Лексикология английского языка English Lexicology icon

Лексикология английского языка English Lexicology

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^ Sources of Homonyms

One source of homonyms has already been mentioned: phonetic changes which words undergo in the course of their historical development. As a result of such changes, two or more words which were formerly pronounced differently may develop identical sound forms and thus become homonyms.

Night and knight, 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: О.Е. kniht (cf. О.Е. niht). A more complicated change of form brought together another pair of homonyms: to knead (О.Е. cnēdan) and to need (О.Е. nēodian).

In Old English the verb to write had the form writan, and the adjective right had the forms reht, riht. The noun sea descends from the Old English form sæ, and the verb to see from О. Е. sēon. The noun work and the verb to work also had different forms in Old English: wyrkean and weork respectively.

Borrowing is another source of homonyms. A borrowed word may, in the final stage of its phonetic


adaptation, duplicate in form either a native word or another borrowing. So, in the group of homonyms rite, n. — to write, v. — right, adj. the second and third words are of native origin whereas rite is a Latin borrowing (< Lat. ritus). In the pair piece, n. — peace, п., the first originates from O.F. pais, and the second from O.F. (< Gaulish) pettia. Bank, n. ("shore") is a native word, and bank, n. ("a financial institution") is an Italian borrowing. Fair, adj. (as in a fair deal, it's not fair) is native, and fair, n. ("a gathering of buyers and sellers") is a French borrowing. Match, n. ("a game; a contest of skill, strength") is native, and match, n. ("a slender short piece of wood used for producing fire") is a French borrowing.

Word-building also contributes significantly to the growth of homonymy, and the most important type in this respect is undoubtedly conversion. Such pairs of words as comb, n. — to comb, v., pale, adj. — to pale, v., to make, v. — make, n. 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. [12]

Shortening is a further type of word-building which increases the number of homonyms. E.g. fan, n. in the sense of "an enthusiastic admirer of some kind of sport or of an actor, singer, etc." 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. The noun rep, n. denoting a kind of fabric (cf. with the R. репс) has three homonyms made by shortening: rep, n. (< repertory), rep, n. (< representative), rep, n. (< reputation)', all the three are informal words.

During World War II girls serving in the Women's Royal Naval Service (an auxiliary of the British Royal Navy) were jokingly nicknamed ^ Wrens (informal). This


neologistic formation made by shortening has the homonym wren, n. "a small bird with dark brown plumage barred with black" (R. крапивник).

Words made by sound-imitation can 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"). Also: mew, n. ("the sound a cat makes") — mew, n. ("a sea gull") — mew, n. ("a pen in which poultry is fattened") — mews ("small terraced houses in Central London").

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 similarity is purely accidental. (In this respect, conversion certainly 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.)

Now we come to a further source of homonyms which differs essentially from all the above cases. Two or more homonyms can originate from different meanings of the same word when, for some reason, the semantic structure of the word breaks into several parts. This type of formation of homonyms is called split polysemy.

From what has been said in the previous chapters about polysemantic words, it should have become clear that 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 — see Ch. 7, p. 133). 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 and thin piece of timber

board, n. — daily meals, esp. as 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 very well 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 actually lost its corresponding meaning. But it was just that meaning which served as a link to hold together the rest of the constituent parts of the word's semantic structure. With its diminished role as an element of communication, its role in the semantic structure was also weakened. The speakers almost forgot that board had ever been associated with any item of furniture, nor could they associate the concepts of meals or of a responsible


committee with a long thin piece of timber (which is the oldest meaning of board). Consequently, the semantic structure of board was split into three units. The following scheme illustrates the process:

Board, n. (development of meanings)

A long, thin piece of timber

> A piece of furniture


Meals provided for pay

An official group of persons

Board I, II, III, n. (split


I. A long, thin piece of timber

A piece of furniture


Meals provided for pay

Seldom used; ousted III. by the French borrowing table.

An official group of persons

A somewhat different case of split polysemy may be illustrated by the three following homonyms:

spring, n. — the act of springing, a leap spring, n. — a place where a stream of water comes up out of the earth (R. родник, источник) spring, n. — a season of the year.

Historically all three nouns originate from the same verb with the meaning of "to jump, to leap" (О. Е. sprin-gan), so that the meaning of the first homonym is the oldest. The meanings of the second and third homonyms were originally based on metaphor. At the head of a stream the water sometimes leaps up out of the earth, so that metaphorically such a place could well be described as a leap. On the other hand, the season of the year following winter could be poetically defined as a


leap from the darkness and cold into sunlight and life. Such metaphors are typical enough of Old English and Middle English semantic transferences but not so characteristic of modern mental and linguistic processes. The poetic associations that lay in the basis of the semantic shifts described above have long since been forgotten, and an attempt to re-establish the lost links may well seem far-fetched. It is just the near-impossibility of establishing such links that seems to support the claim for homonymy and not for polysemy with these three words.

It should be stressed, however, that split polysemy as a source of homonyms is not accepted by some scholars. It is really difficult sometimes to decide whether a certain word has or has not been subjected to the split of the semantic structure and whether we are dealing with different meanings of the same word or with homonyms, for the criteria are subjective and imprecise. The imprecision is recorded in the data of different dictionaries which often contradict each other on this very issue, so that board is represented as two homonyms in Professor V. K. Muller's dictionary [41], as three homonyms in Professor V. D. Arakin's [36] and as one and the same word in Hornby's dictionary [45].

