Polysemy in Traditional vs. Cognitive Linguistics | Linguistics | Semantics

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Academic paper on polysemy
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   Eger Journal of English Studies XI (2011) 3  –  19   Polysemy in Traditional vs. Cognitive Linguistics Éva Kovács   1 Introduction Polysemy, the phenomenon whereby a linguistic unit exhibits multiple distinctyet related meanings is a very common feature of any language. In fact, almostall the words in language are polysemous to a greater or lesser extent. Consider such words in English as  get  ,  face and nice , etc. Polysemy is justly considered to be a necessary means of language economy. As Ullmann (1959:118) puts it, “polysemy is an indispensable resource of language economy. It would bealtogether impracticable to have separate terms for every referent ”.   No wonder polysemy is such a topic of interest in the study and descriptionof natural languages, and poses special problems both in semantic theory andsemantic applications, such as lexicography or translation. Nevertheless, exceptas a source of humour and puns, polysemy is rarely a problem for communication among people. In fact, language users select the appropriatesenses of polysemous words “effortlessly and unconsciously” (Ravin & Leacock 2000:1).A look at the entries for polysemous words in different dictionaries showsthat polysemy presents a challenge to lexicographers. The traditionallexicographic practice is to list multiple dictionary senses for polysemous wordsand to group related ones as sub  –  senses. However, dictionaries differ in thenumber of senses they define for each word, the grouping into subsenses and thecontent of definitions. It seems that there is little agreement amonglexicographers as to the degree of polysemy and the way in which the different senses are organised (Hollósy 2008:209) . The lexicographers’ disunity is mirrored in linguistically naive speaker’s  judgement about polysemous words. Jorgenson (1990:187) asked speakers todistinguish senses of highly polysemous words, among others: head  (21dictionary senses), life (18), world (14), way (12),  side (12) and hand  (11). Theauthor found that the subjects in the test consistently refused to recognise morethan about three senses, even after being shown the dictionary entries for   polysemous words that differentiated a dozen or more senses. In Jorgenson’s view (1990: 168), dictionary entries for some words “ do inflate the number of sense categori es beyond those normally distinguished by speakers”. One difficulty people will have in using the dictionary is in distinguishing major and  4 Éva Kovács   minor senses, since most dictionaries treat all senses as equally important, whichis clearly misleading.Being very complex, the concept of polysemy poses a challenge for lexicalsemanticists as well. As pointed out by Jackson and Amwela (2007:69), itinvolves a certain number of problems, such as the number of meanings,transference of meanings and difficulty in recognizing polysemy as opposed tohomonymy.Since one meaning cannot always be delimitated and distinguished fromanother, we cannot determine exactly how many meanings a polysemous wordhas. Consider the verb eat, which has the following main meanings (Mayor 2009:535):1.   to put food in your mouth and chew and swallow it (She was eating  anice cream.)2.   to have a meal (Let’s eat  first and then go to the movie.)3.   to use a very large amount of something (This car  eats petrol.)However, besides its literal meaning, it is also used in idioms having atransferred meaning, such as eat your words (admit that what you said waswrong); eat somebody alive (be very angry with someone);  I’ll eat my hat; I  could eat a horse;   have somebody eating out of your hand; eat somebody out of house and home; and you are what you eat, etc. What is more, in the literalsense, we can also distinguish between eating nuts and eating soup, the former with fingers and the latter with spoons. If we push this analysis too far, we mayend up deciding that the verb eat  has a different meaning for every type of foodwe eat (Jackson & Amwela 2007:69). Even this example shows that a word mayhave both a ‘literal’ meaning and one or more ‘transferred’ meanings, alth oughwe cannot determine with precision how many different meanings a given wordmay have altogether. Nevertheless, the most puzzling question both lexicographers and lexicalsemanticists are faced with is how to distinguish polysemy from homonymy. Asgenerally defined in semantics (Leech 1981:227  –  229, Lyons 1981:43  –  47, Lyons1995:54  –  60), homonymy refers to etymologically unrelated words that happento have the same pronunciation and/or spelling (e.g. bank  as a financialinstitution and the edge of a river). Conversely, polysemes are etymologicallyand therefore semantically related, and typically srcinate frommetaphoric/metonymic usage (e.g. bank  as a building and a financial institution).The distinction is, however, not always straightforward, especially since wordsthat are etymologically related can, over time, drift so far apart that the srcinalsemantic relation is no longer recognizable,  pupil  (in a school) and  pupil  (of theeye).Homonymy and polysemy often give rise to ambiguity, and context ishighly relevant to disambiguate the meaning of utterances. Consider the oft  –  mentioned example from Lyons, in which the two phenomena appear together (Lyons 1977:397):  Polysemy in Traditional vs. Cognitive Linguistics   5   (1) They passed the port at midnight. This utterance is lexically ambiguous. However, it would normally be clear in agiven context which of the two homonyms,  port  1 ( ‘harbour’) or   port  2   (‘ kind of  fortified wine’), is being used and also which sense of the polysemous verb‘pass’ (‘go past’ or ‘give’) is intended.  