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Polysemy

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English

Polysemy refers to a single word with more than one meaning. The multiple meanings are listed under one entry in a dictionary. For example, the word dish has multiple meanings, but they're all under one entry (as a noun) in a dictionary:

Dish (noun)

  • It's your turn to wash the dishes = a kind of plate.
  • How long does it take to cook this dish? = a meal.

Both meanings of dish imply some kind of 'food being served'. They're related by sense but have different definitions.

Another example of a polysemous word is wing:

Wing (noun)

  • One of the bird's wings is broken = parts of a bird for flying.
  • The hospital is building a new wing = a new part of a building.

Again, both meanings refer to 'a section that sticks out from the main body'. The definitions are different but related to each other.

Polysemy meaning in linguistics

The term polysemy comes from the Greek words poly and sēma which together mean 'many signs'. The opposite of polysemy is monosemy. Monosemy is when one word has only one meaning.

Polysemy is related to homonymy (one word that has multiple meanings but is pronounced and/or spelt the same). Additionally, because polysemous words have more than one meaning, they can cause lexical ambiguity. This can happen when someone hears/reads something without the same frame of reference or contextual information as the speaker/writer. For example, 'Let's go to the bank!' isn't clear. Does this mean 'a river bank' or 'a financial institution'?

Examples of polysemy in semantics

Take a look at the sentences below and find one word that they all have in common:

  1. He has served his time in prison.
  2. The free food is served to homeless people only.
  3. This old bike has served me well.
  4. The new mall will serve the community well.
  5. My mom served in the medical corps.

All five sentences use the same verb serve. Although each sentence carries a different sense of serve, they all imply the same meaning of 'giving service':

  1. He has served his time in prison → spend some time (in prison).
  2. The free food is served for homeless people only → provide.
  3. This old bike has served me well → be useful.
  4. The new mall will serve the community well → provide.
  5. My mom serves in the medical corps → work as.

Some other examples of polysemy include:

  • Verb: get - receive, bring, move/travel.
  • Noun: bank - of a river/canal, a place to deposit money, a slope.
  • Adjective: light - colours, not heavy, not serious.

Important to know: One fundamental characteristic of polysemous words is that all the different meanings are associated in related senses. Because of this, polysemous words often have denotative and connotative meanings. For instance: Head: of a body (denotative) and the person at the top of a company (connotative). Bright: shining (denotative) and intelligent (connotative). Run: to move fast on foot (denotative) and manage (connotative).

Polysemy examples in literature

Take a look at this excerpt from Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale (1623) (Act 5, Scene 3) below and analyze the polysemous meaning of the word gallery:

LEONTES

O Paulina,

We honor you with trouble: but we came

To see the statue of our queen: your gallery

Have we pass'd through, not without much content

In many singularities; but we saw not

That which my daughter came to look upon,

The statue of her mother

[...]

PAULINA

As she lived peerless,

So her dead likeness, I do well believe,

Excels whatever yet you look'd upon

Or hand of man hath done; therefore I keep it

Lonely, apart. But here it is: prepare

To see the life as lively mock'd as ever

Still sleep mock'd death: behold, and say 'tis well.

The word gallery has several different meanings:

  1. A long corridor to exhibit works of art in Elizabethan and Jacobean houses.
  2. (In a theatre) the highest of such projecting platforms, containing the cheapest seats.
  3. A crypt or a catacomb.

At the first glance, you may think the gallery that Shakespeare refers to is 'the corridor to display art' (meaning 1). However, after analyzing Paulina's remark on Leontes, the interpretation of gallery is likely to be a 'crypt/catacomb' (meaning 3). Paulina compares the statue of Hermione to a 'funerary monument' (her dead likeness), instead of a piece of artwork (Sabatier, 2016).

Study tip: Polysemous words are often tricky to interpret. The meaning of the word that the author wants to express can sometimes be “hidden” under another meaning that is more familiar to us. Pay attention to the tone, setting, and context of the prose to fully grasp the author's “real” meaning.

