Polysemy and Context. Types of Context



It is generally known that most words convey several concepts and thus possess the correspond­ing number of meanings. A word having several meanings is called polysemantic, and the ability of words to have more than one meaning is described by the term polysemy.

A great contribution to the development of the problem of polysemy was made by the Russian linguist V.V. Vinogradov. The scientist admitted the importance of differentiating the meaning from the usage (a contexua! variant). Meanings are fixed and common to all people, who know the language system. The usage is only a possible application of one of the meanings of a polysemantic word, sometimes very individual, sometimes more or less familiar. Meaning is not identical with usage.

Of special importance is the fact that polysemy exists only in language, not in speech. The meaning of a word in speech is contextual. Polysemy does not interfere with the communicative function of a language because in every particular case the situation or context, i.e. the environment of the word, cancels all the unnecessary meanings and makes speech unambiguous.

A further development of V.V.Vinogradov's theory was A.l.Smirnitsky's work in the linguistic field under consideration. According to this scholar all the meanings of the word form identity (тождество) supported by the form of the word. A.I.Smimitsky introduced the term ‘a lexico-semantic variant’ (LSV). A lexico-semantic variant is a two- facet unit (двусторонняя единица), the formal facet of which is the sound-form of a word, while the content facet is one of the meanings of the given word. i.e. the designation (обозначение) of a certain class of objects. Words with one meaning are represented in the language system by one LSV, polysemantic words - by a number of LSVs.

All lexico-semantic variants of a word form a homogenous semantic structure ensuring the semantic unity of the given word. All LSVs are united together by a certain meaning - the semantic pivot of the word called the semantic center of the word. Thus, the semantic center of the word is the part of meaning which remains constant in all the lexico- semantic variants of the word

Two somewhat naive but frequently asked questions may arise in connection with polysemy:

Is polysemy an anomaly or a general rule in English vocabu­lary?

Is polysemy an advantage or a disadvantage so far as the proc­ess of communication is concerned?

Polysemy is certainly not an anomaly. Most English words are polysemantic. It should be noted that the wealth of expressive re­sources of a language largely depends on the degree to which polysemy has developed in the language. Sometimes people who are not very well informed in linguistic matters claim that a language is lacking in words if the need arises for the same word to be applied to several different phenomena. In actual fact, it is exactly the opposite: if each word is found to be capable of conveying, let us say, at least two concepts instead of one, the expressive potential of the whole vocabulary increases twofold. Hence, a well-developed polysemy is not a drawback but a great advantage in a language.

On the other hand, it should be pointed out that the number of sound combinations that human speech organs can produce is limited. Therefore at a certain stage of language development the production of new words by morphological means becomes limited, and polysemy becomes increasingly important in providing the means for enriching the vocabulary. From this, it should be clear that the process of enriching the vocabulary does not consist merely in adding new words to it, but, also, in the constant development of polysemy.

The system of meanings of any polysemantic word develops gradually, mostly over the centuries, as more and more new meanings are either added to old ones, or oust some of them. So the complicated processes of polysemy development involve both the appearance of new meanings and the loss of old ones. Yet, the general tendency with English vocabulary at the modern stage of its history is to increase the total number of its meanings and in this way to provide for a quantitative and qualitative growth of the language's expressive resources.

When analysing the semantic structure of a polysemantic word, it is necessary to distinguish between two levels of analysis.

On the first level, the semantic structure of a word is treated as a system of meanings. For example, the semantic structure of the noun fire could be roughly presented by this scheme (only the most fre­quent meanings are given):

Fire, n.: I Flame

II. An instance of destructive burning; e. g. a forest fire

III Burning material in a stove, fire­place, etc.; e. g. There is a fire in the next room. A camp fire.

IV The shooting of guns, etc.; e. g. to open (cease) fire.

V Strong feeling, passion, enthu­siasm; e. g. a speech lacking fire

The meaning I holds a kind of domi­nance over the other meanings conveying the concept in the most general way whereas meanings II-V are associated with special cir­cumstances, aspects and instances of the same phenomenon.

Meaning I (generally referred to as the main meaning) presents the centre of the semantic structure of the word holding it together. It is mainly through meaning I that meanings II-V (they are called secondary meanings) can be associated with one another, some of them exclusively through meaning I, as, for instance, meanings IV and V.

Each separate meaning seems to be subject to structural analysis in which it may be represented as sets of

Meaning and Context

We dis­cussed the advantages and disadvantages of this linguistic phenome­non. One of the most important "drawbacks" of polysemantic words is that there is sometimes a chance of misunderstanding when a word is used in a certain meaning but accepted by a listener or reader in another. It is only natural that such cases provide stuff of which jokes are made, such as the ones that follow:

Customer. I would like a book, please.

Bookseller. Something light?

Customer. That doesn't matter. I have my car with me.

