Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2001, 16 Pages
Term Paper (Advanced seminar)
2. Lexical Entry, Lexical Unit and Lexeme
3. The Concept of the Binary Sign by Ferdinand de Saussure
4. Paradigmatic Relations between Lexical Items
5. The Differentiation between Homonymy and Polysemy
5.2. Formal Identity or Distinctness
5.3. Close Semantic Relatedness
5.4. Lipka´s Conclusions
6. The Identification of Word Classes
7.1. Way of Procedure
7.2. Virginia Woolf: To the Lighthouse
7.3. Comparison of the verb to tear(zerreißen) and the noun tear(die Träne)
7.4. Comparison of the verb to dust(abstauben)and the noun dust(der Staub)
This paper is concerned with the linguistic phenomena of homonymy and polysemy. The term homonymy goes back to the Greek words ´homós`, meaning ´the same`, and ´ónoma`, meaning name. A simplified translation of homonymy would be ´having the same name`. (cf Glück 1993, 251) The term polysemy goes back to the Greek language, too. It is composed of the words ´polys`, meaning ´a lot of``, and ´sema`, which can be translated with ´meaning`. Simply said polysemy is the phenomenon of one word carrying different meanings. (cf Glück 1993, 474)
Homonymy as well as polysemy are rather complex linguistic phenomena. Both have been discussed in connection with each other for a long time. The central point of discussion is the question whether one is confronted with different lexical items which are formally identical, i.e. homonymy, or whether there is just one single lexical item with different meanings, i.e. polysemy. This is especially important with regard to lexicography. It plays also a role in connection with the classification of word classes.
Different criteria have been introduced to distinguish clearly between homonymy and polysemy. Nevertheless the question remains whether an unambiguous distinction can really be made.
Before problems which occur in connection with the distinction between homonymy and polysemy will be discussed it is necessary to give a short definition of the terms lexical entry, lexical unit and lexeme.
The term lexical entry commonly refers to the “[...] formal specification of the various phonological, morphological, syntactic and semantic properties of a word [...].” (Lipka 1992, 130)
A lexical unit is, according to Cruse “the union of a lexical form and a single sense”, i.e. one word is assigned to one special meaning. (Cruse 1986, 76f.)
It should be taken into consideration that words have more than one meaning in many cases. This results in the question for which unit the lexical entry has to be set up. Should words which have more than one meaning be assigned to two lexical entries in a dictionary even if their meanings are related to each other or have been related to each other in history?
In connection with this question Cruse introduces the term lexeme as “a family of lexical units”. (Cruse 1986, 76f.) Lexical units within a lexeme are semantically related. They belong to the same lexical field. Cruse regards the lexeme as the appropriate unit for the lexicographer. (cf Cruse 1986, 76f.)
The following analysis is based on the concept of the binary sign introduced by Ferdinand de Saussure. According to de Saussure the lingustic sign is a unit of two binary aspects: the phonological or graphemic form of the sign (signifiant) and the content of the sign (signifié). The signifiant refers to the outer form of the linguistic sign whereas the term signifié describes the knowledge of a linguistic community about what the sign stands for and what it means. In terms of English lexicology one speaks of formative and sememe. (cf Lipka 1986, 128)
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The relationship between two signs is called homonymy if the signifiant is identical, but the signifié is different and unrelated. Thus homonymy describes relations between two or more lexemes. It is concerned with interlexemic relationships.
In contrast to that polysemy is concerned with relations within one lexeme, i.e. intralexemic relations are to be considered. One speaks of polysemy or multiple meaning if the meaning of two signs is at least partly identical. (cf Lipka 1986, 128f.)
Homonymy and polysemy are often discussed as being the same sort of relationship between words. However, it is rather difficult to compare these phenomena. Reasons will be given in the following paragraph.
According to Lipka the first difference is that homonymy is a paradigmatic relation between different lexical items. (cf Lipka 1992, 135) Paradigmatic relations between different units are established on the vertical dimension of language. (cf Crystal 1995, 160) On this vertical dimension one investigates whether different units can replace each other in a given sequence. Within this investigation the content of the units does not necessarily play a role. Thus a unit might be substituted by another one with a similar meaning (synonymy) , a contrasting meaning (antonymy), a lexeme with a more specific meaning (hyponym) or with a more general meaning (hypernym) or by a unit with a totally unrelated meaning. In this case it rather depends on formal criteria, i.e. on grammatical features, whether a unit in a sequence can be replaced by another one. Therefore the paradigmatic relationship of homonymy does not describe a meaning or semantic relation between signs, lexical items or lexical units, but a relationship between lexical items lying on the formal level of language.
By contrast, Lipka proposes that polysemy can not be seen as a paradigmatic relationship between lexical items, because there is only one lexeme and one cannot discuss relations between one and the same lexeme. What can be discussed are the relations of the several lexical units within this lexeme. (cf Lipka 1992, 135)
The central issue when discussing homonymy and polysemy is how to differentiate between these phenomena. This is especially important with regard to lexicography. Should two signs which have by chance the same graphemic form, but are definitely semantically unrelated, be listed under one and the same lexical entry? How to handle signs which have the same graphemic form and overlapping or derived meanings, but belong to different word classes? Where to draw a clear dividing line between one word
 Swiss linguist; lived from 1857 to 1913; his main work “Cours de lingustique générale” was published in 1916 after his death (cf Matthews 1997, 329)
 The two-dimensional model of language structure was introduced by Ferdinand de Saussure.
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