Polysemy in English and Ukrainian

Lexicology, as a branch of linguistic study, its connection with phonetics, grammar, stylistics and contrastive linguistics. The synchronic and diachronic approaches to polysemy. The peculiar features of the English and Ukrainian vocabulary systems.

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Polysemy in English and Ukrainian



1. Lexicology as a branch of linguistic study, its connection with phonetics, grammar, stylistics & contrastive linguistics

2. The nature of polysemy

3. The synchronic and diachronic approaches to polysemy

4. Levels of polysemantic words analysis

5. Polysemy and homonymy: the problem of differentiation

6. The peculiar features of the English and Ukrainian vocabulary systems

List of literature


The semantic structure of the word does not present in dissoluble unity, nor does it necessarily stand for one concept. 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 called polysemy.

The matter of polysemy nature was investigated by I.M. Kobozeva, D.M. Shmelyov, O.O. Taranenko, V.V. Vynogradov.

The topic of the present report is “Polysemy in English and Ukrainian”.

The topicality of the present report is predetermined by the state of the modern day English and Ukrainian. More and more words appear every day. That results in appearing new meanings of the already existed words. Polysemantic words bring some difficulties to translators. Thus, it is necessary to investigate all the words meanings in order to chose the appropriate one, specified by the contextual environment of the lexeme.

In the course of the given report writing we were trying to investigate the polysemy development in English and Ukrainian by example of words which belong to one of the largest layer of words, i.e. adjectives, denotating colours with the similar direct semantics. The bulk of these words constantly acquires new means of colours and shadows nomination.

The practical value of the present report is the following. It will help to solve some problems of theory and practice of translation.

1. Lexicology as a branch of linguistic study, its connection with phonetics, grammar, stylistics & contrastive linguistics

lexicology linguistic phonetic grammar

Lexicology is the branch of linguistics that deals with the lexical component of language.

The lexicon holds information about the phonetic, phonological, syntactic, semantic and pragmatic properties of words and consequently has a central role in these levels of analysis. It is also a major area of investigation in other areas of linguistics, such as psycholinguistics, typological linguistics and language acquisition. Lexicology is concerned with the nature of the vocabulary and the structure of the lexicon; and lexicography applies the insights of lexicology, along with those of other linguistics disciplines, to the study of dictionaries and lexicons.

Lexicology, on the other hand, is the branch of descriptive linguistics concerned with the linguistic theory and methodology for describing lexical information, often focussing specifically on issues of meaning. Traditionally, lexicology has been mainly concerned with `lexis', i.e. lexical collocations and idioms, and lexical semantics, the structure of word fields and meaning components and relations. Until recently, lexical semantics was conducted separately from study of the syntactic, morphological and phonological properties of words, but linguistic theory in the 1990s has gradually been integrating these dimensions of lexical information.

The matter of polysemy is now widely investigated by specialists in the sphere of lexicology.

2. The nature of polysemy

Polysemy comes from Neo-Latin polysemia, which comes from Greek polusemous [poly- (many) + sema (sign)] giving us a linguistic term, "having many meanings" or multiple meanings. We also have polyseme (singular) [puh LIS uh mee], and polysemes (plural) [puh LIS uh meez].

The words polysemy [puh LIS uh mee or PAWL i see" mee] and polysemous [puh LIS uh muhs or pawl" ee SEE muhs] are defined as "having or characterized by many meanings; the existence of several meanings for a single word or phrase".

As said earlier, these terms refer to "words" or other "items of language with two or more senses"; for example, "walk" as in "The child started to walk" and "They live at 500 High Walk". Such senses may be more or less distant from one another: walk, "action", walk, "street" are relatively close, but crane, "bird" and crane, "machine" are much further apart.

It is generally agreed that in each case only one word is being discussed, not two that happen to have the same form; to which the name homonym is given.

Senses of the same word are seldom ambiguous in context, but the less specific the context, the greater the possibility of ambiguity; for example, if someone who is looking at a picture says "What big cranes!", it may not be immediately clear to anyone who can not see the picture whether the comment refers to birds or machines.

