How is polysemy different from homonymy?
This is the second and final lesson about Homonyms and Polysemes. To complete this course, read each lesson carefully and then unlock and complete our materials to check your understanding.
– Review the concept of homynmy and its five key types: capitonym, heteronym, homograph, homophone and polyseme
– Compare homonymy with polysemy using examples
– Discuss the important of having a knowledge of polysemy when using English for academic purposes
In Lesson 1 of this course on homonymy and polysemy we broadly defined a homonym as being any word which shares identical spelling or pronunciation with another word. We then identified five types of homonym using the word ‘bow’. After quickly reviewing each of those five types in this final lesson, we will then focus our attention more specifically on polysemy, which is when two words share identical spelling but have different – though related – meanings.
The defining features of the five types of homonym were explored in Lesson 1:
These features can be observed in the following examples:
While the broader definition of homonymy used here identifies word pairs which share either identical spelling or identical pronunciation, the narrower definition used by some grammarians identifies true homonyms as being words which are both homographs and homophones of each other. In other words, for two words to be homonymous under this definition, they would have different meanings but identical spelling and pronunciation. With this in mind, only the following two word pairs from our previous examples could therefore be considered true homonyms:
How are polysemes and homonyms different?
Where the topic of homonymy becomes even more complicated is when we compare polysemes with homonyms. This is because polysemy can be thought of as a type of homonymy. Indeed, like true homonyms, polysemous words must have identical pronunciation and different meanings. However, of the two sets of homonyms listed above, only the second set (‘bow’ /boʊ/ and ‘bow’ /boʊ/) is additionally polysemous. This is because the defining feature of polysemous words is that their meanings, though different, are related.
In the previous examples, although both sets of words have different meanings and identical pronunciation, it is only possible to determine that the meanings in the second set are related to each other. Whether referring to ‘bowed’ legs or a ‘bow’ weapon, the meanings of each polyseme are connected to their curved shape:
Let’s take a look at a few more examples to see this more clearly. In the following sentence pairs, observe how the bold words have different but related meanings:
a) James tore a page out of the newspaper.
a) I was hired by the newspaper back in 2019.
b) He can be a good student when he pays attention.
b) She is a good painter, particularly with watercolours.
c) I left the key to my house at work so I’m locked out.
c) Global warming is one of the key problems facing humanity.
Hopefully you noticed that ‘newspaper’ in (a) is polysemous, with the first example referring to the printed newspaper and the second to the company that prints it. We can also see in (b) how ‘good’ variably means ‘well behaved’ or ‘talented’ depending on the context, with both meanings relating to the success of being a student or a painter. Furthermore, in (c), a physical ‘key’ unlocks a door and a ‘key problem’ is one that also needs fixing – or unlocking, as in a key to a puzzle. To summarise then, the main difference between homonyms and polysemes is that homonymy is an accidental similarity between words while polysemous words are connected in meaning through a shared word history (etymology). Though this is an important distinction, etymological study can be challenging for the writers of dictionaries, and there is often much debate as to whether two words are homonyms or polysemes.
Why is a knowledge of polysemy important?
It’s said that around 40% of words in English are polysemous, so for students who wish to compose well-written essays that are free of errors, having a knowledge of the context dependency of word meanings can be an important tool for accuracy. Not only that, but polysemous words can cause significant reading comprehension problems, with non-native speakers misunderstanding the variable meanings of a word. Finally, one additional benefit is that a knowledge of polysemy can be helpful when tackling subject-specific vocabulary, as the following examples show:
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