| 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 speech.
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 possible cases.
| Difference and Identity in Words |
| A Different lexical meaning |
| A1 Nearly same lexical meaning |
| B Different grammatical meaning |
| Partial Homonymy |
| Patterned Homonymy |
| D1 Same basic forms |
| light, -s n |
flat, -s n
| for prp |
| before prp |
| eye, -s n |
eye, -s, -ed,
| might n |
| thought n |
(Past Indef. Tense of think)
| D Different basic form |
| B1 Same grammatical meaning |
| axis, axes n |
axe – axes n
| Synonyms |
| D Different basic form |
| lie-lay-lain v |
| Full Homonymy |
| Polysemy |
Variants of the same polysemantic word
| C Different paradigm |
| C1 Same paradigm or no changes |
| C Different paradigm |
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 A1BCD.
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 (O.E. neodian).
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 respectively.
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 homonyms.
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 (< redivsentative), 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. крапивник).
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 divsents 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 divsents 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.
III. An instance of destructive burning: a forest fire
IV. Burning material in a stove, fireplace: There is a fire in the next room. A camp fire.
V. The shooting of guns: to open (cease) fire.
VI. 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.
Let 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 three units.
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)
| I. |
| A long, thin piece of timber |
A piece of furniture
| II. |
| Meals provided for pay |
| Seldom used: ousted by French borrowing table |
| III. |
| 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 imdivcise. The imdivcision is recorded in the data of different dictionaries, which often contradict each other on this very issue, so that board is redivsented 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:
I. a season of the year;
II. a) the act of springing, a leap,
b)a place where a stream of water comes up out of the earth;
and some other meanings, whereas V.D.Arakin’s dictionary divsents 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 divvent all possible misunderstanding.
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 sdivad 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.
Polysemy characterizes 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 redivsent twelve different concepts.
The point is that words are not meanings, although they can have many meanings.