What is the difference between polysemy and homonymy?

If you read or hear two words that are written or pronounced the same but have different meanings, they are likely to be either an example of polysemy or homonymy. Deciding what kind of relationship the two words have can be challenging, but not once you understand the differences between these terms.

Polysemy

  • Refers to a word with multiple meanings.
  • Are listed under a single dictionary entry.
  • Must stem from the same word class, eg noun-noun: mouse (an animal - computer device), wings (parts of birds for flying - part of a building), beam (a line of light - a piece of wood).
  • Refers to words with different meanings but with the same pronunciation and/or spelling.
  • Are listed under multiple dictionary entries.
  • Can be verb-noun combination: to address - an address, to rock - a rock, to park - a park.

Study tip: Homonym is a broad term and can be distinguished from:

Homographs: words with different meanings and pronunciation but written the same, eg, lead (verb) and lead (noun)

Homophones: words with different meanings and spellings but the same pronunciation, eg, write, right, and rite.

Polysemy vs. homonymy

Take the word address.

First, analyse the multiple meanings and word class. Address has two meanings and two different word classes:

  • to speak to (verb) and,

  • a location (noun).

Second, if the words have multiple forms (multiple entries in a dictionary), eg a verb and noun, they are homonyms. If the two words stem from a single form (one entry in a dictionary), eg a verb or noun, they are polysemies. The word address has two word forms: a verb and a noun. This proves that address is a homonym.

Third, check if the different meanings are related. The two meanings of address ('to speak to' and 'a location') are not related. This further proves that address is a homonym.

In contrast, the word bright ('shining' and 'intelligent') is an example of polysemy because it only has one form (adjective) and both meanings are related. Take a look at the diagram below.

Polysemy vs Homonymy, Raisa Yogiaman, StudySmarter Originals

Polysemy and homonymy

There are, however, some words that are both example of polysemy and homonymy, such as date.

  • date (noun) means 'a fruit', 'a particular day', and 'a romantic meeting' → polysemy 1
  • date (verb) means 'to write a particular day' and 'to have a romantic meeting' → polysemy 2
  • This means date (noun) and date (verb) are homonyms.

What is the difference between polysemy and hyponymy?

To explain the difference, let's take the word mouse.

Polysemy describes one word with more than one meaning.

  • What does mouse mean?
  • Mouse has two meanings: an animal (meaning 1) and a computer device (meaning 2).

Because the word mouse has multiple meanings it can cause lexical ambiguity: "Do you mean the animal mouse or the computer device?" Hyponymy describes a super and subordinate relationship between words.

  • What are the kinds of mouse? There are two kinds of mouse (superordinate): house mouse (subordinate 1) and field mouse (subordinate 2).

Hence, even if the word mouse is used without a specific reference to the house mouse or field mouse, it still indicates the animal mouse. It doesn't cause lexical ambiguity with the other meaning of mouse (a computer device).

Polysemy vs. hyponymy

  • From the perspective of polysemy, house mouse and field mouse aren't the two different meanings of mouse. Both types of mouse refer to one thing, the animal.
  • From the perspective of hyponymy, mouse the computer device isn't a kind of mouse. It is a mouse (the connotative meaning of mouse = polysemy).

Computer mouse, pixaby.comPolysemy, Field Mouse, StudySmarter Field mouse, pixaby.com

Based on these two different concepts, we can conclude that:

Bring me the mouse!

  • Polysemy: can cause misunderstanding. Does it refer to the animal mouse or the computer device?
  • Hyponymy: doesn't cause misunderstanding. It clearly refers to the animal mouse and not the other meaning of mouse, eg the computer device

Polysemy - Key takeaways

  • Polysemy is about a single word with many related meanings. The multiple meanings are listed under one dictionary entry.
  • The opposite of polysemy is monosemy (a word that has one meaning only). All non-polysemous words are monosemous.
  • Homonymy defines words with multiple meanings and are written and / or pronounced the same. The different meanings are unrelated, eg to address (verb) - an address (noun).
  • Polysemy: words that have multiple meanings but are under one dictionary entry.
  • Homonymy: words under multiple dictionary entries that have multiple meanings and are pronounced and/or spelt the same.
  • Hyponymy refers to super- and subordinate relationships between words. One word has one meaning but can be divided into several subtypes.

