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In a simple code each sign has only one meaning, and each meaning is associated with only one sign. This one-to-one relationship is not realised in natural languages. When several related meanings are associated with the same group of sounds within one part of speech, the word is called polysemantic, when two or more unrelated meanings are associated with the same form — the words are homonyms, when two or more different forms are associated with the same or nearly the same denotative meanings — the words are synonyms.
Actually, if we describe the lexical system according to three distinctive features, each of which may be present or absent, we obtain 23 = 8 possible combinations. To represent these the usual tables with only horizontal and vertical subdivisions are inadequate, so we make use of a mapping technique developed for simplifying logical truth functions by E.W. Veitch that proved very helpful in our semantic studies.
In the table below a small section of the lexico-semantic system of the language connected with the noun sound (as in sound of laughter) is represented as a set of oppositions involving phonetical form, similar lexical meaning and grammatical part-of-speech meaning. Every pair of words is contrasted according to sameness or difference in three distinctive features at once.
A maximum similarity is represented by square 1 containing the lexico-semantic variants of the same word. All the adjoining squares differ in one feature only. Thus squares 1 and 2 differ in part of speech meaning only. Some dictionaries as, for instance “Thorndike Century Junior Dictionary” even place sound1 and sounds3 in one entry. On the other hand, we see that squares 2,3 and 4 represent what we shall call different types of homonymy. Square 7 presents words completely dissimilar according to the distinctive features chosen. Square 5 is a combination of features characteristic not only of synonyms but of other types of semantic similarity that will be discussed later on. But first we shall concentrate on homonyms, i.e. words characterised by phonetic coincidence and semantic differentiation.
Two or more words identical in sound and spelling but different in meaning, distribution and (in many cases) origin are called homonyms. The term is derived from Greek homonymous (homos ‘the same'
and onoma ‘name’) and thus expresses very well the sameness of name combined with the difference in meaning.
There is an obvious difference between the meanings of the symbol fast in such combinations as run fast ‘quickly’ and stand fast ‘firmly’. The difference is even more pronounced if we observe cases where fast is a noun or a verb as in the following proverbs: A clean fast is better than a dirty breakfast; Who feasts till he is sick, must fast till he is well. Fast as an isolated word, therefore, may be regarded as a variable that can assume several different values depending on the conditions of usage, or, in other words, distribution. All the possible values of each linguistic sign are listed in dictionaries. It is the duty of lexicographers to define the boundaries of each word, i.e. to differentiate homonyms and to unite variants deciding in each case whether the different meanings belong to the same polysemantic word or whether there are grounds to treat them as two or more separate words identical in form. In speech, however, as a rule only one of all the possible values is determined by the context, so that no ambiguity may normally arise. There is no danger, for instance, that the listener would wish to substitute the meaning
'quick’ into the sentence: It is absurd to have hard and fast rules about anything (Wilde), or think that fast rules here are ‘rules of diet’. Combinations when two or more meanings are possible are either deliberate puns, or result from carelessness. Both meanings of liver, i.e. ‘a living person’ and ‘the organ that secretes bile’ are, for instance, intentionally present in the following play upon words: “Is life worth living?” “It depends upon the liver.” Ñf.: “What do you do with the fruit?” “We eat what we can, and what we can’t eat we can.”
Very seldom can ambiguity of this kind interfere with understanding. The following example is unambiguous, although the words back and part have several homonyms, and maid and heart are polysemantic:
Maid of Athens, ere we part,
Give, oh give me back my heart (Byron).
Homonymy exists in many languages, but in English it is particularly frequent, especially among monosyllabic words. In the list of 2540 homonyms given in the “Oxford English Dictionary” 89% are monosyllabic words and only 9.1 % are words of two syllables. From the viewpoint of their morphological structure, they are mostly one-morpheme words.
Classification of Homonyms.The most widely accepted classification is that recognising homonyms proper, homophones and homographs. Homonyms proper are words identical in pronunciation and spelling, like fast and liver above. Other examples are: back n ‘part of the body’ : : back adv ‘away from the front’ : : back v ‘go back’; ball n ‘a round object used in games’ : : ball n ‘a gathering of people for dancing’; bark n ‘the noise made by a dog’ : : bark v ‘to utter sharp explosive cries’ : : bark n ‘the skin of a tree’ : : bark n ‘a sailing ship’; base n ‘bottom’ : : base v ‘build or place upon’ : : base a ‘mean’; bay n ‘part of the sea or lake filling wide-mouth opening of land’ : : bay n ‘recess in a house or a room’ : : bay v ‘bark’ : : bay n ‘the European laurel’. The important point is that homonyms are distinct words: not different meanings within one word.
Homophones are words of the same sound but of different spelling and meaning: air : : heir; arms : : alms; buy : : by; him : : hymn; knight : : night; not: : knot; or: : oar; piece : : peace; rain: : reign; scent: : cent; steel : : steal; storey : : story; write : : right and many others.
In the sentence The play-wright on my right thinks it right that some conventional rite should symbolise the right of every man to write as he pleases the sound complex [rait] is a noun, an adjective, an adverb and a verb, has four different spellings and six different meanings. The difference may be confined to the use of a capital letter as in bill and Bill, in the following example: “How much is my milk bill?11 “Excuse me, Madam, but my name is John.11 On the other hand, whole sentences may be homophonic: The sons raise meat : : The sun’s rays meet. To understand these one needs a wider context. If you hear the second in the course of a lecture in optics, you will understand it without thinking of the possibility of the first.
Homographs àrå words different in sound and in meaning but accidentally identical in spelling: bow [bou] : : bow [bau]; lead [li:d] : : lead [led]; row [rou] : : row [rau]; sewer [’souý] : : sewer [sjuý]; tear [tiý] : : tear [tea]; wind [wind] : : wind [waind] and many more.
It has been often argued that homographs constitute a phenomenon that should be kept apart from homonymy as the object of linguistics is sound language. This viewpoint can hardly be accepted. Because of the effects of education and culture written English is a generalised national form of expression. An average speaker does not separate the written and oral form. On the contrary he is more likely to analyse the words in terms of letters than in terms of phonemes with which he is less familiar. That is why a linguist must take into consideration both the spelling and the pronunciation of words when analysing cases of identity of form and diversity of content.
Various types of classification for homonyms proper have been suggested.
A comprehensive system may be worked out if we are guided by the theory of oppositions and in classifying the homonyms take into consideration the difference or sameness in their lexical and grammatical meaning, paradigm and basic form. For the sake of completeness we shall consider this problem in terms of the same mapping technique used for the elements of vocabulary system connected with the word sound.
As both form and meaning can be further subdivided, the combination of distinctive features by which two words are compared becomes more complicated — there are four features: the form may be phonetical and graphical, the meaning — lexical and grammatical, a word may also have a paradigm of grammatical forms different from the basic form.
The distinctive features shown in the table on p. 186 are lexical meaning (different denoted by A, or nearly the same denoted by A), grammatical meaning (different denoted by B, or same by B), paradigm (different denoted by C, or same denoted by C), and basic form (different D and same D).
The term “nearly same lexical meaning” must not be taken too literally. It means only that the corresponding members of the opposition have some important invariant semantic components in common. “Same grammatical meaning” implies that both members belong to the same part of speech.
Same paradigm comprises also cases when there is only one word form, i.e. when the words are unchangeable. Inconsistent combinations of features are crossed out in the table. It is, for instance, impossible for two words to be identical in all word forms and different in basic forms, or for two homonyms to show no difference either in lexical or grammatical meaning, because in this case they are not homonyms. That leaves twelve possible classes.