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Salvador Valera

Polysemy and homonymy are traditionally described in the context of paradigmatic lexical relations. Unlike monosemy, in which one meaning is associated with one form, and unlike synonymy, in which one meaning is associated with several forms, in polysemy and homonymy several meanings are associated with one form. The classical view of polysemy and homonymy is as a binary opposition whereby the various meanings of one form are described either as within one word (polysemy) or as within as many words as meanings (homonymy). In this approach, the decision is made according to whether the meanings can be related to one or two different sources. This classical view does not prevail in the literature as it did in the past. The most extreme revisions have questioned the descriptive synchronic difference between polysemy and homonymy or have subsumed the separation as under a general use of one term (homophony) and then established distinctions within, according to meaning and distribution. A more widespread reinterpretation of the classical opposition is in terms of a gradient where polysemy and homonymy arrange themselves along a continuum. Such a gradient arranges formally identical units at different points according to their degree of semantic proximity and degree of entrenchment (the latter understood as the degree to which a form recalls a semantic content and is activated in a speaker’s mind). The granularity of this type of gradient varies according to specific proposals, but, in the essential, the representation ranges from most and clearest proximity as well as highest degree of entrenchment in polysemy to least and most obscure proximity and lowest degree of entrenchment in homonymy.


Agustín Vicente and Ingrid L. Falkum

Polysemy is characterized as the phenomenon whereby a single word form is associated with two or several related senses. It is distinguished from monosemy, where one word form is associated with a single meaning, and homonymy, where a single word form is associated with two or several unrelated meanings. Although the distinctions between polysemy, monosemy, and homonymy may seem clear at an intuitive level, they have proven difficult to draw in practice. Polysemy proliferates in natural language: Virtually every word is polysemous to some extent. Still, the phenomenon has been largely ignored in the mainstream linguistics literature and in related disciplines such as philosophy of language. However, polysemy is a topic of relevance to linguistic and philosophical debates regarding lexical meaning representation, compositional semantics, and the semantics–pragmatics divide. Early accounts treated polysemy in terms of sense enumeration: each sense of a polysemous expression is represented individually in the lexicon, such that polysemy and homonymy were treated on a par. This approach has been strongly criticized on both theoretical and empirical grounds. Since at least the 1990s, most researchers converge on the hypothesis that the senses of at least many polysemous expressions derive from a single meaning representation, though the status of this representation is a matter of vivid debate: Are the lexical representations of polysemous expressions informationally poor and underspecified with respect to their different senses? Or do they have to be informationally rich in order to store and be able to generate all these polysemous senses? Alternatively, senses might be computed from a literal, primary meaning via semantic or pragmatic mechanisms such as coercion, modulation or ad hoc concept construction (including metaphorical and metonymic extension), mechanisms that apparently play a role also in explaining how polysemy arises and is implicated in lexical semantic change.


The words and word-parts children acquire at different stages offer insights into how the mental lexicon might be organized. Children first identify ‘words,’ recurring sequences of sounds, in the speech stream, attach some meaning to them, and, later, analyze such words further into parts, namely stems and affixes. These are the elements they store in memory in order to recognize them on subsequent occasions. They also serve as target models when children try to produce those words themselves. When they coin words, they make use of bare stems, combine certain stems with each other, and sometimes add affixes as well. The options they choose depend on how much they need to add to coin a new word, which familiar elements they can draw on, and how productive that option is in the language. Children’s uses of stems and affixes in coining new words also reveal that they must be relying on one representation in comprehension and a different representation in production. For comprehension, they need to store information about the acoustic properties of a word, taking into account different occasions, different speakers, and different dialects, not to mention second-language speakers. For production, they need to work out which articulatory plan to follow in order to reproduce the target word. And they take time to get their production of a word aligned with the representation they have stored for comprehension. In fact, there is a general asymmetry here, with comprehension being ahead of production for children, and also being far more extensive than production, for both children and adults. Finally, as children add more words to their repertoires, they organize and reorganize their vocabulary into semantic domains. In doing this, they make use of pragmatic directions from adults that help them link related words through a variety of semantic relations.