Simple Essay of Homonymy and Polysemy


Homonymy and Polysemy

            What happened if we determine the meaning of a word by looking at the context of the word? We often get a confusion of doing this case which is one of the common problems in English. Has two or more same words with different meaning and has a word with two or more meanings is one of uniqueness in English. However, it can be a problem if we are confused in determining the meaning of word as previous state. In English, these cases will be discussed in homonymy and polysemy theory.

We begin with homonymy. Dash (2010) reveals that homonymy is such words often exhibit identical spelling or orthographic forms but are different in meaning. Another expert also reveals that homonymy (from Gr. “homos” means “the same”, “omona” means “name”) are the words, different in meaning and either identical both in sound and spelling or identical only in spelling or sound. There are three most widely accepted classification of homonymy:

  1. Homonyms proper (or perfect homonym)
  2. Homophone
  3. Homograph
  • Homonyms proper are words that have identical spelling and pronunciation. For instance:
    • Word “right” carrying the meaning of correctness, and word “right” carrying the meaning of direction.
    • Word “bay” as verb carrying the meaning of “to bark”, and word “bay” as noun carrying the meaning of a part of the sea or the lake filling wide mouth opening of the land, or the European laurel.
    • Word “ball” carrying the meaning of a round object used in game, and word “ball” carrying the meaning of a gathering of people for dancing.


It needs to be emphasized that homonyms are the distinct words, not a word that has the different meaning.

  • Homophones are words that have the same sound but have difference in meaning. For instance:
    • Word “arms” as the part of human body and word “alms” as a gift of money, clothes, or food to poor people.
    • Word “to” carrying the meaning of toward, word “too” carrying the meaning of also, and word “two” as number
    • Word “mare” carrying the meaning of an adult female house and word “mayor” carrying the meaning of elect person who govern or lead a city or town in certain period.
    • Homographs are words that have difference in sound and in meaning but accidentally have identical spelling. For instance:
      • Word “subject” carrying the meaning of a topic, or under same authority or control, or the noun in a sentence about which something is said in the predicate.
      • Word “tear” carrying the meaning of a drop of water from the eyes, or to rip.
      • Word ”project” carrying the meaning of a plan or proposal, or to throw or hurl forward, or to cause a shadow or image to fall upon a surface.

It is different from homonymy, polysemy is the phenomenon when a single word has two or more meanings, no matter how meaning is defined in a given approach (Petho, 1999). Fellbaum (2000:52) also reveals his view that, in polysemy a particular word exhibits variations of its sense depending on the context of its use. It is then able to make confusion again if we should take a look at the context. Here are several criteria of polysemy according to Lyons (1977:550):

  • The relation between the polysemic senses of a word must be clear derived sense
  • The polysemic senses of a word must be shown to be etymologically related to the same original source word
  • Lexical polysemy is a sense relation within a particular syntactic category. i.e., lexical polysemy does not cut across syntactic word class boundaries.

For instance, the word “school” in the following expressions belongs to the syntactic category of noun. Even though it has slightly different senses in each expression, all of these expressions have the same etymological history.

a)      The school is in Murray Street (school=building)

b)      The boys love their school (institution)

c)      The school will visit the old age home (the pupils)

d)     Working abroad is a hard school for anyone (opportunity for learning)

e)      The Prague School of Linguistic (group of scholars propagating a particular theoretical approach)

A problem now is that, many homonymous words occur polysemous in a text. To make us easier to determine whether it is homonymous or is polysemous, we are able to use several parameters below:

  1. Polysemy is the existence of more than one semantic specification for the same lexical item. Homonymy, on the contrary, is the existence of more than one morphological specification sharing the same phonological and/or orthographic representation (Leech, 1974: 230).
  2. While polysemous words have one and only one etymological ancestry, homonyms are not etymologically related (Yule, 1985: 96).
  3. The best solution to the puzzle of polysemy and homonymy is to seek a core of meaning, and the homonymous items sharing the same core meaning should be undoubtedly marked as polysemous (Todd, 1987: 80)
  4. A word that is polysemic will have a variety of synonyms each corresponding to one of its meanings. Moreover, it will also have a set of antonyms. It is tempting to say that where the antonym is the same, there is polysemy, and the differences of antonyms will refer to homonymy (Palmer, 1995: 107).
  5. The ambiguity in homonymous forms is not likely to be sustained in a longer discourse, which may not be true to polysemous words (Kreidler, 1998: 55).
  6. In polysemy, words are semantically related and sense variations typically originate from metaphoric usage; in homonymy, words are different in meanings which are not generally related (Ravin and Leacock, 2000: 2).
  7. The context of homonyms consists of quite different vocabularies, whereas the contexts of polysemes may be quite similar (Ravin and Leacock, 2000: 26)
  8. In case of polysemy, words are registered in a dictionary as single entry and their multiple meanings are normally numbered serially with examples of usage in different contexts, while in homonymy, words have dictionarial entry as separate listemes. Homonyms have separate entries in regular dictionary (Allan, 2001: 42-43).

In short, we really need to differentiate between homonymy and polysemy. It is able to do by the presented discussion in this essay: definition of homonymy as well as polysemy, examples of homonymy and polysemy, and parameters to determine whether it (a word) belongs to homonymy or polysemy.









2 thoughts on “Simple Essay of Homonymy and Polysemy

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