Homonymy in English

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ansformation. It is based on the assumption that if different senses rendered by the same phonetic complex can be defined with the help of an identical kernel word-group, they may be considered sufficiently near to be regarded as variants of the same word; if not, they are homonyms.

Consider the following set of examples:

  1. A childs voice is heard.1
  2. His voice…was…annoyingly well-bred.2
  3. The voice-voicelessness distinction…sets up some English consonants in opposed pairs…
  4. In the voice contrast of active and passive…the active is the unmarked form.

The first variant (voice1) may be defined as sound uttered in speaking or singing as characteristic of a particular person, voice2 as mode of uttering sounds in speaking or singing, voice3 as the vibration of the vocal chords in sounds uttered. So far all the definitions contain one and the same kernel element rendering the invariant common basis of their meaning. It is, however, impossible to use the same kernel element for the meaning present in the fourth example. The corresponding definition is: “Voice that form of the verb that expresses the relation of the subject to the action”. This failure to satisfy the same explanation formula sets the fourth meaning apart. It may then be considered a homonym to the polysemantic word embracing the first three variants. The procedure described may remain helpful when the items considered belong to different parts of speech; the verb voice may mean, for example, to utter a sound by the aid of the vocal chords. ________________________________________________________________

  1. Maugham W.S. “The Kite”
  2. London J. “The Call of the Wild and White Fang”

This brings us to the problem of patterned homonymy, i.e. of the invariant lexical meaning present in homonyms that have developed from one common source and belong to various parts of speech.

Is a lexicographer justified in placing the verb voice with the above meaning into the same entry with the first three variants of the noun? The same question arises with respect to after or before preposition, conjunction and adverb.

English lexicographers think it quite possible for one and the same word to function as different parts of speech. Such pairs as act n act v; back n - back v; drive n drive v; the above mentioned after and before and the like, are all treated as one word functioning as different parts of speech. This point of view was severely criticized. It was argued that one and the same word could not belong to different parts of speech simultaneously, because this would contradict the definition of the word as a system of forms.

This viewpoint is not faultless either; if one follows it consistently, one should regard as separate words all cases when words are countable nouns in one meaning and uncountable in another, when verbs can be used transitively and intransitively, etc. In this case hair1 all the hair that grows on a persons head will be one word, an uncountable noun; whereas a single thread of hair will be

denoted by another word (hair2) which, being countable, and thus different in paradigm, cannot be considered the same word. It would be tedious to enumerate all the absurdities that will result from choosing this path. A dictionary arranged on these lines would require very much space in printing and could occasion much wasted time in use. The conclusion therefore is that efficiency in lexicographic work is secured by a rigorous application of etymological criteria combined with formalized procedures of establishing a lexical invariant suggested by synchronic linguistic methods.


As to those concerned with teaching of English as a foreign language, they are also keenly interested in patterned homonymy. The most frequently used words constitute the greatest amount of difficulty, as may be summed up by the following jocular example: I think that this “that” is a conjunction but that that “that” that that man used as pronoun.


A correct understanding of this peculiarity of contemporary English should be instilled in the pupils from the very beginning, and they should be taught to find their way in sentences where several words have their homonyms in other parts of speech, as in Jespersens example: Will change of air cure love? To show the scope of the problem for the elementary stage a list of homonyms that should be classified as patterned is given below:


Above, prp, adv, a; act, n, v; after, prp, adv, cj; age, n, v; back, n, adv, v; ball, n, v; bank, n, v; before, prp, adv, cj; besides, prp, adv; bill, n, v; bloom, n, v; box, n, v. The other examples are: by, can, close, country, course, cross, direct, draw, drive, even, faint, flat, fly, for, game, general, hard, hide, hold, home, just, kind, last, leave, left, lie, light, like, little, lot, major, march, may, mean, might, mind, miss, part, plain, plane, plate, right, round, sharp, sound, spare, spell, spring, square, stage, stamp, try, type, volume, watch, well, will.


For the most part all these words are cases of patterned lexico-grammatical homonymy taken from the minimum vocabulary of the elementary stage: the above homonyms mostly differ within each group grammatically but possess some lexical invariant. That is to say, act v follows the standard four-part system of forms with a base form act, an s-form (act-s), a Past Indefinite Tense form (acted) and an ing-form (acting) and takes up all syntactic functions of verbs, whereas act n can have two forms, act (sing.) and act (pl.). Semantically both contain the most generalized component rendering the notion of doing something.


Recent investigations have shown that it is quite possible to establish and to formalize the differences in environment, either syntactical or lexical, serving to signal which of the several inherent values is to be ascribed to the variable in a given context. An example of distributional analysis will help to make this point clear.

The distribution of a lexico-semantic variant of a word may be represented as a list of structural patterns in which it occurs and the data on its combining power. Some of the most typical structural patterns for a verb are: N + V + N; N + V + Prp + N; N + V + A; N + V + adv; N + V + to + V and some others. Patterns for nouns are far less studied, but for the present case one very typical example will suffice. This is the structure: article + A + N.


In the following extract from “A Taste of Honey” by Shelagh Delaney the morpheme laugh occurs three times: I cant stand people who laugh at other people. Theyd get a bigger laugh, if they laughed at themselves.


We recognize laugh used first and last here as a verb, because the formula is N + laugh + prp + N and so the pattern is in both cases N + V + prp + N. In the beginning of the second sentence laugh is a noun and the pattern is article + A + N.


This elementary example can give a very general idea of the procedure which can be used for solving more complicated problems.


We may sum up our discussion by pointing out that whereas distinction between polysemy homonymy is relevant and important for lexicography it is not relevant for the practice of either human or machine translation. The reason for this is that different variants of a polysemantic word are not less conditioned by context then lexical homonyms. In both cases the identification of the necessary meaning is based on the corresponding distribution that can signal it and must be present in the memory either of the pupil or the machine. The distinction between patterned and non-patterned homonymy, greatly underrated until now, is of far greater importance. In non-patterned homonymy every unit is to be learned separately both from the lexical and grammatical points of view. In patterned homonymy when one knows the lexical meaning of a given word in one part of speech, one can accurately predict the meaning when the same sound complex occurs in some other part of speech, provided, of coarse, that there is sufficient context to guide one.
































An important issue that needs to be discussed is the generalizability of the results from written to spoken language. Although we cannot offer definitive arguments on this point, we can cite some reasons why the results might underestimate the difference between same and different class homonyms in speech. First, the disambiguating information provided by orthography would be absent. Second, homonyms from different grammatical classes would tend to have acoustic differences that could aid in disambiguation. In particular, because of the basic clause structure of English, nouns are more likely than verbs to appear at the end