In this conversation the customer is honestly misled by the polysemy of the adjective light taking it in the literal sense whereas the bookseller uses the word in its figurative meaning "not serious; entertaining".

In the following joke one of the speakers pretends to misunder­stand his interlocutor basing his angry retort on the polysemy of the noun kick:

The critic started to leave in the middle of the second act of the play.

"Don't go," said the manager. "I promise there's a terrific kick in the next act."

"Fine," was the retort, "give it to the author."

Generally speaking, it is common knowledge that context is a powerful preventative against any misunderstanding of meanings. For instance, the adjective dull, if used out of context, would mean differ­ent things to different people or nothing at all. It is only in combina­tion with other words that it reveals its actual meaning: a dull pupil, a dull play, a dull razor-blade, dull weather, etc. Sometimes, however, such a minimum context fails to reveal the meaning of the word, and it may be correctly interpreted only through what Professor N. Amosova termed a second-degree context, as in the following example: The man was large, but his wife was even fatter. The word fatter here serves as a kind of indicator pointing that large describes a stout man and not a big one.

Current research in semantics is largely based on the assumption that one of the more promising methods of investigating the semantic structure of a word is by studying the word's linear relationships with other words in typical contexts, i. e. its combinability or collocability.

Scholars have established that the semantics of words character­ised by common occurrences (i. e. words which regularly appear in common contexts) are correlated and, therefore, one of the words within such a pair can be studied through the other.

Thus, if one intends to investigate the semantic structure of an ad­jective, one would best consider the adjective in its most typical syn­tactical patterns A + N -adjective + noun) and N + l + A (noun + link verb + kick. n. -- 1 thrill, pleasurable excitement (inform.); 2. a blow with the foot adjective) and make a thorough study of the mean­ings of nouns with which the adjective is frequently used.

For instance, a study of typical contexts of the adjective bright in the first pattern will give us the following sets: a) bright colour (flower, dress, silk, etc.). b) bright metal (gold, jewels, armour, etc.), c) bright student (pupil, boy, fellow, etc.), d) bright face (smile, eyes, etc.) and some others. These sets will lead us to singling out the meanings of the adjective related to each set of combinations: a) in­tensive in colour, b) shining, c) capable, d) gay, etc.

For a transitive verb, on the other hand, the recommended pattern would be V + N (verb + direct object expressed by a noun). If, for instance, our object of investigation are the verbs to produce, to cre­ate, to compose, the correct procedure would be to consider the se­mantics of the nouns that are used in the pattern with each of these verbs: what is it that is produced? created? composed?

There is an interesting hypothesis that the semantics of words regularly used in common contexts (e. g. bright colours, to build a house, to create a work of art, etc.) are so intimately correlated that each of them casts, as it were, a kind of permanent reflection on the meaning of its neighbour. If the verb to compose is frequently used with the object music, isn't it natural to expect that certain musical associations linger in the meaning of the verb to compose?

Note, also, how closely the negative evaluative connotation of the adjective notorious is linked with the negative connotation of the nouns with which it is regularly associated: a notorious criminal, thief, gangster, gambler, gossip, liar, miser, etc.

All this leads us to the conclusion that context is a good and reli­able key to the meaning of the word. Yet, even the jokes given above show how misleading this key can prove in some cases. And here we are faced with two dangers. The first is that of sheer misunderstand­ing, when the speaker means one thing and the listener takes the word in its other meaning.

The second danger has nothing to do with the process of commu­nication but with research work in the field of semantics. A common error with the inexperienced research worker is to see a different meaning in every new set of combinations. Here is a puzzling ques­tion to illustrate what we mean. Cf.: an angry man, an angry letter. Is the adjective angry used in the same meaning in both these contexts or in two different meanings? Some people will say "two" and argue that, on the one hand, the combinability is different (man - name of person; letter - name of object) and, on the other hand, a letter can­not experience anger. True, it cannot; but it can very well convey the anger of the person who wrote it. As to the combinability, the main point is that a word can realise the same meaning in different sets of combinability. For instance, in the pairs merry children, merry laugh­ter, merry faces, merry songs the adjective merry conveys the same concept of high spirits whether they are directly experienced by the children (in the first phrase) or indirectly expressed through the merry faces, the laughter and the songs of the other word groups.

The task of distinguishing between the different meanings of a word and the different variations of combinability (or, in a traditional terminology, different usages of the word) is actually a question of singling out the different denotations within the semantic structure of the word.

Cf.: 1) a sad woman,

2) a sad voice,

3) a sad story,

4) a sad scoundrel (= an incorrigible scoundrel)

5) a sad night (= a dark, black night, arch, poet.)

