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Образование The notion of polysemy
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Lecture 3. Polysemy

The term polysemy stems from the Greek word polýsēmos‘having many meanings’. It is defined as the ability of a word to have several meanings simutenuously.

It is very important to distinguish between the lexical meaning of a word in speech and its semantic structure in language. The meaning in speech is contextual. The definite context particularizes the lexical meaning of a word and makes possible the realization of only one meaning. Any word actually used in speech is monosemantic but it may render a complicated notion. Monosemantic words, that is words having only one meaning are few in number; these are mainly scientific terms, such as molecule.

The monosemantic property of a word used in context does not exclude the complexity of each denotative meaning as it serves to signify complex notions with many features. For example, the word table has at least 9 meanings in Modern English: (1) a piece of furniture; (2) meals; (3) a thin flat piece of stone, metal, wood; (4) an orderly arrangemet of facts, figures etc.

If we turn to the meaning of words as they exist in language we shall observe that frequently used words are polysemantic. A word that has more than one meaning in the language is called polysemantic. Its meanings form its semantic structure.

The semantic structure of a polysemantic word may be defined as a structured set of interrelated meanings. It is an organized set of recurrent variants and shades of meaning a given sound complex can assume in different contexts, together with their emotional colouring, stylistic peculiarities and other typical connotations. The semantic structure of the word is a fact of language, not of speech. It is developed and fixed in the course of the language’s history.

Special procedures of componential analysis have been developed to determine the components of each meaning and represent this as a combination of elementary senses or semes. A seme is the smallest, elementary, ultimate constituent of the lexical meaning of the word.

Polysemy exists only in language but not in speech. Polysemy does not interfere with the communicative function of the language because in every particular case the situation and context cancel all the meanings but one and make speech unambiguous.

Polysemy is inherent in the very nature of words and notions, as they always contain a generalization of several traits of the object. Some of these traits are common with other objects, hence the possibility of identical names for objects possessing common features. Thus polysemy is characteristic of most words in many languages. But it is more characteristic of the English vocabulary due to the monosyllabic character of English and the predominance of root words.

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