Monday, February 13, 2017

Polysemy and Homonymy: Words and their Meanings

I find words and all their different meanings really interesting. Whenever looking a word up in the dictionary, there is rarely just one explanation or definition. Sometimes all the meanings are similar and sometimes the meanings seem to have absolutely nothing in common. In linguistics, these meanings can be classified as either polysemy and homonymy.

Similar Meanings

Polysemy is when a word has a variety of different meanings that are etymologically related. Consider the word soft, for example. In Old English it meant "gentle" and "mild-natured". This etymology led "soft" being used to describe pillows, voices, drinks, and even people.

The word man is another example of polysemy. We can use the word to either describe the entire human race, "Man, not beast", to specify a male, "Man, not woman", or specify an adult "Man, not boy".

Different Meanings

When a word is written the same but has various different and unrelated meanings, we call this homonymy. You may have heard of homonyms before as words with different meanings but that are written the same.

For example, what does bow mean? This word has different meanings and pronunciations. When pronounced as /bəʊ/ (to rhyme with "low"), it refers to the device used to play a violin, or the thing used to fire an arrow, or a type of knot in a ribbon or shoelace.

When the word is pronounced as /baʊ/ (rhyming with "how"), it can either mean to lower your head or bend your body as a sign of respect or to thank an audience after a show. It can also be a noun that refers to the front part of a ship.