A polyseme is a word or phrase with multiple, related meanings. A word is judged to be polysemous if it has two senses of the word whose meanings are related. Since the vague concept of relatedness is the test for polysemy, judgments of polysemy can be very difficult to make. Because applying pre-existing words to new situations is a natural process of language change, looking at words' etymology is helpful in determining polysemy but not the only solution; as words become lost in etymology, what once was a useful distinction of meaning may no longer be so. Some apparently unrelated words share a common historical origin, however, so etymology is not an infallible test for polysemy, and dictionary writers also often defer to speakers' intuitions to judge polysemy in cases where it contradicts etymology. English has many words which are polysemous. For example the verb "to get" can mean "take" (I'll get the drinks), "become" (she got scared), "have" (I've got three dollars), "understand" (I get it) etc.

A closely related term is metonym, in which a word with one original meaning is used to refer to something else connected to it.

There are several tests for polysemy, but one of them is zeugma: if one word seems to exhibit zeugma when applied in different contexts, it is likely that the contexts bring out different polysemes of the same word. If the two senses of the same word do not seem to fit, yet seem related, then it is likely that they are polysemous. The fact that this test again depends on speakers' judgments about relatedness, however, means that this test for polysemy is not infallible, but is rather merely a helpful conceptual aid.

The difference between homonyms and polysemes is subtle. Lexicographers define polysemes within a single dictionary lemma, numbering different meanings, while homonyms are treated in separate lemmata. Semantic shift can separate a polysemous word into separate homonyms. For example, check as in "bank check" (or Cheque), check in chess, and check meaning "verification" are considered homonyms, while they originated as a single word derived from chess in the 14th century.

For Dick Hebdige polysemy means that, "each text is seen to generate a potentially infinite range of meanings," making, according to Richard Middleton, "any homology, out of the most heterogeneous materials, possible. The idea of signifying practice -- texts not as communicating or expressing a pre-existing meaning but as 'positioning subjects' within a process of semiosis -- changes the whole basis of creating social meaning".

One group of polysemes are those in which a word meaning an activity, perhaps derived from a verb, acquires the meanings of those engaged in the activity, or perhaps the results of the activity, or the time or place in which the activity occurs or has occurred. Sometimes only one of those meanings is intended, depending on context, and sometimes multiple meanings are intended at the same time. Other types are derivations from one of the other meanings that leads to a verb or activity.

Most of lexical items in English are polysemantic.

Michael Breat: “Polysemy is a semantic universal”.

“The alternative to it is quite unthinkable: it would mean that we would have to store in our brains a tremendous stock of words with separate names for any possible subject we might wish to talk about. It would also mean that there would be no metaphors & that language would be robbed of much of its expressiveness & flexibility.”

Urban: “The double reference of verbal signs is precisely what makes language an instrument of knowing”.


- family - She lost both of her parents.

- parent - Envy is the parent of all evils.

My family comes from Scotland.

The cat family includes lions & tigers. (семейство кошачьих)

A family of languages, etc.

There are monosemantic words:


a lorry

a loudspeaker

In case of polysemy, we deal with modification of the content plane.

Different meanings of one & the same word are closely interrelated.

Polysemy is a result of:

1. Shifts in application (сдвиг в употреблении)

E.g.: adj. red

red ink (is really red)

red hair

red deer

red cabbage

red Indian

2. Specialization

E. g.: partner

Basic meaning; a type of relationship between 2 or more people.

- business partner

- marriage partner

- partner in crime

3. Metaphorical extension (a fundamental feature of any language)

E. g.:

leaf of a tree - leaf of a book

hands of a person - hands of a clock

Polysemy has been complicated by the tendency of words to pick up the meanings from other dialects, languages & slang.

E. g.: executive

BrE - one who acts under the direction of somebody - исполнитель

AmE - a manager

now: AmE meaning is more widely used.

New & old meanings become interrelated, form a hierarchy. They have some common semantic features, which preserve the integrity of the word.

3. The synchronic and diachronic approaches to polysemy

There two approaches to polysemy: diachronic and synchronic. If viewed diachronically, polysemy is understood as the growth and development (change) in the semantic structure of the word.

e.g. the meaning of the word “table” in Old English was “a flat slab of stone or wood”. It was its primary meaning. Others were secondary and appeared latter. They had been derived from the primary meaning.

