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Arbitrariness of semantic structure in different languages


In different languages semantic structures of correlative polysemantic words (words with similar primary or central meanings), the actual number of meanings, their character and value, usually do not coincide. Cases of coincidence of semantic structures in correlative words are extremely rare.


The reason for these differences is accidental meaning development and use of naming means. So we may speak about arbitrariness of semantic structure in different languages.


People in different language communities may use different naming means for concept lexicalization. For example, they may use lexical-semantic means in one language and affixation in the other (cf.: Russian подножие forEnglish foot ‘the lower part of the mountain’), borrowing or syntactic naming for correlated concepts (cf.: Russ фрегат and сторожевой корабль for E frigate ‘escort-ship’).


Even if they use the same type of naming, for example, lexical-semantic one, people in different language communities may choose different features of the concept as their most representative, and accordingly, different words would be used for semantic motivation ( сумка кенгуру a kangaroo poach , шумы в сердце — heart murmurs, eye of a needle — ушко иголки, глухой как пень — as deaf as a post pole; wet as a fish — мокрый как курица ).


Vice versa, people in different language communities may use correlative words as a means for lexical-semantic naming of totally different conceptsand that would make their semantic structures different (see the example with the words owl, сова, civetta above).


As the result of this arbitrariness in naming, semantic structures of correlative words practically never coincide. Thus, only two meanings, the central ones and one of the peripheral, may be considered identical in the semantic structures of the English word brush and its correlated Russian word щетка (cf.: brush 1. a device composed of bristles and used for sweeping, scrubbing, 2. something resembling a brush, like a. a bushy tail, b. a further tuft worn on a hat, 3a. an electrical conductor, b. BRUSH DISCHARGE, 4a. an act of brushing b. a quick light touch or momentary contact in passing’, and the correlative Russian щетка 1. изделие для чистки, мытья в виде колодки с насажанными на нее пучками жесткой короткой шерсти, волоса, волокон, 2. у лошадей: часть ноги над копытом и пучок волос на этом месте, 3. приспособление в динамо-машине для проводки тока’).


So, semantic structures of correlative polysemantic words are usually not identical, and these differences should be given special attention when learning a foreign language.





Sources of homonyms. Classification of homonyms. Homonymy vs. polysemy


Sources of homonyms


English is very rich in homonyms. There are 1542 entries in the dictionary of English homonyms by I.S. Tyshler /Тышлер 1975/.


Though homonymy is not connected with lexical-semantic naming, it is similar to polysemy in form. Homonyms as well as polysems are lexical units, which have the same form but different meanings, like scar ‘an isolating or protruding rock’ and scar ‘a mark left (as on the skin) by the healing of injured tissue’.


In contrast to polysems, homonyms do not appear in a language according to regular patterns. The only exceptions are homonyms derived by zero derivation, or conversion: water ( n ) — water ( v ). But this kind of homonymy is on the borderline between polysemy and homonymy as lexical units in this case are semantically related unlike classical homonyms ( bank 1. ‘raised part of the river’ ; bank 2. office where we keep our money for a certain interest’).


The appearance of homonyms in a language is rather accidental as they arise from a change in pronunciation and/or spelling. In English these changes were very active and they created a great number of homonyms. Thus, the homonyms sea and see were in Old English respectively [sæ ] and [sē on] before the time of the Great English Vowel Shift.


The loss of endings is also an important source for lexical-grammatical homonyms in English. Thus the homonyms love and to love appeared there out the noun [lufu] and the verb [luvian].


The degree of homonymy in English is very high also due to numerous borrowings, too ( race1 ‘nation’ [Fr] — race 2 ‘running’ [ON]; bank 1 ‘shore’ [Sc] — bank 2 ‘financial institution’ [It ]; scar 1 ‘rock’ [ON] — scar 2 ‘mark on the skin’ [MF fr. LL fr. Gk]).


Shortening may also become a source of homonyms ( fan [from ‘fanatic’] and fan [ME fr. OE fann fr. L vannus] ‘any devices for winnowing grain; an implement to produce a cool current of air’; flue [from ‘influenza’] and flue [origin unknown] ‘an enclosed passageway for directing a current: as a) a channel in a chimney for conveying flame and smoke b) a pipe in a steam boiler’).


Still another source of homonyms is diverging meaning development of a polysemantic word, the so-called “ split polysemy”, or disintegration of polysemy. Thus, the meanings of bachelor 1. a young night who follows the banner of another, 2. the lowest university degree’, 3. a male of a seal not having a mate during a breeding time’, can hardly be perceived as related nowadays. The words flower and flour were also in the past one word with the meaning ‘the finest part of a plant, like wheat, a flower’.


Euphemisms also contribute to homonyms ( ass [euphemismfor ‘arse’]), shoot interj.used to express annoyance [euphemism for a similar taboo word]).


A very special type of homonyms arises across different dialects and variants of the language, where the same form of a word does not have the same meaning. Thus the American word biscuit ‘hard or crisp dry baked products’ and British biscuitCRACKER or COOKIE’ can be regarded as homonyms, because they are not the result of a regular semantic development of a word within the same language system.



