Homonymy in English
Homonymy in English
Determination of Homonymy
Classifications of Homonyms
A. The standard
way of classification (given by I.V. Arnold)
Classification given by A.I. Smirnitsky
Other aspects of classification
Sources of Homonyms
Problems of Homonymy
Distinguishing homonymy from
Different meanings of the same
homonym in terms of distribution
Difference between patterned and
processing considerations have often been used to explain aspects of language
structure and evolution. According to Bates and MacWhinney, this view "is
a kind of linguistic Darwinism, an argument that languages look the way they do
for functional or adaptive reasons". However, as in adaptationist accounts
of biological structures and evolution, this approach can lead to the creation
of "just so" stories. In order to avoid these problems, case-by-case
analyses must be replaced by statistical investigations of linguistic corpora.
In addition, independent evidence for the relative "adaptiveness" of
certain linguistic structures must be obtained. We will use this approach to
study a linguistic phenomenon – homonymy. That seems to be maladaptive both intuitively
and empirically and has been frequently subjected to informal adaptationist
arguments. A statistical analysis of English homonyms then uncovered a reliable
bias against the usage of homonyms from the same grammatical class. A
subsequent experiment provided independent evidence that such homonyms are in
fact more confusing than those from different grammatical classes.
In a simple code each sign has only one
meaning, and each meaning is associated with only one sign. This one-to-one
relationship is not realized in natural languages. When several related
meanings are associated with the same group of sounds within one part of
speech, the word is called polysemantic, when two or more unrelated meanings
are associated with the same form – the words are homonyms.
The intense development of
homonymy in the English language is obviously due not to one single factor but
to several interrelated causes, such as the monosyllabic character of English
and its analytic structure.
The abundance of homonyms
is also closely connected with such a characteristic feature of the English
language as the phonetic identity of word and stem or, in other words, the
predominance of free forms among the most frequent roots. It is quite obvious
that if the frequency of words stands in some inverse relationship to their
length, the monosyllabic words will be the most frequent. Moreover, as the most
frequent words are also highly polysemantic, it is only natural that they
develop meanings, which in the coarse of time may deviate very far from the
In general, homonymy is intentionally sought to
provoke positive, negative or awkward connotations. Concerning the selection of
initials, homonymy with shortened words serves the purpose of manipulation.
The demotivated process of a shortened word hereby leads to re-motivation. The
form is homonymously identical with an already lexicalized linguistic unit,
which makes it easier to pronounce or recall, thus standing out from the
majority of acronyms. This homonymous unit has a secondary semantic relation
to the linguistic unit.
Homonymy of names functions as personified metaphor with the result that the
homonymous name leads to abstraction. The resultant new word coincides in its
phonological realization with an existing word in English. However, there is no
logical connection between the meaning of the acronym and the meaning of the
already existing word, which explains a great part of the humor it produces.
coarse of time the number of homonyms on the whole increases, although
occasionally the conflict of homonyms ends in word loss.
1.Determination of Homonymy
Two or more words identical in sound and spelling but
different in meaning, distribution and in many cases origin are called homonyms. The term is derived
from Greek “homonymous” (homos – “the same” and onoma –
“name”) and thus expresses very well the sameness of name combined with the
difference in meaning.1
There is an obvious
difference between the meanings of the symbol fast in such combinations
as run fast ‘quickly’ and stand fast ‘firmly’. The
difference is even more pronounced if we observe cases where fast is a
noun or a verb as in the following proverbs:
clean fast is better than a dirty breakfast;
feasts till he is sick, must fast till he is well.”
Fast as an isolated
word, therefore, may be regarded as a variable that can assume several
different values depending on the conditions of usage, or, in other words
distribution. All the possible values of each linguistic sign are listed in the
dictionaries. It is the duty of lexicographers to define the boundaries of each
word, i.e. to differentiate homonyms and to unite variants deciding in each
case whether the different meanings belong to the same polysemantic word or
whether there are grounds to treat them as two or more separate words identical
in form. In speech, however, as a rule only one of all the possible values is
determined by the context, so that no ambiguity may normally arise. There is no
danger, for instance, that the listener would wish to substitute the meaning
‘quick’ into the sentence: It is absurd to have hard and fast rules about
anything2, or think that fast rules here are ‘rules of
diet’. Combinations when two or more meanings are possible are either
deliberate puns, or result from carelessness. Both meanings of liver,
i.e. ‘a living person’ and ‘the organ that secretes bile’ are, for instance,
intentionally present in the following play upon words:
“Is life worth living?” ”It depends upon the liver.”
