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Sense Relations (I): Polysemy and Homonymy
4.1 Semasiology and onomasiology - two basic approaches to the study of words and
their senses
The terminological pair onomasiology/ semasiology is a traditional one in
Eropean le!icology and le!icography. This pair is generally regarded as identi"ying
t#o di""erent perspecti$es "or stdying the relationship %et#een #ords and their
semantic $ales.
Semasiology ("rom the &ree' sema, (sign() ta'es its starting point in the #ord
as a "orm and descri%es #hat semantic $ales/senses/signi"ies it may ha$e.
)nomasiology ("rom &ree' onoma (name() acconts "or the opposite direction in the
stdy o" meaning* that is it starts "rom a semantic $ale/gi$en concept (signi"ied/
signi"ie) to the $arios #ords/e!pressions/signi"iers (signi"iants) that are sed to name
that particlar concept.
+ctally* onomasiological research is rather concerned #ith sets o" related
concepts (e!pressed %y sense relations sch as synonymy and antonymy) than #ith a
single semantic category (e.g. polysemy and homonymy), as sch* it traditionally
coincides #ith le!ical "ield research.
&eeraerts* &rondelaersand and -a'ema (1..4: /) inclde semasiological and
onomasiological $ariation among the "or main 'inds o" le!ical $ariation they
identi"y: semasiological* onomasiological* "ormal and conte!tal. The "irst t#o types
are placed nder the general heading conceptal $ariation.
Semasiological $ariation in$ol$es the sitation that one particlar le!ical item
may re"er to distinct types o" re"erents. )nomasiological $ariation in$ol$es the
sitation that a re"erent or type o" re"erent may %e named %y means o" $arios
conceptally distinct le!ical categories.
0hile the poststrctralist phase in the history o" le!ical semantics had a
predominantly semasiological "ocs (concentrating as it did on the changes o"
meaning o" indi$idal #ords)* the strctralist stage stressed the necessity o"
complementing the semasiological perspecti$e #ith an onomasiological one.
-aldinger (1.12: /23) discsses onomasiology and semasiology in terms o"
spea'er4s and hearer4s points o" $ie#: ()nomasiology approaches pro%lems "orm the
$ie#point o" the spea'er* #ho has to choose %et#een di""erent names o" e!pression.
Semasiology approaches pro%lems "rom the $ie#point o" the listener* #ho has to
determine the meaning o" the #ords he hears* "rom all the possi%le meanings(
The complementarity o" the onomasiological and semasiological perspecti$es
is smmari5ed in the last chapter* presenting the interdependence o" the t#o
strctres: (Each lingistic e$oltion is prodced on the one hand #ithin the
"rame#or' o" a semasiological strctre and on the other #ithin the "rame#or' o" an
onomasiological strctre.( (-aldinger* 1.12: /21)
4.6 From word to concept: polysemy and homonymy
The classical distinction %et#een polysemy and homonymy has concerned
semanticists li'e 7llman (1.86)* 0einreich (1.8/* 1.88)* 9yons (1.33)* 9ehrer
7llman (1.86) has proposed t#o criteria "or distingishing homonymy and
polysemy: etymology and spelling. :ollo#ing 9ehrer (1.34%) #e contend that these
criteria rely on diachronic strctre and are not #or'a%le "or langages that are
n#ritten or "or #hich the history is n'no#n.
Ho#e$er* 7llmann (1.86) rightly notes that it is impossi%le to imagine a
langage #ithot polysemy #hile a langage #ithot homonymy is not only
concei$a%le, it #old in "act %e a more e""icient medim.
The criteria that are most in$o'ed in the literatre to distingish %et#een
polysemy and homonymy are etymology and relatedness o" meaning. In terms o" the
"ormer criterion* le!ical items #ith the same origin are considered as polysemic*
#hereas i" they ha$e e$ol$ed "rom distinct le!emes in some earlier stage o" the
langage than they are regarded as homonymos.
This condition is not al#ays rele$ant and there"ore decisi$e* %ecase the
history o" the langage does not al#ays re"lect its present state: there are instances o"
#ords that come "rom the same sorce and cannot %e considered polysemantic* %t
homonymic. :or instance* in present;day English* the le!emes pupil
(stdent( and
* (iris o" the eye( are not semantically related %t they %oth come "rom 9atin
pupillus, pupilla (#ard* orphan;%oy( #hich is a diminti$e o" pupus (child(.