Classification of homonyms


Homonyms are very diverse in character and their classification is a traditional lexicological problem.


Classification may be done according to the type of coincidence form.


If coincidence is present only in the spoken form of semantically unrelated words we may talk about different homophones ( tail and tale ). When coincidence takes place only in the written form of semantically unrelated words we refer to such words as homographs ( live [liv] and live [laiv], lead [li: d] and lead [led], minute [minit] and minute [mainit]. The case of the words bank 1 and bank 2 discussed above may be classified as an example of perfect homonyms where words are identical both in sound form and spelling but remain totally different in meaning.


Homonyms may differ in the type of meaning.

We may distinguish lexical homonyms, which differ only in lexical type of meaning ( seal (n) ‘a sea animal’; seal (n) ‘design on a piece of paper, stamp’), grammatical homonyms, that differ only in grammatical meaning ( seals — pl. of ‘sea animal’ and seal’s sing. Possessive Case of ‘sea animal’), and lexical-grammatical homonyms, that differ both in lexical, part of speech and grammatical meaning but coincide in a sound and/or written form ( seal (n) — ‘a sea animal’, and seal (v) — ‘to close tightly’; the same can be said about the words court (n) and caught (v); sea (n) and see (v)).



Polysemy vs. homonymy


Though polysemy and homonymy both refer to words that are capable of more than one interpretation, they are semantically and psychologically different phenomena and this is proved by psychological tests showing that they are stored in mental lexicon differently: polysemes stay together while homonyms do not.


For lexicography it is also important to differentiate between polysemantic words and homonyms to make correct decisions in using one or several entries for them.


The two major criteria for differentiating between polysemy and homonymy are etymological and psychological. The etymological criterion uses history of word origin. It, however, is not quite applicable to the modern state of a language. The psychological criterionis based on decisions of subjects in psychological experiments or dictionary compilers’ intuition while answering the question whether they perceive any similarity between two names with a common form. Its major drawback is its subjectivity.


Though homonyms are not patterned and are accidental, their presence in all human languages gives ground to view them not as the result of some destructive powers in the language but as a semantic universal which is an inherent and integral part of a language and whose role and meaning are not clear yet.



Further reading:


Апресян Ю.Д. Лексическая семантика: синонимические средства языка. — М.,: Наука, 1974.

Арутюнова Н.Д. Типы языковых значений: Оценка. Событие. Факт. – М.: Наука, 1988.

Вежбицкая Анна. Семантические универсалии. – М.: Языки русской культуры, 1999.

Виноградов В.В. Основные типы лексических значений слова // Виноградов В.В. Лексикология и лексикография. Избранные труды. — М.: Наука, 1977.

Вольф Е.М. Функциональная семантика оценки. – М.: Наука, 1985.

Лещёва Л.М. Лексическая полисемия в когнитивном аспекте. — Мн: МГЛУ, 1996.

Литвин Ф.А. Многозначность слова в языке и речи. — М.: Высшая школа, 1984.

Никитин М.В.Лексическое значение слова. — М.: Высшая школа, 1983.

Никитин М.В. Курс лингвистической семантики. – Санкт-Петербург: Научный центр проблем диалога, 1996.

Тышлер И.С. Словарь лексических и лексико-грамматических омонимов современного английского языка. — Саратов: Изд-во Саратовского университета, 1975.

Allan, K. Linguistic Meaning. — London and New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul Inc., 1986.

Breal, M. Semantics: Studies in the Science of Meaning. — New York: Dover Publications, 1964.

Cruse, D.A. Lexical Semantics. — Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics, 1986.

Hughes, G. Words in time. — Oxford: Basil Blackwell Inc., 1988.

Jackendoff, R. Semantic Structures. (Third printing). — Cambridge, MA: the MIT Press, 1993.

Lyons, J. Structural Semantics. Oxford: Blackwell, 1963.

Lyons, J. Semantics, 2 vol. — Cambridge: CUP, 1977.

Lyons, J. Language and Linguistics: An Introduction. — Cambridge: CUP, 1981.

Palmer, F.R. Semantics: A New Outline. — M., Vysshaya shkola, 1982.

Ullmann, St. Semantics: An Introduction to the Science of Meaning. — Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1962.

Wierzbicka, A. Semantics: Primes and Universals.Oxford: OUP, 1996.




Words are not coined in order to extract the meaning of their elements and compile a new meaning from them. The new meaning is there f i r s t, and the coiner is looking for the best way to express it without going to too much trouble. If parts can be found whose meanings suggest the one in mind, so much the better, but that is not essential.

—D.L. Bolinger and D.A. Sears Aspects of Language, 1981: 109.

In English as in any other language, naming concepts has always been accomplished by borrowing and by secondary uses of a naming unit. A very important contribution to the English vocabulary extension has always been achieved by creating new words out of available language means by combining or changing certain morphological means after certain regular patterns. This method of name creation, usually referred to as morphological, is the most obvious and one of the most productive ways of replenishing the English vocabulary.


Before speaking about peculiarities of morphological ways of deriving new names in English, it is necessary first to clearify what morphological means and derivation are.





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