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7.1.Classification of homonyms.
7.2.Sources of homonymy.
7.3.Homonymy and polysemy.
7.1. Homonyms are words which are identical in sound form and/or spelling but different in meaning. Modern English is extremely rich in homonyms as there are a lot of one-syllable and two-syllable words.
Homonyms can be classified according to different principles:
I. On the basis of (a) sound-form, (b) spelling and (c) meaning homonyms are classified into:
1) homonyms proper, or perfect homonyms, which are identical both in spelling and sound-form, but different in meaning,
e.g. bank "a shore" - bank "a financial institution",
winter "a season" - to winter "to spend the winter";
2) homophones, which are identical in sound but different in spelling and meaning,
e.g. course - coarse, weather - whether, cite - sight – site;
3) homographs, which are identical in spelling but different in sound and meaning,
e.g. ‘entrance, n. “door, gate" – en’trance, v. "put in a trance",
lead [e] "the metal" - lead [i:] "conduct, guide";
II. On the basis of the paradigm, i.e. whether the paradigms of two words coincide completely or only in part, homonyms are divided into:
1) full homonyms, which coincide in all their forms,
e.g. ball "a dancing party" - ball "a spherical object",
seal "a sea animal" - seal " a piece of wax, lead, etc. stamped with a design";
2) partial homonyms which have only some identical forms:
e.g. found "to establish" - found (past indefinite of find),
seal "a sea animal" - to seal "to fasten or close tightly";
Partial homonyms usu. belong to different parts of speech, but may belong to the same part of speech,
e.g. to lie (lied) - to lie (lay, lain).
III. On the basis of their part of speech, homonyms are classified into:
1) lexical homonyms which belong to the same part of speech,
e.g. seal(1) – seal(2)
2) lexico-grammatical homonyms which belong to different parts of speech,
e.g. rose "a flower" - rose (past indefinite or rise).
This group includes words related by conversion,
e.g. to jump-a jump, milk - to milk.
Some lexicologists argue that there are also grammatical homonyms but they are homonymous forms of one word and thus not real homonyms, which are, by definition, different words.
7.2. Sources of homonymy are as follows:
1) Phonetic change which words undergo in their historical development: two or more words that originally were pronounced differently may develop identical sound form,
e.g. sea (fr. OE ) - see (fr. OE ),
I (fr. 0E ) - eye (fr. OE ʒe).
Phonetic change is the most important source of homonyms. It is largely a matter of historical chance, although a tendency to assimilate the unfamiliar to the familiar is also a factor, as with compound "an enclosure", originally Malay kampong.
2) Borrowing: a borrowed word may coincide with a native word or another borrowed word,
e.g. match "a game, contest" (native) - match "a slender short piece of wood for producing fire" (French)
fair "just" (native) - fair "a gathering of buyers and sellers" (French)
(a) conversion, which gives rise to numerous lexico-grammatical homonyms,
e.g. pale - to pale "grow or become pale",
mother "female parent" - to mother "to take care of like a mother";
(b) shortening, abbreviation,
e.g. aids - AIDS, dock "place in a harbour where ships are (un)loaded or repaired" – doc (a shortening from doctor).
4) Split of polysemy: two or more homonyms can originate from different meanings of the same word when, for some reason, they diverge and the semantic structure of the word breaks up,
e.g. spring¹ - "act of springing",
spring2 - "a place where a stream of water comes up out of the earth",
spring3 - "a season of the year".
Historically, all these nouns originate from one verb OE springan "to jump, to leap"; they were meanings of the same word, with the meaning of spring2 and spring3 based on metaphors. But by now these associations have been lost, and they have become separate words.
7.3. When we deal with homonymy we face a problem. The problem is to decide whether we have polysemy, i.e. one form with two meanings, or homonymy, i.e. two words with the same form.
Synchronically, there are several criteria to distinguish between polysemy and homonymy, but unfortunately, none is quite reliable. The best known, perhaps, are the following criteria:
1) spelling: homophones are easily perceived to be different words,
e.g. flower - flour; but it can't be applied to homonyms proper, e.g. key to the door and key of a piano: are they different words or one word in different meanings;
2) context. It's argued that context may help to decide whether we have polysemy or homonymy, but in fact, it serves only to distinguish between different meanings,
e.g. a glass case "box" several cases of robbery "instances",
but do we deal here with polysemy or homonymy? The problem is still unsolved.
This criterion is helpful when we deal with lexico-grammatical homonyms but fails in case of lexical homonymy.
3) The most widely used is the semantic criterion. Most linguists argue that all the meanings of a polysemantic word are somehow connected and they make up one system (called "the semantic structure of the word"), while the meanings of homonyms are unrelated. This criterion is not quite reliable either:
(1) The decision whether the meanings are connected or not may be subjective. For instance, the decision of dictionary makers often seems quite arbitrary (whether to handle one particular item as a single entry, i.e. as a polysemantic word, or to treat it in terms of homonymy and to have a separate entry for each of the homonyms).
e.g. The Hornby Dictionary treats spring as two homonyms, while the Arakin Dictionary handles it as three homonyms, whereas the COD and Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English treat it as one polysemantic word. Lexicographers often base their decision on etymology: they take the view that homonymy relates to words whose meanings have converged while polysemy relates to one word whose meanings have diverged or radiated.
(2) The semantic criterion can't be applied to a large group of lexico-grammatical homonyms which appear due to conversion because, evidently, their meanings are related,
e.g. dust - to dust "to remove dust".
Thus, though in theory we must distinguish between homonymy and polysemy, it can't always be done in practice as there are no formal criteria to differentiate between them.
Polysemy is an inherent (permanent) and general characteristic of language, something no language can do without, while homonymy is accidental and has no great value (except for puns) in language. Sometimes, though not often, homonyms may even lead to misunderstandings.