The semantic structure of the word does not present an indissoluble unity (that is, actually, why it is referred to as "structure"), nor does it necessarily stand for one concept. 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. Two somewhat naive but frequently asked questions may arise in connection with polysemy: 1. Is polysemy an anomaly or a general rule in English vocabulary? 2. Is polysemy an advantage or a disadvantage so far as the process of communication is concerned? Let us deal with both these questions together.
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 (see Ch. 8). 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.
An instance of destructive burning; e. g. a forest fire.| Burning material in a stove, fireplace, etc.; e. g. There is a fire in the next room. A camp fire.| The shooting of guns, etc.; e. g. to open (cease) fire.| Strong feeling, passion, enthusiasm; e. g. a speech lacking fire.| | | |
The above scheme suggests that 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. It would hardly be possible to establish any logical associations between some of the meanings of the noun bar except...