Diachronic and Synchronic Approaches to Polysemy

If polysemy is viewed diachronically it is understood as the growth and development or as a change in the semantic structure of the word. Polysemy in diachronic terms implies that a word may retain its previous meaning or meanings and at the same time acquire one or several new ones. Thus, according to the diachronic approach in the semantic structure of a word two types of meaning can be singled out: the primary meaning and the secondary meaning. The polysemantic word table, for example, has at least nine meanings in Modem English (ModE). In the course of a diachronic semantic analysis it is found that of all the meanings this word has in ModE the primary meaning is 'a flat

Slab of stone or wood' which is proper to the word in the OE period. All other meanings are secondary as they are derived from the primary meaning. Semantic changes result as a rule in new meanings which are added to the ones already existing in the semantic structure of the word. Some of the old meanings may become obsolete or even disappear but the bulk of English words tend to an increase in the number of meanings.

Synchronically polysemy is understood as the coexistence of various meanings of the same word at a certain historical period of the development of the English language. In the course of a synchronic semantic analysis of the word table the following question arises: do all the nine meanings of the word table equally represent the semantic structure of this word? The meaning that first occurs to us whenever we hear or see the word table is 4an article of furniture*. This emerges as the central (or basic) meaning of the word, and all other meanings are marginal (or minor) meanings. The central meaning occurs in various and widely different contexts, marginal meanings are observed only in certain contexts. There is a tendency in modem linguistics to interpret the concept of the central meaning in terms of the frequency of occurrence of this meaning. As far as the word table is concerned the meaning 'piece of furniture’ possesses the highest frequency of value and makes up 52 % of all the uses of this word.

Historical Changeability of Semantic Structure

As the semantic structure is never static, the primary meaning of the word may become synchronically one of its marginal meanings and diachronically a secondary meaning may become the central meaning of the word. The relationship between the diachronic and synchronic evaluation of an individual meaning may be different in different periods of the historical development of language. This can be illustrated by the semantic analysis of the word evidence. Originally, when this word first appeared in Middle English in the 13th century it denoted ‘significant appearance, token'. This meaning in Middle English was both primary (diachronically) and central (synchro­nically). Later on, the word acquired other meanings and among them 4information lending to establish fact'. In Modem English, however, while we still can diachronically describe the meaning ’’significant appearance, token' as primary it is no longer synchronically central as the arrangement of meanings in the semantic structure of the word evidence has changed and its central and the most frequent meaning is ‘the available body of information indicating whether a belief or proposition is true or valid'.

The results of historical changes in the semantic structure of the word evidence are given in Table 2.

Table 2

evidence 'significant appearance, token' ‘information tending to establish fact'
Middle English    
diachronically primary secondary
synchronically central marginal
Modern English    
diachronically primary secondary
synchronically marginal central

Polysemy and Context. Types of Context

The term 'context’ denotes the minimal stretch of speech determining each individual meaning of the word. Contexts may be of two types: linguistic (verbal) and extra-linguistic (non-verbal).

Linguistic contexts may be subdivided into lexical and grammatical.

In lexical contexts of primary importance are the groups of lexical items combined with the polysemantic word under consideration. This can be illustrated by the results of the analysis of different lexical contexts in which a polysemantic word is used. For example, the adjective heavy used with the words load, table means ‘of great weight’. When combined with the words denoting natural phenomena such as rain, storm, snow, wind the adjective heavy is understood as denoting ‘abundant, striking, falling with force'. If used with the words industry, artillery, arms and the like, heavy has the meaning ‘the larger kind of smth’.

It can be easily observed that the main factor in bringing out the individual meanings of the adjective heavy is the lexical meaning of the words with which this adjective is combined. Thus, the meanings of heavy may be analyzed through its collocability with the words weighty safe, table: snow, wind; industry, artillery, etc. The meaning at the level of lexical contexts is sometimes described as meaning by collocation.

In grammatical contexts it is the grammatical (syntactic) structure of the context that serves to determine various individual meanings of a polysemantic word. The meaning of the verb to make - ‘to force, to induce' is found only in the grammatical context possessing the syn-tactic structure to make + pm. + verb (to make smb. laugh, to make smb. work, to make smb. sit). Another meaning of this verb - ‘to become' is observed in the context of a different syntactic structure - to make + adj. + noun (to make a good wife. to make a good teacher). Such meanings are sometimes described as grammatically bound meanings.

There are cases when the meaning of a word is ultimately determined by the actual speech situation in which the word is used. i.e. by the extra-linguistic context (or context of situation1). In the sentence I The bill is large, the meaning of the word bill is clearly ambiguous as * it has two “readings” resulting from the two meanings of the word bill. The sentence can, however, be ‘disambiguated', i.e. one or the other of its two readings can be established if it is extended with ... but need not be paid. This extension is. of course, possible only with one of the meanings of the word bill. The noun ring in *to give smb. a ring* may possess the meaning *a circlet of precious metal* or a call on the telephone* depending on the situation in which the word is used. Another example is the word glasses in the sentence: John was looking for the glasses. This is ambiguous because it might refer to "spectacles' or to "drinking vessels’. So it is possible to state the meaning of the word glasses only through the extended context or situation.