Lexical ambiguity resulting from polysemy and homonymy has alsoattracted the attention of translators for a long time. It is generally assumed intranslation theory that the disambiguation of contrastive polysemy often dependson information pertaining to the context of situation only (Catford 1965, Newmark 1988 and Nida 2001, etc.). Lyons (1977:235) also notes that context plays a central role in solving problems of translation which arise as a result of homonymy or polysemy. If the ambiguity is resolved by the context in which thesentence is uttered, it can be correctly interpreted by the hearer, and, in principle,correctly translated into another language.Furthermore, it has also been demonstrated by some of the linguistsmentioned above (e.g. Lyons 1977:551  –  552 and Lipka 1992:136, etc.) that thereis subjective association involved in making a distinction between polysemy andhomonymy as well. In other words, there is a good deal of agreement amongnative speakers as to what counts as the one and what counts as the other in particular instances. However, there are also very many instances about whichnative speakers will hesitate or be in disagreement.Finally, as is referred to above, homonymy and polysemy are often the basis of a lot of word play, usually for humorous effects. In the nursery rhyme  Mary had a little lamb , we think of a small animal, but in the comic version,  Mary had a little lamb, some rice and vegetables , we think of a small amount of meat. The polysemy of  lamb allows two interpretations. However, we makesense of the riddle Why are trees often mistaken for dogs? by recognising thehomonymy in the answer:  Because of their bark  (Yule 2006:107  –  108).In the light of all these problems related to polysemy it is understandablewhy it has been so widely discussed in the literature. In fact, we can make adistinction between two different approaches in their treatment. While traditionalgrammarians such as Lyons (1977, 1981, 1995), Leech (1981), Cowie (1982),Lipka (1992) and Jackson & Amwela (2007), etc. assume that polysemy is acharacteristic of only word meaning, cognitive linguists (Lakoff 1987, Tyler &Evans 2003, Croft & Cruse 2004, Evans & Green 2006 and Evans 2007, etc.)challenged this view by regarding polysemy as a category of other areas of language, such as morphology, phonology and syntax. This paper sets out tocompare these two opposing approaches. Thus the primary aim of this study istwofold. First, I will look at how polysemy is treated in traditional approachesshowing primarily what attempts were made to differentiate polysemy fromhomonymy and what the drawbacks of the criteria suggested for this were.Second, I will highlight the new approach to polysemy in cognitive linguistics.  6 Éva Kovács   2 Polysemy in traditional approaches The term  polysemy is derived from the Greek   poly  –    meaning ‘many’ and  sem  –    meaning ‘sense’ or ‘meaning’. Thus the roots of the study of the complex relations between words and meanings lie in Greek philosophy. However, as was pointed out by Siblot (1995:24), Aristotle was highly critical of polysemy. “Words of ambiguous meanings”, he claimed, “are chiefly useful to enable thesophist to mislead his learners”. Later, the majority of philosophers denounced  polysemy and considered it “a defect of language and a handicap to communication, understan ding and even clear thinking” (Ullmann 19 59:167).Concrete research into the multiplicity of meaning only began in the 18thcentury and was continued into the 19th century by linguists interested inmeaning from the point of view of etymology, historical lexicography or historical semantics (Nerlich & Clarke 1997:351). In fact, the srcin of the term  polysemy used in linguistics dates back to 1897 when Michel Bréal (1897:145) introduced it in his  Essai de Sémantique as follows: Le sens nouveau, quel qu’il soit ne met pas fin à l’ancien. Ils existent tous les deux l’un à coté de l’autre. Le même terme peut s’employer tour à tour au sens propre ou au sens métaphorique, au sens restreint ouau sens étendu, au sens abstrait ou au sens concret … à mesure qu’une s ignification nouvelle est donnée au mot, il a l’air de se multiplier et de    produire des exemplaires nouveaux, semblables de forme, différents de valeur. Nous appelons ce phénomène de multiplication la polysémie.   In this passage, Bréal argues that polysemy occurs when a word denotes a newsense together with the old one. The word usage will vary between a basic senseand a metaphoric sense, a restricted sense and an extended sense and between anabstract sense and a concrete sense. He adds that any new signification assignedto a particular word is more likely to produce, in turn, other new signification to be assigned to the same word. It is worth noting that in his description of   polysemy, Bréal considers that polysemy is an open–  ended and quite productive phenomenon in language.In the course of the 20th century, the focus of linguistic studies, in general,changed from a diachronic perspective to a synchronic perspective. However, polysemy played only a minor role in the structuralist tradition. In the theory of semantics developed by Katz & Fodor (1963) and Katz (1972), the issue of  polysemy did not receive much attention. For one thing, Katz (1972) did not distinguish polysemy from homonymy, more importantly, he took “the one form  –one meaning approach” (C uyckens & Zawada 2001:xii). Accordingly, polysemy was maximally restricted and bringing as many different senses under one semantic definition was given preference. In fact, polysemy was largelyregarded as the unusual case, with monosemy and homonymy being regarded asthe norm. Still several linguists (Leech 1981, Lyons 1977, 1981, 1995 and Lipka
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