The opposite case is also "airly common* namely #hen t#o le!emes deri$ed
"rom di""erent roots in an earlier state o" the langage are seen as related. :or
e!ample* ear
(organ o" hearing( comes "orm 9atin auris 4ear4* #hile ear
(spi'e o"
corn( is deri$ed "orm 9atin acus* aceris 4hs'4 .
Synchronically* most people heat these t#o le!emes as one polysemos #ord
and e!plain their relation %y means o" metaphor* i.e. the ear corn #as "elt to %e a
metaphor o" the type (the eye o" a needle(* (the "oot o" the montain(* etc.
There"ore* the etymological criterion can %e misleading #hen deciding
%et#een homonymy and polysemy. The latter criterion* i.e. relatedness $s.
nrelatedness o" meaning is <estioned %y 9yons (1.33) #ho arges that relatedness
o" meaning appears to %e a matter o" degree* together #ith the "act that sometimes
nati$e spea'er4s intitions are "rom %eing the tre interpretations as has %een seen
#ith the ear e!ample.
Similarity/relatedness o" meaning has %een represented in a "ormali5ed manner
%y =at5 (1.36)* =at5 and :odor (1.8/) #ho propose the decomposition o" the sense
o" a #ord into its minimal distincti$e "eatres* i.e. into semantic components #hich
contrast #ith other components.
7n"ortnately* componential de"initions o" the type >physical o%?ect@*
>concrete@* >animate@ "or the description o" le!emes sch as bank or mouth are not
s""icient "or the polysemy;homonymy pro%lem.
The relatedness %et#een the di""erent senses o" a #ord is not e!pressi%le in
terms o" A; "eatres %ecase there are cases in #hich these "eatres are present in
di""erent degrees* not in a%solte terms. :or instance* the terms bachelor* lie and
mother ha$e %ecome classic e!amples in the literatre.
:illmore (1.16a) analyses bachelor that is sally de"ined as an nmarried
adlt man %y %ringing into discssion less typical e!amples o" %achelors sch as male
participants in long;term nmarried copling* %oys a%andoned in the ?ngle and
gro#n to matrity a#ay "rom contact #ith hman society* some priests or
Boleman and =ay (1.11: 61) discss the concept lie in terms o" (a) "alsehood*
(%) deli%erateness and (c) intent to decei$e. +s these three elements may possess
di""erent degrees o" importance* there may %e prototypical lies* #hen a statement is
characteri5ed %y properties (%) and (c) and partial lies that inclde instances o" social
lie (e.g. 4Drop in any time4)* #hite lie* e!aggerations* ?o'e* etc. + social lie is a case
#here deceit is help"l and a #hite lie is a case #here deceit is not harm"l.
9a'o"" (1.13: 38) analyses the concept mother and concldes that it cannot %e
de"ined (in terms o" common necessary and s""icient condition approach( that can %e
associated #ith B+ in strctralist semantics. His argment is the e!istence o"
marginal or less typical cases o" mother: %iological mothers* donor mothers (#ho
donate an egg)* srrogate mothers (#ho %ear the child %t may not ha$e donated the
egg)* adopti$e mothers* n#ed mothers #ho gi$e their children p "or adoption* and
The pro%lem o" relatedness o" meaning shold there"ore %e regarded as a
gradient and sometimes s%?ecti$e notion. +lthogh some lingists sch as 9yons
(1.33: CC/) <estion to some e!tent the theoretical signi"icance o" the distinction
%et#een polysemy and homonymy* the t#o phenomena di""er "rom each other in t#o
ma?or points:
(1) homonymy is an accident and ths highly langage;speci"ic phenomenon
(6) polsemy is moti$ated and similar senses can %e "ond in di""erent e$en
typologically/historically nrelated langages.
