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...