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Polysemy: contributions to the grammatical, lexicogenic and lexicographic study of the phenomenon

Catherine Paulin and Henri Béjoint
La polysémie : contributions à l’étude et au traitement grammatical, lexicogénique et lexicographique du phénomène

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1Polysemy is one of the major problems encountered by semanticists, who sometimes prefer to refer to it as “ambiguity”. All the same the question seems simple: everyone knows that a word may well have several senses. However such apparent simplicity is misleading. Lexicographers know how difficult it is to determine the number of senses of a word, to define them, to say where one ends and another begins. In actual fact, to be in a position to answer these questions requires prior agreement as to what is understood by “meaning” as opposed to “sense” – which is far from being the case.

2Lexical semantics today is very much concerned with polysemy which is no longer considered as an anomaly but rather as an intrinsic and essential feature of all natural languages. In addition, the study of polysemy has acquired renewed importance in the field of automatic translation of natural languages: it is a key notion for automatic data understanding and language comprehension. Amongst the major authors of recent works, researchers in cognitive semantics, corpus linguistics and lexicographers all agree on certain points:

  • ambiguity rarely occurs in discourse, for human beings, who are nearly always in a position, thanks to contextual elements, to disambiguate the comprehension of the informative content but it remains a source of problems for automatic comprehension;

  • there is no simple means to identify the different senses of a word;

  • the difference between homonymy on the one hand and polysemy on the other is to be thought of in terms of a continuum rather than a dichotomy.

3Some corpus linguists and lexicographers end up questioning the existence of senses. Such a position jeopardizes any theoretical stand as well as further research in the field. Therefore the question of ambiguity still exists, even if it has been displaced.

4Semanticists have devoted most of their work to substantives – nouns or noun equivalents – which is easily accounted for by their being inspired by language philosophers whose interest lies in the exploration of the ontological essence of “things” more than in lexical meaning. It is also related to the fact that reference – the referential value of words – cannot be dissociated from the study of substantives. For some decades however, research has been carried out on other parts of speech as well: verbs, adjectives, prepositions. The recurring lines of argument in the present volume all belong to a long-standing tradition of lexical and grammatical semantics, focused today on cognition.

5Polysemy has grown into a vast field of investigation: the papers collected in this volume represent a modest contribution only. Puckica studies the polysemy of grammatical words within the framework of construction grammars (CG) in which the different senses of a word can be construed as different actualizations of an abstract semantic invariant core meaning, or, in the theory of the prototype, central or peripheral occurrences of a category. In her paper, Gilquin makes a study of the English verb take in which she draws a comparison between the lexical network developed by Norvig & Lakoff (1987) with corpus data and elicitation data produced by native speakers both from a linguistic point of view (does the intuition-based model reflect corpus-based frequency?) and a cognitive point of view (does the intuition-based model reflect the saliency that emerges in the mind of the average speaker?). She concludes that the model does not stand the test of empirical evidence but can still have its relevance in a theory of polysemy. Using corpus data, Lorenzetti argues that the majority of the senses of the English verb see retain traits of their prototypical meaning which is used as the starting point for potential semantic enlargement. Stammers compares how six recent English dictionaries deal with the polysemy displayed by the adjectives unbalanced, idle, canonical and particular. Adjectives form a highly varied word-class and their polysemy is heavily context-dependent. He shows that lexicographers react to the challenge of their polysemy in different ways and even concludes that some adjectives that are considered to be polysemous in fact are not truly so. The author also observes that some adjectives have a clear hierarchy of senses whereas others form a semantic cline which resists analysis. Dury’s approach is innovative: her analysis is based on the role of polysemy in the diachronic formation of a specialized lexicon in the field of petroleum. The study of a corpus of texts published between 1800 and 1950 shows that the temporary co-existence of polysemous and synonymous terms played a part in the creation of a specialized lexicon in the field.

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Electronic reference

Catherine Paulin and Henri Béjoint, « Polysemy: contributions to the grammatical, lexicogenic and lexicographic study of the phenomenon », Lexis [Online], 1 | 2008, Online since 04 July 2008, connection on 29 April 2017. URL :

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About the authors

Catherine Paulin

University of Besançon, France

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Henri Béjoint

University of Lyon 2 – Lumière, France

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