“What do you do with the fruit?” “We eat what we can, and what we can’t eat we
Very seldom can ambiguity
of this kind interfere with understanding. The following example is
unambiguous, although the words back and part have
Arnold “The English Word”
Oscar Wild “Two Society Comedies”
homonyms, and maid and heart are polysemantic:
of Athens, ere we part,
oh give me back my heart”1
Homonymy exists in many
languages, but in English it is particularly frequent, especially among
monosyllabic words. In the list of 2540 homonyms given in the “Oxford English
Dictionary” 89% are monosyllabic words and only 9.1% are words of two
syllables. From the viewpoint of their morphological structure, they are mostly
2. Classifications of Homonyms
The standard way of
(given by I.V. Arnold)
The most widely accepted
classification is that recognizing homonyms proper, homophones and homographs.
C. Homograph (or
B. Homophone (or
Most words differ from
each other in both spelling and pronunciation – therefore they belong to the
sell D in this table – I shall call them allonyms. Not so many linguists
distinguish this category. But it must be admitted that Keith C. Ivey, in his
discussion of homonyms, recognizes this fact and writes:
These familiar with
combinatorics may have noticed that there is a fourth possible category based
on spelling and pronunciation: words that differ in spelling and pronunciation
as well as meaning and origin (alligator/true). These pairs are technically known
as different words.
G.G. Byron, Peter Washington “Poems of Lord Byron”
Unfortunately, this seemingly neat solution doesn't work because all heteronyms
are different words as Ivey's examples show. He illustrates homophones with
board/bored, clearly two different words though pronounced alike, and his
example of homographs (the verb desert/the noun desert) again shows, by their
pronunciation, that they are different words. Even his example of a homonym --
words having both the same sound and spelling, as illustrated by "to quail
and a quail" -- clearly shows they are different words. Lexicographers
underline this point by writing separate entries for different words, whether or
not they have the same spelling and pronunciation.
could stipulate a phrase, like uniquely different words to represent category
D, but this expedient is cumbersome and not transparent. A simpler solution, I
believe, can be found by means of a neologism. It is not difficult to think of
a suitable term.
allonym is a word that differs in spelling and pronunciation from all other
words, whereas both homonyms and heteronyms identify words that are the same,
in some ways, as other words.
No doubt in ordinary
usage, we will have little need for this term, although it would simplify
lexical explanation if one could start by making the claim that the most words
in English are allonyms. The clear exceptions are other groups.
Different words that are spelled
and pronounced the same way are classed in cell A and are correctly called homonyms
proper – but some writers, confusingly, call them heteronyms.
When different words are
spelled the same way but pronounced differently, they belong to category B. It
is precise to call them homographs and they are sometimes misleadingly
called heteronyms. By contrast, when different words are pronounced the same
way but spelled differently, we may properly call them homophones –
rarely, they have also been called heteronyms.
Homonyms proper are words,
as I have already mentioned, identical in pronunciation and spelling, like fast
and liver above. Other examples are: back n ‘part of the body’ – back
adv ‘away from the front’ – back v ‘go back’; ball n ‘a gathering
of people for dancing’ – ball n ‘round object used in games’; bark
n ‘the noise made by dog’ – bark v ‘to utter sharp explosive cries’ –
bark n ‘the skin of a tree’ – bark n
‘a sailing ship’; base
n ‘bottom’ – base v ‘build or place upon’ – base a ‘mean’; bay
n ‘part of the sea or lake filling wide-mouth opening of land’ – bay n
‘recess in a house or room’ – bay v ‘bark’ – bay n ‘the European
The important point is
that homonyms are distinct words: not different meanings within one word.
Homophones are words of
the same sound but of different spelling and meaning:
air – hair; arms – alms;
buy – by; him – hymn; knight – night; not – knot; or – oar; piece – peace; rain
– reign; scent – cent; steel – steal; storey – story; write – right and
In the sentence The
play-wright on my right thinks it right that some conventional rite should
symbolize the right of every man to write as he pleases the sound complex
[rait] is a noun, an adjective, an adverb and a verb, has four different
spellings and six different meanings. The difference may be confined to the use
of a capital letter as in bill and Bill, in the following example:
“How much is my milk bill?”