Synchronically polysemy is understood as the coexistence of various meanings of the name of the same word at a certain historical period of the English language development. It that case the problem of interrelation and interdependence of separate meanings making up the semantic structure of the word must be investigated from different points of view. That is of main / derived / central / peripheral meaning. The objective criterion of determining the main or central meaning is the frequency of its accurance in the speech. Thus, the main meaning of the word “table” in Modern English is “a piece of furniture”.

4. Levels of polysemantic words analysis

Most English words are polysemantic. The systems of meanings of any polysemantic word develops gradually over the centuries.

When analyzing the semantic structure of a polysematic 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.

e.g. bar 1. any kind barrier to prevent people from passing;

2. the profession of barrister layer;

3. a counter or room where drinks are served.

Meaning 1 presents the center of the semantic structure of the word. It is mainly through meaning 1 that meanings 2, 3 and other can be associated. But it is not in every polysemantic word that such a center can be found. Often, the center holding together the complex semantic structure of the word is not one of the meanings but a certain component that can be singled out within each separate meaning.

e.g. dull 1. uninteresting, borring;

2. slow, inunderstanded, stupid;

3. not clear or bright.

1. uninteresting - deficient in interest or excitement;

2. stupid - deficient in intellect;

3. not bright - deficient in light or colour.

The above-mentioned information brings us to the second level of analysis of the word semantic structure. The transformational operation with the meaning definition of word dull reveals that the semantic structure of the word is deviable. The scheme of the semantic structure of dull shows that the semantic structure of a word is not a mere system of meanings, for each separate meaning is subject for further subdivision and possesses an inner structure of its own.

So, the semantic structure of the polysemantic word should be investigated at both levels of different meanings and semantic components within each separate meaning.

5. Polysemy and homonymy: the problem of differentiation

There is an extensive doubtful area between the concepts of polysemy and homonymy.

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 variant 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 of a person or 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. This two notions are closely connected. One of homonymy sources is split polysemy. It takes place when two or more homonyms can originate from different meanings of the same word when, for some reason, the semantic structure of the word breaks into several parts.

e.g. board, n. - a long and thing piece of timber

board, n. - daily meals, esp. as provided for pay (room and board)

board, n. - an official group of persons who direct or supervise some activity (a board of directors).

It is clear that the meaning of these three words are in no way associated with one another.

Somewhat different case of split polysemy may be illustrated by three following homonyms:

e.g. spring, n. - the act of springing, a leap;

spring, n. - a place where a stream of water comes up out of the earth;

spring, n. - a season of the year.

Historically all three nouns originate from the same verb with the meaning of “to jump, to leap”, so that the meaning of the first homonym is the oldest. The meaning of the second and third homonyms were originally based on metaphor. At the head of a stream the water sometimes leaps up out of the earth, so that metaphorically such a place could well be described as a leap. On the other hand, the season of the year following winter could be poetically defined as a leap from the darkness and cold into sunlight and life.

Lets also consider the following examples.

A word like "walk" is polysemous (went walking, went for a walk, walk the dog, Hill Walk Drive), while a word like "bank" is homonymous between at least "bank" for money and the "bank" of a river.

The coexistence of several meanings in one word, which is extremely common, as stated earlier, is called polysemy. Some words develop a whole family of meanings, each new meaning often forming yet another starting point for more definitions.

If in a good dictionary you were to look up such words as "natural, good, loose, free", and "real"; one would be surprised at the number of meanings listed.

Being able to distinguish between polysemy words and homonym words is not easy.

Dictionaries treat cases of multiple meanings either as polysemy or as homonymy, but in fact it is not always easy to decide which one we are dealing with, and dictionaries sometimes differ in their decisions.

Are "table" (furniture) and "table" (arrangement of data) two different words, or the same word with two meanings? Dictionaries usually go for the latter solution, on the grounds of a shared etymology.

On the other hand, "a pupil" (in school) and the "pupil" (of the eye) are usually listed as different words; although in fact they have the same historical origin.

