Explain the concepts of homonymy and polysemy and the potential difficulties in distinguishing between them. Argue for either the synchronic or diachronic approach to this problem.
A key aspect of language is the variations of lexemes that create a sense of ‘multisemanticity’ within language (Palmer, 1983). This not only allows us to communicate abstract thoughts but also creates the ability for language to continually change and diverge. It is from this that we can draw the concepts of homonymy and polysemy. The former represents when two (or more) words have either identical spelling or similar auditory properties, but are different in meaning (Dash, N.S. 2010). The latter, as offered by Masako Yanase (2001), is when a word can be associated with two or more distinct meanings, whether that be obvious or subtle. However, there can be a level of lexical ambiguity when trying to distinguish between whether a word is homonymous and polysemous, something that has been investigated extensively within the field of linguistics. In order to resolve this issue, it is proposed that linguists either take a synchronic or diachronic approach to the categorisation of words, which can generate further problems in deciding lexical category. As a result, this essay offers an explanation and critical analysis of both of the difficulties surrounding lexical classification and competing approaches, ultimately proving that a diachronic approach is the more reliable way to find out whether a word is homonymous or polysemous.
Let us first examine polysemy in more detail. Coming from the Greek ‘poly’ meaning ‘many’, the concept of polysemy involves a variety of challenges in not only the recognition of a polysemous word, but also in determining the quantity of meanings associated with such a word, and subsequently, the transference of meaning (whether a word is primary or subsidiary) (Ndlovu, E 2010). A clear example of polysemy can be shown in the following sentence (University of York, 2018):
(1) a. The Newspaper got wet in the rain.
b. The Newspaper fired some of its editing staff.
In this case, it is clear that although the same word is being used and the, and there appears to be a logical relationship between the two, the semantic messages are different; the object that got wet doesn’t have the ability to fire people and vice versa - the company didn’t get wet. Semantic similarities can also occur in various ways; historically, psychologically and metaphorically (Leech 1974: 228), however sometimes it can be more difficult to determine the lexical category of a word. The following example created by the University of York (2018) highlights the ambiguity of words:
(2) a. I own a very big hammer
b. I hammered a tent pole into the ground using a small rock.
As seen in this example, it is much harder to decipher whether ‘hammer’ is polysemous or homonymous. The noun hammer in (2-a) is clearly referring to a physical object however in the next sentence is being used as a verb. Overall, as inferred by Dash (2005), the most noteworthy element is that such multi-semantic words (as presented above) don’t generate any difficulty in everyday communication or indeed create an immediate sense of ambiguity for the language users in question, but rather raise linguistic questions with regards to the ‘decipherment and sense retrieval’ of polysemic or homonymic words (Dash 2005).
While polysemous words have only one etymological ancestor from which many semantic forms can arise, homonyms do not have any etymological relations (Yule, 1985: 96). Homonymy, derived from the Greek ‘homos’ meaning ‘same’ (Yanase 2001) are expected to have separate dictionary entries, as there should not be multiple meanings associated with the word. This is supported by Ladislav Zgusta (1971: 74) who poses the argument that homonymy is a digression from when the speakers of a language do not recognise different lexemes as connected. A distinct example of homonymy is shown by the University of York (2018):
(3) a. Sarah climbed down the ladder.
b. Sarah bought a down blanket.
The word down in sentences (3-a) and (3-b) are noticeably two words that share the same sound and same orthography but have no etymological relationship between them (the first being a movement and the second being feathers from a duck).