“Excuse me, Madam, but my
name is John.”
On the other hand, whole
sentences may be homophonic: The sons raise meat – The sun’s rays meet.
To understand these one needs a wider context. If you hear the second in the
course of a lecture in optics, you will understand it without thinking of the
possibility of the first.
Homographs are words
different in sound and in meaning but accidentally identical in spelling: bow
[bou] – bow [bau]; lead [li:d] – lead [led]; row [rou] – row [rau]; sewer
[‘soue] – sewer [sjue]; tear [tie] – tear [tee];
wind [wind] – wind [waind] and many more.
It has been often argued
that homographs constitute a phenomenon that should be kept apart from
homonymy, as the object of linguistics is sound language. This viewpoint can
hardly be accepted. Because of the effects of education and culture written
English is a generalized national form of expression. An average speaker does
not separate the written and oral form. On the contrary he is more likely to
analyze the words in terms of letters than in terms of phonemes with which he
is less familiar. That is why a linguist must take into consideration both the
spelling and the pronunciation of words when analyzing cases of identity of
form and diversity of content.
B. Classification given by A.I. Smirnitsky
The classification, which
I have mentioned above, is certainly not precise enough and does not reflect
certain important features of these words, and, most important of all, their
status as parts of speech. The examples given their show those homonyms may
belong to both to the same and to different categories of parts of speech.
Obviously, the classification of homonyms should reflect this distinctive
feather. Also, the paradigm of each word should be considered, because it has
been observed that the paradigms of some homonyms coincide completely, and of
others only partially.
A.I. Smirnitsky classifieds homonyms into two large classes:
b) partial homonyms
Full lexical homonyms are
words, which represent the same category of parts of speech and have the same
Match n – a game, a
Match n – a short piece
of wood used for producing fire
Wren n – a member of
the Women’s Royal Naval Service
Wren n – a bird
Partial homonyms are
subdivided into three subgroups:
A. Simple lexico-grammatical
partial homonyms are words, which belong to the same category of parts of
speech. Their paradigms have only one identical form, but it is never the same
form, as will be soon from the examples:
(to) found v
found v (past
indef., past part. of to find)
(to) lay v
lay v (past
indef. of to lie)
(to) bound v
bound v (past
indef., past part. of to bind)
B. Complex lexico-grammatical
partial homonyms are words of different categories of parts of speech, which
have identical form in their paradigms.
Rose v (past indef. of to
Made v (past indef.,
past part. of to make)
Left v (past indef.,
past part. of to leave)
Been v (past part. of to
Won v (past indef.,
past part. of to win)
C. Partial lexical homonyms
are words of the same category of parts of speech which are identical only in
their corresponding forms.
to lie (lay, lain) v
to lie (lied, lied) v
to hang (hung, hung) v
to hang (hanged, hanged) v
to can (canned, canned)
C. Other aspects of classification
Various types of classification for homonyms have
A comprehensive system may be worked out if we are
guided by the theory of oppositions and in classifying the homonyms take into
consideration the difference or sameness in their lexical and grammatical
meaning, paradigm and basic form.
As both form and meaning can be further subdivided,
the combination of distinctive features by which two words are compared becomes
more complicated – there are four features: the form may be phonetical and
graphical, the meaning – lexical and grammatical, a word may also have a
paradigm of grammatical forms different from the basic form.
The distinctive features shown in the table below are
lexical meaning (different denoted by A, or nearly the same denoted by A1),
grammatical meaning (different denoted by B, or same by B1), paradigm
(different denoted by C, or same denoted by C1), and basic form (different
denoted by D, and same denoted by D1).
The term “nearly same lexical meaning” must not be
taken too literally. It means only that the corresponding members of the
opposition have some important invariant semantic components in common. “Same
grammatical meaning” implies that both members belong to the same part of
Same paradigm comprises also cases when there is only
one word form, i.e. when the words are unchangeable. Inconsistent combinations
of features are crossed out in the table. It is, for instance, impossible for
two words to be identical in all word forms and different in basic forms, or
for two homonyms to show no difference either in lexical or grammatical
meaning, because in this case they are not homonyms. That leaves twelve
Identity in Words
A1 Nearly same
Different grammatical meaning
Same basic forms
light, -s n
flat, -s n
eye, -s n
Tense of think)
Different basic form
Same grammatical meaning
axe – axes
Different basic form
Variants of the
same polysemantic word
C1 Same paradigm
or no changes
It goes without saying that this is a model that
gives a general scheme. Actually a group of homonyms may contain members
belonging to different groups in this classification. Take, for example, fell1
n ‘animal’s hide or skin with the hair’; fell2 n ‘hill’ and
also ‘a stretch of North-English moorland’; fell3 a ‘fierce’
(poet.); fell4 v ‘to cut down trees’ and as a noun ‘amount of
timber cut’; fell5 (the Past Indefinite Tense of the verb fall).
