Homonymy in English

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e, the word board actually lost its corresponding meaning. But it was just that meaning which served as a link to hold together the rest of the constituent parts of the words semantic structure. With its diminished role as an element of communication, its role in the semantic structure was also weakened. The speakers almost forgot that board had ever been associated with any item of furniture, nor could they associate the notions of meals or of a responsible committee with a long thin piece of timber (which is the oldest meaning of board). Consequently, the semantic structure of board was split into three units.

The following scheme illustrates the process:

Board, n (development of meanings)


A long, thin piece of timberA piece of furnitureMeals provided for payAn official group of persons

Board I, II, III, n (split of the polysemy)


I.A long, thin piece of timberA piece of furnitureII.Meals provided for paySeldom used: ousted by French borrowing tableIII.An official group of persons


Historically all three nouns originate from the same verb with the meaning of to jump, to leap (O.E. springan), so that the meaning of the first homonym is the oldest. The meanings of the second and third homonyms were originally based on metaphor. At the head of a stream the water sometimes leaps up out of the earth, so that metaphorically such a place could well be described as a leap. On the other hand, the season of the year following winter could be poetically defined as a leap from the darkness and cold into sunlight and life. Such metaphors are typical enough of Old English and Middle English semantic transferences but not so characteristic of modern mental and linguistic processes. The poetic associations that lay in the basis of the semantic shifts described above have long since been forgotten, and an attempt to re-establish the lost links may well seem far-fetched. It is just the near-impossibility of establishing such links that seems to support the claim for homonymy and not for polysemy with these three words.


It should be stressed, however, that split of the polysemy as a source of homonyms is not accepted by all scholars. It is really difficult sometimes to decide whether a certain word has or has not been subject to the split of the semantic structure and whether we are dealing with different meanings of the same word or with homonyms, for the criteria are subjective and imprecise. The imprecision is recorded in the data of different dictionaries, which often contradict each other on this very issue, so that board is represented as two homonyms in Professor V.K. Mullers dictionary, as three homonyms in Professor V.D. Arakins and as one and the same word in Hornbys dictionary.

Spring also receives different treatment. V.K. Mullers and Hornbys dictionaries acknowledge but two homonyms:

  1. a season of the year;
  2. a) the act of springing, a leap,

b)a place where a stream of water comes up out of the earth;

and some other meanings, whereas V.D.Arakins dictionary presents the three homonyms as given above.



  1. Problems of Homonymy.



The synchronic treatment of English homonyms brings to the forefront a set of problems of paramount importance for different branches of applied linguistics: lexicography, foreign language teaching and information retrieval. These problems are: the criteria distinguishing homonymy from polysemy, the formulation of rules for recognizing different meanings of the same homonym in terms of distribution, and the description of difference between patterned and non-patterned homonymy. It is necessary to emphasize that all these problems are connected with difficulties created by homonymy in understanding the message by the reader or listener, not with formulating ones thoughts; they exist for the speaker though in so far as he must construct his speech in a way that would prevent all possible misunderstanding.


All three problems are so closely interwoven that it is difficult to separate them. So we shall discuss them as they appear for various practical purposes. For a lexicographer it is a problem of establishing word boundaries. It is easy enough to see that match, as in safety matches, is a separate word from the verb match to suit. But he must know whether one is justified in taking into one entry match, as in football match, and match in meet ones match ones equal.

On the synchronic level, when the difference in etymology is irrelevant, the problem of establishing the criterion for the distinction between different words identical in sound form, and different meanings of the same word becomes hard to solve. Nevertheless the problem cannot be dropped altogether as upon an efficient arrangement of dictionary entries depends the amount of time spent by readers in looking up a word: a lexicographer will either save or waste his readers time and effort.


Actual solutions differ. It is a wildly spread practice in English lexicography to combine in one entry words of identical phonetic form showing similarity of lexical meaning or, in other words, revealing a lexical invariant, even if they belong to different parts of speech. In our country a different trend has settled. The Anglo-Russian dictionary edited by V.D. Arakin makes nine separate entries with the word right against four items given in the dictionary edited by A.S. Hornby.


The truth is that there exists no universal criterion for distinction between polysemy and homonymy.

Polysemy characterizes words that have more than one meaning -- any dictionary search will reveal that most words are polysemes -- word itself has 12 significant senses, according to WordNet1. This means that the word, word, is used in texts scanned by lexicographers to represent twelve different concepts.

The point is that words are not meanings, although they can have many meanings.

Lexicographers make a clear distinction between different words by writing separate entries for each of them, whether or not they are spelled the same way. The dictionary of Fred W. Riggs has 5 entries for the form, bow -- this shows that lexicographers recognize this form (spelling) as a way of representing five different words. Three of them are pronounced bo and two bau, which identifies two homophones in this set of five homographs, each of which is a polyseme, capable of representing more than one concept. To summarize: bow is a word-form that stands for two different homophones and, as a homograph, represents five different words.

Moreover, the form bow is polysemic and can represent more than 20 concepts (its various meanings or senses). By gratuitously putting meaning in its definition of a homograph, WordNet can mislead readers who might think that a word is a homonym because it has several meanings -- but having one word represent more than one concept is normal -- just consider term as an example: it can not only refer to the designator of a concept, but also the duration of something, like the school year or a politician's hold on office, a legal stipulation, one's standing in a relationship (on good terms) and many other notions -- more than 17 are identified in the dictionary edited be Fred W. Riggs. By contrast, homonyms are different words and each of them (as a polyseme) can have multiple meanings.

To make their definitions precise, lexicographers need criteria to distinguish different words from each other even though they are spelled the same way. This usually hinges on etymology and, sometimes, parts of speech. One might, for example, think that that firm steadfast and firm business unit are two senses of one word (polyseme). Not so! Lexicographers class them as different words because the first evolved from a Latin stem meaning throne or chair, and the latter from a different root in Italian meaning signature.

Dictionaries are not uniform in their treatment of the different grammatical forms of a word. In some of them, the adjective firm (securely) is handled as a different word from the noun firm (to settle) even though they have the same etymology. Fred W. Riggs isnt persuaded such differences justify treating grammatical classes (adjectives, nouns, and verbs) of a word-form that belongs to a single lexeme as different words -- the precise meaning of lexeme is ________________________________________________________________1. WordNet is a Lexical Database for English prepared by the Cognitive Science Laboratory at Princeton University.

explained below. The relevant point here is that deciding whether or not a form identifies one or more than one lexeme does not hinge on meanings. There is agreement that a word-form represents different words when they evolved from separate roots, and some lexicographers treat each grammatical use of a lexeme (noun, verb, adjective) as though it were a different word.

The etymological criterion may lead to distortion of the present day situation. The English vocabulary of today is not a replica of the Old English vocabulary with some additions from borrowing. It is in many respects a different system, and this system will not be revealed if the lexicographers guided by etymological criteria only.

A more or less simple, if not very rigorous, procedure based on purely synchronic data may be prompted by analysis of dictionary definitions. It may be called explanatory tr