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HOMONYMY TREATED SYNCHRONICALLY




The synchronic treatment of English homonyms brings to the forefront a set of problems of paramount importance for different branches of applied linguistics: lexicography, foreign language teaching and information retrieval. These problems are: the criteria distinguishing homonymy from polysemy, the formulation of rules for recognising different meanings of the same homonym in terms of distribution, and the description of difference between patterned and non-patterned homonymy. It is necessary to emphasise that all these problems are connected with difficulties created by homonymy in understanding the message by the reader or listener, not with formulating ones thoughts; they exist for the speaker though in so far as he must construct his speech in a way that would prevent all possible misunderstanding.

All three problems are so closely interwoven that it is difficult to separate them. So we shall discuss them as they appear for various practical purposes. For a lexicographer it is a problem of establishing word boundaries. It is easy enough to see that match, as in safety matches, is a separate word from the verb match to suit. But he must know whether one is justified in taking into one entry match, as in football match, and match in meet ones match ones equal.

On the synchronic level, when the difference in etymology is irrelevant, the problem of establishing the criterion for the distinction between different words identical in sound form, and different meanings of the same word becomes hard to solve. Nevertheless the problem cannot be dropped altogether as upon an efficient arrangement of dictionary entries depends the amount of time spent by the readers in looking up a word: a lexicographer will either save or waste his readers time and effort.

Actual solutions differ. It is a widely spread practice in English lexicography to combine in one entry words of identical phonetic form showing similarity of lexical meaning or, in other words, revealing a lexical invariant, even if they belong to different parts of speech. In our country a different trend has settled. The Anglo-Russian dictionary edited by V.D. Arakin makes nine separate entries with the word right against four items given in the dictionary edited by A.S. Hornby.

The truth is that there exists no universal criterion for the distinction between polysemy and homonymy.


The etymological criterion may lead to distortion of the present-day situation. The English vocabulary of today is not a replica of the Old English vocabulary with some additions from borrowing. It is in many respects a different system, and this system will not be revealed if the lexicographer is guided by etymological criteria only.

A more or less simple, if not very rigorous, procedure based on purely synchronic data may be prompted by analysis of dictionary definitions. It may be called explanatory transformation. It is based on the assumption that if different senses rendered by the same phonetic complex can be defined with the help of an identical kernel word-group, they may be considered sufficiently near to be regarded as variants of the same word; if not, they are homonyms.

Consider the following set of examples:

1. A childs voice is heard (Wesker).

2. His voice ... was ... annoyingly well-bred (Cronin).

3. The voice-voicelessness distinction ... sets up some English consonants in opposed pairs ...

4. In the voice contrast of active and passive ... the active is the unmarked form.

The first variant (voice1) may be defined as sounds uttered in speaking or singing as characteristic of a particular person, voice2 as mode of uttering sounds in speaking or singing, voice3 as the vibration of the vocal chords in sounds uttered. So far all the definitions contain one and the same kernel element rendering the invariant common basis of their meaning. It is, however, impossible to use the same kernel element for the meaning present in the fourth example. The corresponding definition is: Voice that form of the verb that expresses the relation of the subject to the action. This failure to satisfy the same explanation formula sets the fourth meaning apart. It may then be considered a homonym to the polysemantic word embracing the first three variants. The procedure described may remain helpful when the items considered belong to different parts of speech; the verb voice may mean, for example, to utter a sound by the aid of the vocal chords:

This brings us to the problem of patterned homonymy, i.e. of the invariant lexical meaning present in homonyms that have developed from one common source and belong to various parts of speech.

Is a lexicographer justified in placing the verb voice with the above meaning into the same entry with the first three variants of the noun? The same question arises with respect to after or before preposition, conjunction and adverb.

English lexicographers think it quite possible for one and the same word to function as different parts of speech. Such pairs as act n act v, back n back v, drive n drive v, the above mentioned after and before and the like, are all treated as one word functioning as different parts of speech. This point of view was severely criticised. It was argued that one and the same word could not belong to different parts of speech simultaneously, because this would contradict the definition of the word as a system of forms.