¹ A. Sabatier, Shakespeare and Visual Culture, (2016).

Polysemy

Polysemy refers to a single word with more than one related meaning. The multiple meanings are listed under one dictionary entry.

Some examples of polysemy are get - receive, bring, move / travel; bank - of a river / canal, a place to deposit money, a slope; and light - of colors, not heavy, not serious.

 Monosemy is the opposite of polysemy. Monosemy refers to a word that has one meaning only.

Polysemy illustrates a single word with many related meanings (one dictionary entry), eg, get - receive, bring, travel / move. Homonymy is about words that have different meanings and multiple dictionary entries but are spelled and / or pronounced the same, eg rose - a flower & increased.

Polysemy explains a word (under one dictionary entry) with more than one related meaning (eg get - receive, bring, travel / move). Hyponymy describes a super- and subordinate relationship between words (eg dog - poodle, labrador, pomeranian).

Final Polysemy Quiz

Question

What is polysemy?

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Answer

Polysemy refers to a single word with more than one related meaning. The multiple meanings are listed under one dictionary entry.

Show question

Question

True or false - the multiple meanings of polysemy are listed under several dictionary entries, eg a noun and a verb.


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Answer

False

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Question

What is the opposite of polysemy?


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Answer

Monosemy.

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Question

True or false - Monosemy is a word that has one meaning only.


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Answer

True

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Question

True or false - All non-polysemous words are monosemous.


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Answer

True

Show question

Question

Is get an example of polysemy or monosemy?


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Answer

Polysemy

Show question

Question

Is tank an example of polysemy or monosemy?


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Answer

Polysemy

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Question

Is oxygen an example of polysemy or monosemy?


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Answer

Monosemy

Show question

Question

True or false - Homonymy defines words with multiple meanings that are written and/or pronounced the same.


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Answer

True

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Question

 Is may an example of polysemy or homonymy or both?


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Answer

Homonymy

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Question

Is drink an example of polysemy or homonymy or both?

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Answer

Both

Show question

Question

Why is date both an example of polysemy and homonymy?


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Answer

Date is both polysemy and homonymy because (1) it has two word forms (homonymy): noun and verb. (2) Date has more than one meaning within a single word form (as a verb or noun). Thus, date is also polysemy.

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Question

True or false - Hyponym refers to super- and subordinate relationships between words.



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Answer

True

Show question

Question

What distinguishes polysemy from hyponymy?


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Answer

Unlike hyponymy, polysemy doesn't explain the hierarchical relationship between words but defines the multiple meanings of a single word.

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Question

True or false - Dogs, labrador, poodle, and husky illustrate a polysemous relationship.


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Answer

 False

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Question

Polysemy refers to what?

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Answer

A single word with more than one meaning

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Question

Polysemous words are often _____ to interpret.

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Answer

tricky

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Homonym is a ______ term.

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Answer

broad

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The term polysemy comes from the Greek words poly and sēma which mean what?

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Answer

many signs

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Question

True or false?


Some words can be examples of both polysemy and homonymy.

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Answer

True

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Question

Which of the following words is not an example of polysemy?

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Answer

clarity

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Which of the following words is an example of polysemy?

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foot

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Question

True or false?


Polysemy refers to multiple words with the same meaning.

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Answer

False

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Question

Fill in the blanks:


Because polysemous words have more than one meaning, they can cause ________ _________.

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Answer

lexical ambiguity

Show question

Question

True or false?


Polysemy is related to homonymy.

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Answer

True

Show question

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