4./. Study questions and exercises
1. +ns#er these <estions:
1. 0hat do semasiology and onomasiology generally stdy D
6. 0hat is the distinction %et#een semasiology and onomasiology D
/. 0hat is the "ocs o" semasiological research D
4. 0hat semantic relations are associated #ith onomasiology D
C. 0hat does semasiological $ariation re"er to D
8. 0hat does onomasiological $ariation imply D
3. Ho# does onomasiology di""er "rom semasiology D
1. 0hat are the criteria sed in distingishing polysemy "rom homonymyD
2. E!plain the mechanism o" sense e!tension in these #ords:
a) clim% d) #riting
%) moth e) tonge
c) %ea$er ") reader
3. E!plain the mechanism o" sense e!tension in these e!amples:
a) this land %elongs to the Bro#n.
%) 0e need some ne# "aces arond here.
c) He el%o#ed me ot o" the <ee.
4. E!plain the type o" sense e!tension in these polysemantic #ords:
a) paper e) snarl
%) %oard ") prr
c) dry g) grnt
d) sharp
5. &i$e the homonyms o" these #ords and then se them in sentences
o" yor o#n:
a) throgh d) steal
%) storeys e) %all
c) se# ") stare

6. Bonsider the "ollo#ing English #ords and decide #hether they are thoght o" in
terms o" homonymy or polysemy and #hy. Try translating them into any other
langage yo 'no#, are there se$eral possi%le translation e<i$alents or #ill one #ord
do "or the di""erent meanings the English #ord hasD
cap "ace ro# cl%
#ay %ed match plot
7. Ho# many meanings or senses do yo 'no# "or the "ollo#ing English #ordsD Eo
some senses seem more %asic or central than othersD I" so* #hich ones and #hyD
top page %tton ring
.. Bomplete the "ollo#ing e!amples o" polysemy in English. Fote the degree to
#hich they correspond #ith yor o#n langage
leg o" a person / chair
moth o" a person /
%ranch o" a tree /
top ...
tail ...

9. Bonsider the sentences %elo# and comment on the polysemy o" HE+E %y
e!plaining #hich meaning e!tensions are metaphors and #hich are metonymies:
a) Gy head is "ll o" strange thoghts.
%) That ?o'e #ent o$er his head.
c) The <een is still the head o" state.
d) I pre"er my %eer #ithot a head o" "oam.
e) 0e paid ten ponds a head "or the meal.

10. Bomment on the metaphorical extension o" these terms:
a) #arm Hicy H"rosty Hcold
%) #hite H%lac' H%le Hyello# Hred
c) see Hhear Htaste Htoch
11. The #ords in the H)T;B)9E domain arenIt al#ays sed literally. They donIt
al#ays re"er to TEGPER+T7RE. Eiscss the meanings o" the e!pressions %elo#:
a. a #arm personality e. a scorching criticism
%. a hot; tempered person ". a %listering attac'
c. a red;hot idea g. a l'e;#arm response
d. an icy stare h. a "rosty reception
12. Bonsider some idioms #ith HAND e!empli"ying these metonymies:
a) The hand stands "or the acti$ity.
%) The hand stands "or control.
c) Bontrol is holding in the hand.
d) The hand stands "or the person.
13. Gention the type o" metonymy yo can identi"y in these idioms:
a) gi$e some%ody a %ig hand d) gain the pper hand
%) "rom hand to hand e) 'eep a strict hand pon a person
c) 'eep one Is hand(s) in ") an old hand
E!empli"y the idioms a%o$e in sentences o" yor o#n.

14. The non length re"ers to the general dimension in #hich the ad?ecti$es long and
short descri%e regions. :ind sch Ja%stract nonsI "or the "ollo#ing pairs o"
a. tall: short g. "ast: slo#
%. thic': thin h. cle$er: stpid
c. hea$y: light i. %road: narro#
d. #ide: narro# ?. hot: cold
e. old: yong '. #arm: cool
". "ar: near
15. Sometimes $er%s that e!press +FIG+9 S)7FES are sed as metaphors "or
"eatres o" H7G+F SPEEBH in English. :ill in the %lan's #ith the appropriate
sond term. Bhoose "rom this list: %ar'* hiss* grnt* snarl* t#itter* s<eal* prr* gro#l:
1. Gy mother is so cte #hen she ... a%ot her grandchildren.
6. JStop cryingI* the police o""icer the drg dealer.
/. The actress ... her ans#er to the reporters.
4. The prisoner ...his reply to the gard.
C. The sergeant ... his orders to the ne# soldiers.