering of a number of people".

Some meanings of two correlated words may coincide and the others don’t. This is the relationship of intersection.


1) male child 1) male child,

2) young man 2) apprentice (obs.),

3) male native servant,

4) junior sailor.

5.5. All lexical meanings of a polysemantic word are interconnected. The relations beween them are based on various logical and psychological associations. Some of these relations are common to all or to many languages; others are peculiar to a particular language. Thus, a semantic structure has a national character (some specific characteristics).

Relations that are common to all/most languages are:

1) metaphorical relations,

e.g ass 1 "animal" - осёл 1 "animal",

ass 2 (fig) "stupid person" - осёл2 "person".

2) metonymic relations,

e.g. table 1 "piece of furniture" - стол 1 "piece of furniture",

table 3 "food" – стол 3 "food put on (1) ".


Relations typical of English, but not of Russian are:

1. One and the same English verb may have both transitive and intransitive meanings in its semantic structure,

e.g. Paper burns easily. (intr) Cf.: гореть,

She burnt his letters, (tr) жечь.

2. One word has countable and uncountable, concrete and abstract meanings,

e.g. his love of painting Сf.:живопись - the paintings on the wall картина,

coal - a coal, hair - a hair.

3. In the same semantic structure we find individual and collective meanings,

e.g. YOUTH 1) young people collectively Сf.: молодежь,

2) a young man – юноша,

3) the state of being young - юность.

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