Although in this case it seems easy to distinguish the lack of relation between the words’ meanings, there can be instances when it is far less clear. For example ‘animal ear’ and ‘ear of corn’ both have the same orthography, and some sort of relationship between the two senses could be rationalised. However, whilst they both come from Old English (Germanic) they are merely accidental homonyms. It is only through language change through history that the spellings have changed from the more separable ‘eāre’ (to refer to an animal) and ‘eār’ (of corn) to form the modern ‘ear’. Even more problems with lexical ambiguity can be found in sole (of the foot) and sole (type of fish). At face value, it would appear that two different concept were being described. In fact, etymologically these words have a relationship stemming from the Latin solea meaning sandal, despite being introduced into the English language at different points in time (Online Etymology Dictionary, 2001-18). Overall it would still indicate that sole would be a polysemous word. However, referring back to Zgusta (1971), as a single sense of a word loses it connection to others the meaning can be conceivably split into two. Therefore, over time as language has change and English has undoubtedly adopted a variety of ‘foreign’ words, a connection may no longer be made and the lexical category of a word can be subject to change.
Clearly the majority of problems in distinguishing polysemy from homonymy are because it is such a subjective field. This is because when you read or hear words that are different either aurally or orthographically, whether they differ in meaning or not, it is the individual’s judgments alone that distinguish between homonymy and polysemy. Despite the best efforts of lexicographers to eradicate the level of uncertainty connected to this area of study, there are simply no absolute uniform principles in place to decipher one word’s affiliation with another (Tarp, 2009). This level of ambiguity within semantics inspires a number of approaches towards the categorisation of lexemes, primarily the diachronic and synchronic approaches.
Firstly the diachronic approach, applicable to both homonymy and polysemy individually focuses primarily on historical linguistics, particularly- in the case of semantics- to the etymological root of a word. For example the English word bank. It can be either used when talking about a financial institution or the slope at the side of the river however depending on the sense in which it is used, can have different historical roots: the place where you deposit money comes from the Old Italian banca, whereas the area next to a river can be derived from Scandinavian sources, especially the Old Norse bakki (Online Etymology Dictionary, 2001-18). Whilst this is a efficient approach to extensively orthographically recorded language, it must be noted that there are a number languages with less established linguistic history and widely undocumented writing systems, as supported by Tarp (2009). Even still, through this method it can be difficult to establish where it is a case of polysemy or homonymy. For example, referring back to the above example, due to the subjective nature of semantic categorisation, any individual could conceive some sort of relationship between to the words, both of which are sites of deposits of one nature or another. Further issues arise due to the nature of the approach, because it studies the mechanisms of change within language, you are required to process data prospectively (following the change through time) and retrospectively (looking at language back in time), a long-winded and time-consuming process (Saussure, F 1916).
This leads on to the synchronic approach to the problem of distinguishing between homonymy and polysemy. This concept approaches a language environment from a ‘real-time’ standpoint (Joseph, J 2017). It focuses on the use of words and language at a specified time in order to understand the practical rather than the historical uses of words. As proposed in the previous paragraph with the word bank, a synchronic approach supports the language users intuition as well speaker/lexeme relationship, a concept supported by Gronemeyer, C (1998). This means that so long as an individual can distinguish the semanticity of one word from another, then that is sufficient evidence to suggest a polysemic relationship, and vice versa in the case of homonymy. This approach is arguably this most useful from a semantic perspective as language is constantly changing and evolving; 100 years ago a word would not have had the same connotations as it might today, therefore using an historical diachronic approach may not reveal the multiple senses of meaning that a word can have. As Saussure (1916:90) points out in opposition to the diachronic approach, synchronic arguments allow for less time consuming study, and requires not background research but rather, simple empirical observations of how language is used and interpreted but modern speakers.
In conclusion, homonymy is a phenomena in which two or more words have the same spelling or sound but and semantically unrelated, whilst in contrast polysemy is when words share the same spelling and have the same meaning, but are used in contextually different situations. In both cases, there are clearly a number of difficulties in distinguishing between the two, whether that is because of undocumented etymological roots or the change within language, which constantly pushes the boundaries of what we perceive to be fact. Ultimately however, despite the synchronic approach to these semantic problems, particularly with it’s focus on practical usage of language and what connotations a word might have at an individual time, due to the subjective nature of this particular area of study, it is inconsequential to argue for one or the other. From the equal amount of strengths and weaknesses posed during this essay, the two approaches need to be accepted as conglomerates and used either separately of in conjunction for individual cases.
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