6. The peculiar features of the English and Ukrainian vocabulary systems

What all this points to is that English vocabulary is really a lot more complicated - and therefore a lot more difficult to learn - than the vocabularies of some other languages. English vocabulary is exceptionally large, and to be fluent in English, you need to have a command of many more words than is the case in some other languages. Furthermore, English is unusual in that it uses word formation systems that are a great deal more complex than those you find in many other languages. It has several different systems, each of which only applies to a limited portion of the total vocabulary. Finally, English exploits the richness of its vocabulary in ways that some other languages do not in order to signal complicated messages.

Ukrainian vocabulary includes a large overlay of Polish terminology. Ukrainian vocabulary is still limited and is not as extensive as that of more developed languages, like English, German or Russian. This can largely be attributed to the lack of a prolonged period of encouraged development. As a result, not as many linguists, poets and writers extended the vocabulary of the literary language.

As a language, English is derived from the Anglo-Saxon, a dialect of West Germanic (as was Old Low German), although its current vocabulary includes words from many languages. The Anglo-Saxon roots can be seen in the similarity of numbers in English and German, particularly seven/sieben, eight/acht, nine/neun and ten/zehn. Pronouns are also cognate: I/ich; thou/Du; we/wir; she/sie. However, language change has eroded many grammatical elements, such as the noun case system, which is greatly simplified in Modern English; and certain elements of vocabulary, much of which is borrowed from French. In fact, more than half of the words in English either come from the French language or have a French cognate (words that have a common origin). However, the most common root words are still of Germanic origin.

Ukrainian is a language of the East Slavic subgroup of the Slavic languages. It is the official state language of Ukraine. Ukrainian uses a Cyrillic alphabet. It shares some vocabulary with the languages of the neighboring Slavic nations, most notably with Belarusian, Polish, Russian and Slovakian. Ukrainian traces its origins to the Old East Slavic language of the ancient state of Kievan Rus'. The language has persisted despite the two bans by Imperial Russia and political persecution during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The semantic structure of the bulk of English nouns is richer than that of the Ukrainian nouns. Thus, the English noun boat can mean човен, судно/корабель, шлюпка; the noun coat in English can mean верхній одяг, пальто, піджак, кітель, хутро (тварин), захисний шар фарби на предметі.

Ukrainian words may sometimes have a complicated semantic structure as well. For example, the noun подорож may mean cruise, journey, travel, trip, tour, voyage; or the word ще may mean still, yet, as yet, more, any more, again, else, but.

Despite the well-known fact that English vocabulary has much more examples of polysems than Ukrainian one, we can give an example of one of the Ukrainian words which has all the characteristics of a polysemantic word. Thus, Ukrainian word “поле” has 10 meanings:

1) безліса рівнина, великий простір;

2) оброблювана під посів земля;

3) значна площа, відведена під що-небудь;

4) простір, у межах якого відбувається якась дія;

5) поприще, сфера діяльності;

6) основа, на яку нанесено візерунок, зображення, напис, тощо;

7) смужка вздовж краю аркуша паперу, яка залишається чистою при написанні або друкуванні;

8) відігнуті краї капелюха;

9) родовище корисних копалин;

10) сукупність мовних одиниць, об'єднаних спільністю змісту.

But it should be noted that such examples with so many meanings are not peculiar for the Ukrainian language, unlike the English one some words of which can have 20 and more meanings.

We have analyzed 67 adjectives (46 Ukrainian and 21 English adjectives), which signify main colours and shadows. We have determined 5 non-derivative words in Ukrainian - голубий, жовтий, зелений, синій, червоний and 5 in the English language - blue, brown, green, red, yellow. We have also singled out 32 derivative adjectives in Ukrainian - білий, золотий, пурпурний, сірий, срібний, рожевий, чорний, жовто-блакитний, малиновий, бронзовий, молочний, олов'яний, помаранчевий, полум'яний, каштановий, сливовий, сизий, хакі, бурий, бурштиновий, буряковий, вишневий, веселковий, гранатовий, безбарвний, бордовий, бузковий, кофейний, рябий, салатний, мурий, оливковий and 16 in English - beige, black, bronze, cherry, drab, ginger, gold, grey, lilac, pink, purple, rainbow, scarlet, silver, violet, white.