This group may be broken into pairs, each of which will fit into one of the
above describes divisions. Thus, fell1 - fell2
may be characterized as AB1C1D1, fell1 – fell4
as ABCD1 and fell4 – fell5 as
3. Sources of Homonyms
There are a lot of different sources of homonyms in
English language, so let’s talk about some of them, which are the most
important ones, due to my point of view.
One source of homonyms is phonetic changes,
which words undergo in the coarse of their historical development. As a result
of such changes, two or more words, which were formally pronounced differently,
may develop identical sound forms and thus become homonyms.
Night and knight, for instance, were
not homonyms in Old English as the initial k in the second word was
pronounced, and not dropped as it is in its modern sound form: O.E. kniht
(cf. O.E. niht). A more complicated change of form brought together
another pair of homonyms: to knead (O.E. cneadan) and to need
In Old English the verb to write had the form writan,
and the adjective right had the forms reht, riht. The noun sea
descends from the Old English form sae, and the verb to see
– from O.E. seon. The noun work and the verb to work also
had different forms in Old English: wyrkean and weork
Borrowing is another source of homonyms. A
borrowed word may, in the final stage of its phonetic adaptation, duplicate in
form either a native word or another borrowing. So, in the group of homonyms rite,
n – to write, v – right, adj the second and the third words are
of native origin whereas rite is a Latin borrowing (<Lat. ritus).
In the pair piece, n – peace, n, the first originates from Old
French pais, and the second from O.F. (<Gaulish) pettia. Bank,
n ‘a shore’ is a native word, and bank, n ‘a financial institution’ is
an Italian borrowing. Fair, adj ( as in a fair deal, it’s not fair)
is native, and fair, n ‘a gathering of buyers and sellers’ is a French
borrowing. Match, n ‘a game; a contest of skill, strength’ is native,
and match, n ‘a slender short piece of wood used for producing fire’ is
a French borrowing.
Word building also contributes significantly to the
growth of homonymy, and the most important type in this respect is undoubtedly conversion.
Such pairs of words as comb, n – to comb, v; pale, adj – to
pale, v; to make, v – make, n are numerous in the vocabulary.
Homonyms of this type, which are the same in sound and spelling but refer to
different categories of parts of speech, are called lexico-grammatical
Shortening is a further type of word building,
which increases the number of homonyms. Fan, n in the sense of
‘enthusiastic admirer of some kind of sport or of an actor, singer, etc.’ is a
shortening produced from fanatic. Its homonym is a Latin borrowing fan,
n which denotes an implement for waving lightly to produce a cool current of
air. The noun rep, n denoting a kind of fabric (cf. with the Rus. penc)
has three homonyms made by shortening: rep, n (< repertory), rep,
n (< representative), rep, n (< reputation); all the
three are informal words.
During World War II girls serving in the Women’s
Royal Naval Service (an auxiliary of the British Royal Navy) were jokingly
nicknamed Wrens (informal). This neologistic formation made by
shortening has the homonym wren, n ‘a small bird with dark brown plumage
barred with black’ (Rus. êðàïèâíèê).
Words made by sound-imitation can also form pairs of
homonyms with other words: bang, n ‘a loud, sudden, explosive noise’ – bang,
n ‘a fringe of hair combed over the forehead’. Also: mew, n ‘the sound
the cat makes’ – mew, n ‘a sea gull’ – mew, n ‘a pen in which
poultry is fattened’ – mews ‘small terraced houses in Central London’.
The above-described sources of homonyms have one
important feature common. In all the mentioned cases the homonyms developed
from two or more different words, and their similarity is purely accidental.
(In this respect, conversion certainly presents an exception for in pairs of
homonyms formed by conversion one word of the pair is produced from the other: a
find < to find.)
