Рolysemy in Modern English

It’s 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.

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. 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. 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 in this way to provide for a quantitative and qualitative growth of the language’s expressive resources. The semantic structure of a polysemantic 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. – I flame- II instance of destructive burning (e.g. a forest fire); – III burning materials in a stove, fire-place (e.g. There is a fire in the next room. A camp fire); – IV shooting of guns (e.g. to open/case fire); – V strong feeling, passion, enthusiasm (e.g. a speech lacking fire)

The above 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-V.

It would  hardly be possible to establish any logical associations between some of the meanings of the noun bar except through the main meaning:

Bar, n

I                                                                                                                             II

The profession of barrister, lawyer;                         (in a public house or hotel) a counter or

e.g. go to the Bar room where drinks are served; e.g. They went to the

Read for the Bar                                                                                   bar  for a drink.


Any kind of barrier to prevent people from passing

Meaning II and III have no logical links with one another whereas each separately is easily associated with meaning I : meaning II through the traditional barrier between a court-room into two parts; meaning III through the counter serving as a kind of barrier between the customers of the pub and the barman.

Yet, it is not in every polysemantic word that such a centre can be found. Some semantic structures are arranged on a different principle. In the following list of meaning of the adjective dull one can hardly hope to find a generalized meaning covering and holding together the rest of the semantic structure.

Dull, adj. 1.Uninteresting, monotonous, boring; 2.Slow in understanding, stupid; 3.Not clear or bright; 4.Not loud or distinct; 5.Not sharp; 6.Not active; 7.Seeing badly; 8.Hearing badly.

Yet, one distinctly feels that there is something that all these meanings holds together. It’s a certain component that can be easily singled out within each separate meaning.

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