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Sources of homonyms

1). One source of homonyms are phonetic changeswhich words undergo in the course of their historical development. As a result of such changes, two or more words which were formely pronounced differently may develop identical sound forms and thus become homonyms. Night (ночь) and knight (рыцарь), for instance, were not homonyms in Old English as the initial k in the second word was pronounced, and not dropped as it is in its modern sound form.

2) Borrowingis another source of homonyms. A borrowed word may duplicate in form either a native word or another borrowing. So, in the group of homonyms rite, n (обряд) – to write, v – right, adj. the second and third words are of native origin whereas rite (обряд) is a Latin borrowing.

3). Word-building also contributes significantly to the growth of homonymy, and the most important type in this respect is conversion.Such pairs of words as comb, n (гребень) – to comb, v (расчёсывать); to make, v (делать) – make, n (работа) are numerous in the vocabulary. Homonyms of this type, which are the same in sound and spelling but refer to different categories of parts of speech, are called lexico-grammatical homonyms.

4). Shorteningis a further type of word-building which increases the number of homonyms. E.g. fan, n in the sense of “an admirer of some kind of sport or of an actor, singer” is a shortening produced from fanatic. Its homonym is a Latin borrowing fan, n which denotes an implement for waving lightly to produce a cool current of air.

5). Words made by sound-imitationcan also form pairs of homonyms with other words: e.g. bang, n (a loud, sudden, explosive noise) – bang, n (a fringe of hair combed over the forehead – чёлка).

The above-described sources of homonyms have one important feature in common. In all the mentioned cases the homonyms developed from two or more different words, and their semilarity is purely accidental. In this respect, conversion presents an exception for in pairs of homonyms formed by conversion one word of the pair is produced from the other: a find < to find.

6). Now we come to a further source of homonyms which differs from all the above cases. Two or more homonyms can originate from different meanings of the same word when the semantic structure of the word breaks into several parts. This type of formation of homonyms is called split polysemy (распад полисемии). The semantic structure of a polysemantic word presents a system within which all its constituent meanings are held together by logical associations. In most cases, the function of the arrangement and the unity is determined by one of the meanings (e.g. the meaning “flame” in the noun fire). If this meaning happens to disappear from the word’s semantic structure, associations between the rest of the meanings may be severed, the semantic structure loses its unity and falls into two or more parts which then become accepted as independent lexical units.

Let us consider the history of three homonyms:

board, n – a long, thin piece of timber

board, n – daily meals provided for pay, e.g. room and board

board, n – an official group of persons who direct or supervise some activity, e.g. a

board of directors.

It is clear that the meanings of these three words are in no way associated with one another. Yet, most larger dictionaries still enter a meaning of board that once held together all these other meanings ”table”. It developed from the meaning “a piece of timber” by transference based on contiguity(association of an object and the material from which it is made). The meanings “meals” and “an official group of persons” developed from the meaning “table”, also by transference based on contiguity: meals are easily associated with a table on which they are served; an official group of people in authority are also likely to discuss their business round a table.

Nowadays, however, the item of furniture, on which meals are served and round which boards of directors meet, is no longer denoted by the word board but by the French Norman borrowing table, and board in this meaning, though still registered by some dictionaries, can be marked as archaic as it is no longer used in common speech. That is why, with the intrusion of the borrowed table, the word board lost its corresponding meaning.


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