Now we come to a further source of homonyms, which
differs essentially from all the above cases. Two or more homonyms can
originate from different meanings of the same word when, for some reason, the
semantic structure of the word breaks into several parts. This type of
formation of homonyms is called disintegration or split of polysemy.
From what has been said above about polysemantic
words, it should become clear that the semantic structure of a polysemantic
word presents a system within which all its constituent meanings are held
together by logical associations. In most cases, the function of the
arrangement and the unity if determined by one of the meanings.
An instance of destructive burning: a forest fire
Burning material in a stove, fireplace: There is a fire in the next
room. A camp fire.
The shooting of guns: to open (cease) fire.
Strong feeling, passion, and enthusiasm: a speech lacking fire.
If this meaning happens to disappear from word’s semantic structure,
associations between the rest of the meanings may be severed, the semantic
structure loses its unity and fails into two or more parts which then become
accepted as independent lexical units.
us consider the history of three homonyms:
board, n – a
long and thin piece of timber
board, n –
daily meals, esp. as provided for pay, e.g. room and board
board, n –
an official group of persons who direct or supervise some activity, e.g. a
board of directors.
It is clear that the meanings of these three words are in no way associated
with one another. Yet, most larger dictionaries still enter a meaning of board
that once held together all these other meanings ‘a table’. It developed from
the meaning ‘a piece of timber’ by transference based on contiguity
(association of an object and the material from which it is made). The meanings
‘meals’ and ‘an official group of persons’ developed from the meaning ‘table’,
also by transference based on contiguity: meals are easily associated with a
table on which they are served; an official group of people in authority are
also likely to discuss their business round a table.
Nowadays, however, the item
of the furniture, on which meals are served and round which boards of directors
meet, is no longer denoted by the word board but by the French Norman
borrowing table, and board in this meaning, though still
registered by some dictionaries, can very well be marked as archaic as it is no
longer used in common speech. That is why, with the intrusion of the borrowed table,
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 word’s 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
The following scheme illustrates the process:
Board, n (development of meanings)
A long, thin piece of timber
A piece of furniture
Meals provided for pay
An official group of persons
Board I, II, III, n (split of the polysemy)
A long, thin piece of timber
A piece of furniture
Meals provided for pay
Seldom used: ousted by French borrowing table
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. Muller’s dictionary, as three homonyms in
Professor V.D. Arakin’s and as one and the same word in Hornby’s dictionary.
Spring also receives different treatment. V.K. Muller’s and Hornby’s
dictionaries acknowledge but two homonyms:
a season of the year;
a) the act of springing, a leap,
b)a place where a stream of water comes up out of the
and some other meanings,
whereas V.D.Arakin’s dictionary presents the three homonyms as given above.
3. 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 one’s thoughts; they exist for the speaker though in so far as
he must construct his speech in a way that would prevent all possible
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 one’s match ‘one’s 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.
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
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
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 isn’t 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
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
transformation. 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
child’s voice is heard.1
2. His voice…was…annoyingly
voice-voicelessness distinction…sets up some English consonants in opposed
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’.
Maugham W.S. “The Kite”
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.
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 person’s head’ will be one word, an uncountable noun; whereas ‘a
single thread of hair’ will be
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 Jespersen’s 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 can’t stand
people who laugh at other people. They’d get a bigger laugh, if they laughed at
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 ends of phrases and
clauses and so should tend to be longer because of durational lengthening
concomitant with those boundaries. Indeed, Sorenson and Cooper found that the
noun versions of words were longer in duration than their verb homonyms, and
that these differences were due solely to their different distributions in
sentences. The distributional differences between same class homonyms are
likely to be smaller than those for different class homonyms, which should make
them less easily distinguishable through contextually-driven acoustic modifications.
We will conclude by
mentioning one implication of this work for another aspect of language use,
namely linguistic humor. Puns and other jokes often rely on homonyms for their
effects. The aesthetic impact of puns, in particular, requires that the
audience make a temporary, but perceptible, misinterpretation of a sentence.
The research of some linguists indicates that likelihood of misinterpretation
will be greater with same class homonyms, and so these homonyms should be used
more than different class homonyms in puns. Furthermore, the rated quality of
same class homonyms should be higher than that for different class homonyms.
More generally, whereas prior studies have treated homonyms equivalently in
analysis and experimentation, our understanding of these words and how they are
processed could be enriched by studying homonym subclasses that might differ on
various dimensions such as lexical organization, language evolution, and
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