Confusables: Polysemy, and Polysemy with Hyponymy

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Confusables: Polysemy, and Polysemy with Hyponymy

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Mon Aug 18, 2008 12:07 am

I’ve been researching the topic of confusables in English – a friend asked for some help. Mad!
OK, the vocabulary stinks – but it’s what we’ve got to work with.
I’ll start by defining terms, as they’re used in the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language,1987ed

lexeme: a unit of meaning (not always the same as a word) eg (1) also, (2) win/wins/won, (3) take off, (eg of a plane) and (4) ship of the desert (=camel) are lexemes.

homonyms: two different lexemes having the same shape (ie spelling and pronunciation) – contrast the broader meaning Ken indicates in tocsin/toxin. Homonyms (such as bear = bruin and bear = carry) are usually listed under different headwords in larger dictionaries, and as a rule have different etymologies.

polysemes: the different usages, with different (related) meanings or shades of meanings, that a single lexeme often has – usually listed under a common headword. Thus football is what we might play, what we will need to play it with, and Football is the institution wherein slaves are paid a paltry £5 million a year.

hypernym: a superordinate term – eg cutlery, where knife, fork … are the hyponyms.

Confusion of homonyms is not really a serious problem, usually occurring only when English is first being learned, and is often a source of amusement. It is usually addressed at school.

With polysemes, the situation is far more serious. Misunderstanding, needless arguments, obscurantism, and even an encouragement of wrong attitudes are possible. Polysemy is very common, even (or especially!) in technical fields. We have seen above how the lexeme homonymy is used in different ways by different authorities. In maths, a mapping seems to have conflicting definitions. An antique furniture collector would always look at a girandole, a court cupboard, a buffet, a credenza and especially a commode to check what the thing was never mind its condition. Heart, spirit and grace are highly polysemous, a fact which has allowed some very ungracious debates to occur. A famous British politician, on being challenged that his recent policies belied his claim to always act pragmatically, pointed out that one meaning of the word pragmatic is relating to Affairs of State. Going to Church is less of a commitment than being Church in the Community.

When hypernyms and hyponyms are also (co-)polysemes, there is even greater scope for confusion – even farce. The CEEL points out that the lexeme animal is used in science to mean a member of the Kingdom Animalia, in common parlance to mean a mammal (,reptile, bird?…), and sometimes to mean the ‘opposite’ of man: there is a danger if we cross registers of saying an animal is a type of animal. We avoid such absurdities as:
Fifty years ago, gas was a mixture of gases.
Salt is one example of a salt, and sugar is one example of a sugar.
Cast iron is mainly iron.
Sometimes, though, we’re forced into juxtapositions such as:
Are all Liberals liberal? Are all Presbyterians presbyterian?
In any case, I think that students should be warned at the correct times about individual problems of this nature – though I’m not suggesting that the terminology need be used. It would pre-empt a lot of misunderstanding.
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Re: Confusables: Polysemy, and Polysemy with Hyponymy

Post by Phil White » Mon Aug 18, 2008 2:08 am

A long time ago I read something where the author argued that some words were effectively infinitely polysemous. I believe the argument was that the core meaning of the adjective "good" varied according to the noun it was applied to. Can't for the life of me remember where it was, though.

Since then, my reading and my thinking have led me to believe that virtually all words and grammatical constructions (I barely accept the difference nowadays) are significantly if not infinitely polysemous.

Meaning cannot be seriously construed without accounting for the understanding of both speaker and listener. For the purposes of writing dictionaries and discussing language, we attempt to restrict our understanding of "meaning" primarily to the denotation of a word or construction. For the purposes of real communication between real people, I believe that the connotations of words are far more important.

Much discussion of semantics has assumed that proper nouns are relatively easy to describe. "President George W. Bush" has a single, clearly identifiable denotation. But what a wealth of connotations, each of which will be different for different people, sometimes glaringly so, sometimes in subtle ways. Okay, so that example is a gift, but even proper names for inanimate objects will have different connotations for different people. "Balmoral Castle", for instance. If you've visited it, you will have an entirely different picture than if you haven't. And if you actually live there every summer, the overwhelming connotation may well be of noisy plumbing. You may have seen it in the summer or in the winter or only seen pictures or you may only have heard of it and have an entirely incorrect picture. You may associate it with the monarchy (whom you may support or not) or simply with the beautiful river Dee.

And that's just a simple example of a proper noun with an unambiguous denotation.

Take the word "table", and we're on even thinner ice. Of course, my picture of a table is different from yours because of all the tables I have owned or sat at. (I just thought of the primary picture I have of a table. I'll bet it has three less legs than yours, primarily because of the various tables I have owned in the past.) These are connotations that are there for me alongside many others that I share with you.

The only reason we can communicate at all is because, like Venn diagrams, the areas and clusters in semantic space that the word "table" occupies for me overlap with the areas and clusters that it occupies for you. The areas which do not overlap vary between each pair of speakers and provide the space for potential misunderstanding. We agree on the meaning of a word at the intersection of my sets of connotations/denotations with your sets of connotations/denotations (to stick with the Venn diagram analogy).

Of course, much of the time, the implicit assumptions we make about the extent of these intersections when we communicate are entirely justified. However, when they fail, they can fail quite spectacularly. And the areas where the assumptions seem to me most likely to fail are in the abstract, particularly the emotional areas. "Love", "integrity", "need", "poverty"... There are times with words like that where there is almost no overlap whatsoever in the Venn diagrams (happened to me recently with "integrity").

If my initial assumption is correct (that connotation contributes more to meaning in real communication than does denotation), then extreme polysemy is the norm, and not an exception.

And the point of all that? Well, to hone it to a fine point: because it effectively describes any word in the language, polysemy quite possibly has no useful meaning.
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Re: Confusables: Polysemy, and Polysemy with Hyponymy

Post by Erik_Kowal » Mon Aug 18, 2008 7:35 am

Precise, concise, incisive: thanks, Phil.
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Re: Confusables: Polysemy, and Polysemy with Hyponymy

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Mon Aug 18, 2008 8:19 am

It depends on what you mean by extreme polysemy, Phil. :-) (That could be a lexeme)
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Re: Confusables: Polysemy, and Polysemy with Hyponymy

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Wed Sep 03, 2008 8:06 pm

And the great teacher Confuse-us say: "He who does not define terms ends up with shorter holidays."
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