Lexical meaning: homonymy, polysemy, synonymy

I recently refered to yet another section The diversity of meaning in the chapter 5 Semantics in Lyons’ Language and Linguistics. And I will now refer to a section that is given the title as seen above in this article’s heading. The purpose of this section is to differentiate the three terms of homonymy, polsysemy and synonymy.

Lyons explains what each of this concepts means. He starts introducing homonymy and polysemy as concepts that are important for lexicogrpahers because

“[a]ll standard dictionaries respect the disctinction between homonymy and polysemy. But how do they draw the line between the two?” (p. 147).

A clear response to this question won’t be given by Lyons yet we still have to define the meaning of the two concepts homonymy and polysemy.

“Traditionally, homonyms are said to be different words (i. e. lexemes) with the same form”

but furthermore

“the traditional definition of homonymy obviously needs refinement to allow for various kinds of partial homonymy” (p. 146).

The latter is necessary e. g. because of

“the possibility of non-coincidence between the units of spoken and written language: i. e. the possibility of there being homophones that are not homographs, and vice versa” (ib.).

“Polysemy (or multiple meaning) is a property of single lexemes; and this is what differentiates it, in principle, from homonymy”.

When a lexeme

“is treated in standard dictionaries of English as a single lexeme with several distinguishable meanings” (ib.)

it is called polysemous. Which criteria enable us to distinguish between homonymous and polysemous lexemes? Lyons insists that the

“etymological criterion is irrelevant”

and the

“principal consideration is relatedness of meaning. The several meanings of a single polysemous lexeme […] are judged to be related” (p. 147).

And furtheron it

“is easy to see that […] relatedness of meaning is a matter of more or less. For this reason, the distinction between homonymy and polysemy […] is difficult to apply” (ib.).

A lot of quotations around, but never mind, Lyons’ words are easy enough to understand. Let’s come to the concept of synonymy and two specific categories related to it.

“If synonymy is defined as identity of meaning, then lexemes can be said to be completely synonymous […] if and only if the have the same descriptive, expressive and social meaning […]. They may be described as absolutely synonymous if and only if they have the same distribution and are completely synonymous in all their meanings and in all their contexts of occurence” (p. 148).

This also means that the term of absolute synonymy is meant to have the broader scope of extension to fulfill and is therefore less existent, but almost non-existent in natural languages (cf. ib.). There is of course incomplete synonymy in a variety of entities with descriptive synonymy being only one categorie of incomplete synonymy.

“Incomplete synonymy is by no means”

and in contrast to complete or absolute synonymy

“rare” (p. 150).

Lyons end this section with a reference to inter-language synonymy which it

“would be absurd”

not to maintain its existence (cf. p. 151). For now we have ended with this section and will go on with the next one in another posting.

Lyons, John, 1984 (1981): Language and Linguistics. An Introduction. London et al.: Cambridge University Press

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