The semantic structure of selected words was determined by P.I. Goretskyi vocabulary. We could not find monosemantic words among 21 English adjectives. But we have the opposite situation with the Ukrainian words. We have found out 9 monosemantic words - бежевий, блакитний, брунатний, жовтогарячий, коричневий, ліловий, оранжевий, рудий, фіолетовий. That is explained by the fact that we have found more meanings of English adjectives.

Let's compare two adjectives сірий in Ukrainian and grey in English. The lexeme сірий has 5 meanings, the lexeme grey - 12.

Having analysed all selected Ukrainian words, we determined the following. Metaphors, based on colours similarity, prevail in the structure of lexical meanings of these words. We have found out 34 such adjectives among 46 analyzed words. E.g. біле вино, білі ночі, білий гриб. We have found out the common seme which is peculiar to derivative and non-derivative adjectives, i.e. the seme of the colour.

We have determined common features in the semantic structures of adjectives, signifying colours in both languages. Most of such adjectives are polysemantic. In most cases polysemy is predetermined by metaphorical constituents of the meanings. The main difference is that just Ukrainian derivative adjectives are monosemantic.

Thus, having analyzed the specific features of English and Ukrainian lexemes, volume of their meanings, we can say confirm that polysemy is peculiar to both languages but is mostly represented in English words.

List of literature

1. Вежбицкая. А. Семантические универсалии и описание языков (пер. с англ. А.Д.Шмелева под ред. Т.В. Булыгиной). М: “Языки русской культуры”, 1999.

2. Вежбицкая. А. Язык, культура и познание (Сб. Пер. под ред. М.А. Кронгауза). М: “Русские словари”, 1997. 6. К вопросу о некоторых причинах становления многозначности // Науч. конф. молодых ученых и аспирантов «На старте тысячелетия» (24-26 апр. 2001 г.). - Майкоп, 2002. - С. 240-245.

3. К вопросу о семантической совпадаемости // Язык, культура, общество: социально-культурные аспекты развития регионов Российской Федерации: Сб. науч. тр. Всерос. науч. конф., Ульяновск, 19-20 февр. 2002 г. - Ульяновск, 2002. - С. 153-155.

4. Корунець І.В. Порівняльна типологія англійської та української мов. - К.: Либідь, 1995. - 38с.

5. Кустова Г.И. Когнитивные модели в семантической деривации и система производных значений // Вопросы языкознания, 2000, № 4. - С. 85-109.

6. Порівняльна лексикологія англійської і української мов (видання четверте перероблене і доповнене). 2008//А5/248/м.лам. Верба Л. Г.

7. Рахилина Е.В. Когнитивный анализ предметных имен: семантика и сочетаемость. - М.: Русские словари, 2000.

8. Словник української мови: В 11 т. / П. И. Горецький, А. А. Бурячок, Г. М. Гнатюк, Н. Г. Швидка та ін.-К.: Наукова думка, 1970.

9. Телия В. Н. Коннотативный аспект семантики номинативных единиц. М.,1986. С. 5.

10. Урысон Е.В. Проблемы исследования языковой картины мира: аналогия в семантике / Рос. академия наук. Ин-т русского языка им. В.В.Виноградова. - М.: Языки славянской культуры, 2003. - 224 с.

11. Фалькович М. К вопросу об омонимии и полисемии. «Вопр. Языкознания», 1960, № 5.

12. Шмелев Д. Н. Проблемы семантического анализа лексики. М.,1973. С.

13. Blokh M.Y. A course in Theoretical English Grammar. - Moscow, 1983. - 383 р.

14. G. Nunberg, "Transfers of Meaning", Journal of Semantics, 1995 - Oxford Univ Press

15. Hebdige, D (1979). Subculture: The Meaning of Style. New York: Metheun.

16. http://www.askoxford.com/concise_oed/polysemy?view=uk

17. http://www.bartleby.com/61/0/P0430050.html

18. Middleton, Richard (1990/2002). Studying Popular Music. Philadelphia: Open University Press. ISBN 0-335-15275-9.

19. Nicholas Ostler, B.T.S. Atkins "Predictable Meaning Shift: Some Linguistic Properties of Lexical Implication Rules" (1991) Proceedings of the First SIGLEX Workshop on Lexical Semantics and Knowledge Representation, Springer-Verlag.

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