Integral Theory of Polysemy

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Integral Theory of Polysemy is agued which represents the most general view on the problem of polysemy. The notion of polysemy is essentially extended and is applied to both lexical and grammatical language levels. It is argued that polysemy regulates and systematizes both vocabulary and grammar and may be considered as a factor which is organizing the language system.

Keywords: polysemy, homonymy , lexical seme, part-of-speech seme, lexical and lexical-grammatical polysemy.

The definitions of polysemy existing in linguistic literature are practically identical - a word is considered to be polysemantic if it has several meanings that are semantically related to each other. Such definitions reveal the very essence of polysemy - coexistence in the semantic structure of a word of several meanings which relations with each other are those of semantic derivation.

The existence of polysemy is due to the law of asymmetric duality of a language sign, opened by S. Kartsevsky, according to which the signified and the signifier are asymmetric and exist in the state of unsteady equilibrium. The signified aspires to be expressed by new means while the signifier tries to attain new functions.

As far as the law of asymmetric duality of a language sign is universal, the universal character of polysemy should be considered obvious. The idea about the universal character of this linguistic phenomenon was stressed more than once (see the works of such prominent scholars as S. Ullmann, R. Budagov, A. Smirnitsky, V.Vinogradov).

Polysemy is justly considered to be a necessary means of language economy. As S. Ullmann puts it, “polysemy is an indispensable resource of language economy. It would be altogether impracticable to have separate terms for every referent” (Ullmann 1959, p. 118). It should be mentioned that the idea of polysemy as a means of language economy goes back to Aristotle who stressed that the number of words in a natural language is limited while the number of objects in the real world is unlimited. Thus it is inevitable for a word to be polysemantic.

Speaking about the reasons of polysemy we should also point out that this phenomenon is closely connected with the very essence of the language and is a characteristic feature of speech. As S. Ullmann wrote, “The ability of the name to denote several senses is one of the basic peculiarities of human speech” (Ullmann 1951, p. 48).

The problem of studying polysemy is closely connected with that of homonymy. It should be pointed out that the definitions of homonymy, like those of polysemy, do not differ greatly. Words are considered to be homonymous if their form is identical while the meanings are not semantically related. Some scholars, however, insist that homonyms may be characterized not only by the absence of semantic derivation between their meanings, but also by differences in their grammatical (part-of-speech) meaning (see Malakhovsky 1989, p.7–8). Thus all cases of conversion or any other transitions at the part-of-speech level despite the obvious fact of close semantic relations of the meanings are considered to be homonyms.

Such point of view, though advocated by quite a number of linguists, may be disputed. The very fact of acquiring by a sememe a new part-of-speech seme can not necessarily lead to homonymy. The main (and the only!) indication of homonymy is that of absence of semantic relations between the meanings, like the main indication of polysemy is the fact of existence of semantic derivation.

The problem of differentiation between polysemy and homonymy has become traditional. The criteria of such differentiation are rather numerous. The most appropriate to our mind is the so-called semantic criterion, based on semantic derivation of the meanings of a polysemantic word. In case of semantic relations of the meanings we deal with polysemy, in case of absence of such relations - with homonymy. Other criteria...
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