This viewpoint is not faultless either; if one follows it consistently, one should regard as separate words all cases when words are countable nouns in one meaning and uncountable in another, when verbs can be used transitively and intransitively, etc. In this case hair1 all the hair that grows on a persons head will be one word, an uncountable noun; whereas a single thread of hair will be denoted by another word (hair2) which, being countable, and thus different in paradigm, cannot be considered the same word. It would be tedious to enumerate all the absurdities that will result from choosing this path. A dictionary arranged on these lines would require very much space in printing and could occasion much wasted time in use. The conclusion therefore is that efficiency in lexicographic work is secured by a rigorous application of etymological criteria combined with formalised procedures of establishing a lexical invariant suggested by synchronic linguistic methods.

As to those concerned with teaching of English as a foreign language, they are also keenly interested in patterned homonymy. The most frequently used words constitute the greatest amount of difficulty, as may be summed up by the following jocular example: I think that this that is a conjunction but that that that that that man used was a pronoun.

A correct understanding of this peculiarity of contemporary English should be instilled in the pupils from the very beginning, and they should be taught to find their way in sentences where several words have their homonyms in other parts of speech, as in Jespersens example: Will change of air cure love? To show the scope of the problem for the elementary stage a list of homonyms that should be classified as patterned is given below:

Above, prp, adv, a; act n, v; after prp, adv, cj; age n, v; back n, adv, v; ball n, v; bank n, v; before prp, adv, cj; besides prp, adv; bill n, v; bloom n, v; box n, v. The other examples are: by, can, case, close, country, course, cross, direct, draw, drive, even, faint, flat, fly, for, game, general, hard, hide, hold, home, just, kind, last, leave, left, lie, light, like, little, lot, major, march, may, mean, might, mind, miss, part, plain, plane, plate, right, round, sharp, sound, spare, spell, spring, square, stage, stamp, try, type, volume, watch, well, will.

For the most part all these words are cases of patterned lexico-grammatical homonymy taken from the minimum vocabulary of the elementary stage: the above homonyms mostly differ within each group grammatically but possess some lexical invariant. That is to say, act v follows the standard four-part system of forms with a base form act, an s-form (act-s), a Past Indefinite Tense form (acted) and an ing-form (acting) and takes up all syntactic functions of verbs, whereas act n can have two forms, act (sing.) and acts (pl.). Semantically both contain the most generalised component rendering the notion of doing something.

Recent investigations have shown that it is quite possible to establish and to formalise the differences in environment, either syntactical or lexical, serving to signal which of the several inherent values is to be ascribed to the variable in a given context. An example of distributional analysis will help to make this point clear.

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The distribution of a lexico-semantic variant of a word may be represented as a list of structural patterns in which it occurs and the data on its combining power. Some of the most typical structural patterns for a verb are: N+V+N, N+V+prp+N, N+V+A, N+V+adv, N+ V+to+Vand some others. Patterns for nouns are far less studied, but for the present case one very typical example will suffice. This is the structure: article+A+N.

In the following extract from A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney the morpheme laugh occurs three times: I cant stand people who faugh at other people. They'd get a bigger laugh, if they laughed at themselves.

We recognise laugh used first and last here as a verb, because the formula is N+laugh+prp+Nand so the pattern is in both cases N+ V+prp+N. Inthe beginning of the second sentence laugh is a noun and the pattern is article+A+N.

This elementary example can give a very general idea of the procedure which can be used for solving more complicated problems.

We may sum up our discussion by pointing out that whereas distinction between polysemy and homonymy is relevant and important for lexicography it is not relevant for the practice of either human or machine translation. The reason for this is that different variants of a polysemantic word are not less conditioned by context than lexical homonyms. In both cases the identification of the necessary meaning is based on the corresponding distribution that can signal it and must be present in the memory either of the pupil or the machine. The distinction between patterned and non-patterned homonymy, greatly underrated until now, is of far greater importance. In non-patterned homonymy every unit is to be learned separately both from the lexical and grammatical points of view. In patterned homonymy when one knows the lexical meaning of a given word in one part of speech, one can accurately predict the meaning when the same sound complex occurs in some other part of speech, provided, of course, that there is sufficient context to guide one.


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: 2015-09-13; : 66; !;





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