Spring also receives different treatment. V. K. Muller's and Hornby's dictionaries acknowledge but two homonyms: I. a season of the year, П. a) the act of springing, a leap, b) a place where a stream of water comes up out of the earth; and some other meanings, whereas V. D. Arakin's dictionary presents the three homonyms as given above.

Classification of Homonyms

The subdivision of homonyms into homonyms proper, homophones and homographs is certainly not precise enough and does not reflect certain important features of these words, and, most important of all, their status


as parts of speech. The examples given in the beginning of this chapter show that homonyms may belong both to the same and to different categories of parts of speech. Obviously, a classification of homonyms should reflect this distinctive feature. Also, the paradigm of each word should be considered, because it has been observed that the paradigms of some homonyms coincide completely, and of others only partially.

Accordingly, Professor A. I. Smirnitsky classified homonyms into two large classes: I. full homonyms, II. partial homonyms [15].

Full lexical homonyms are words which represent the same category of parts of speech and have the same paradigm.

E. g. / match, n. — a game, a contest

I match, n. — a short piece of wood used for I producing fire

wren, n. — a member of the Women's Royal Naval Service wren, n. — a bird

Partial homonyms are subdivided into three subgroups:

A. Simple lexico-grammatical partial homonyms are words which belong to the same category of parts of speech. Their paradigms have one identical form, but it is never the same form, as will be seen from the examples.

E. g. / (to) found, v.

\ found, v. (Past Indef., Past Part. of to ( find)

/ to lay, v.

I lay, v. (Past Indef. of to lie)

[ to bound, v.

I bound, v. (Past Indef., Past Part, of to

( bind)


B. Complex lexico-grammatical partial homonyms are words of different categories of parts of speech which have one identical form in their paradigms.

E. g. f rose, n.

rose, v. (Past Indef. of to rise)

maid, n.

made, v. (Past Indef., Past Part, of to make)

left, adj.

left, v. (Past Indef., Past Part, of to leave)

bean, n.

been, v. (Past Part, of to be)

one, num.

won, v. (Past Indef., Past Part, of to win)

C. Partial lexical homonyms are words of the same category of parts of speech which are identical only in their corresponding forms.

E. g. \ to lie (lay, lain), v. to lie (lied, lied), v.

to hang (hung, hung), v.

to hang (hanged, hanged), v.

to can (canned, canned) (I) can (could)


I. Consider your answers to the following.

  1. Which words do we call homonyms?

  2. Why can't homonyms be regarded as expressive means of the language?

  3. What is the traditional classification of homonyms? Illustrate your answer with examples.

  4. What are the distinctive features of the classification of homonyms suggested by Professor A. I. Smirnitsky?




Are Their Meanings the Same or Different?

Synonymy is one of modern linguistics' most controversial problems. The very existence of words traditionally called synonyms is disputed by some linguists; the nature and essence of the relationships of these words is hotly debated and treated in quite different ways by the representatives of different linguistic schools.

Even though one may accept that synonyms in the traditional meaning of the term are somewhat elusive and, to some extent, fictitious it is certain that there are words in any vocabulary which clearly develop regular and distinct relationships when used in speech.

In the following extract, in which a young woman rejects a proposal of marriage, the verbs like, admire and love, all describe feelings of attraction, approbation, fondness:

"I have always liked you very much, I admire your talent, but, forgive me, — I could never love you as a wife should love her husband."

(From The Shivering Sands by V. Holt)

Yet, each of the three verbs, though they all describe more or less the same feeling of liking, describes it in its own way: "I like you, i. e. I have certain warm feelings towards you, but they are not strong enough


for me to describe them as "love"," — so that like and love are in a way opposed to each other.

The duality of synonyms is, probably, their most confusing feature: they are somewhat the same, and yet they are most obviously different. Both aspects of their dual characteristics are essential for them to perform their function in speech: revealing different aspects, shades and variations of the same phenomenon.

"— Was she a pretty girl?

— I would certainly have called her attractive."


The second speaker in this short dialogue does his best to choose the word which would describe the girl most precisely: she was good-looking, but pretty is probably too good a word for her, so that attractive is again in a way opposed to pretty (not pretty, only attractive), but this opposition is, at the same time, firmly fixed on the sameness of pretty and attractive: essentially they both describe a pleasant appearance.

Here are some more extracts which confirm that synonyms add precision to each detail of description and show how the correct choice of a word from a group of synonyms may colour the whole text.

The first extract depicts a domestic quarrel. The infuriated husband shouts and glares at his wife, but "his glare suddenly softened into a gaze as he turned his eyes on the little girl" (i. e. he had been looking furiously at his wife, but when he turned his eyes on the child, he looked at her with tenderness).

The second extract depicts a young father taking his child for a Sunday walk.

"Neighbours were apt to smile at the long-legged bare-headed young man leisurely strolling along the


street and his small companion demurely trotting by his side."

(From ^ Some Men and Women by B. Lowndes)

The synonyms stroll and trot vividly describe two different styles of walking, the long slow paces of the young man and the gait between a walk and a run of the short-legged child.

In the following extract an irritated producer is talking to an ambitious young actor:

"Think you can play Romeo? Romeo should smile, not grin, walk, not swagger, speak his lines, not mumble them."


Here the second synonym in each pair is quite obviously and intentionally contrasted and opposed to the first: "... smile, not grin." Yet, to grin means more or less the same as to smile, only, perhaps, denoting a broader and a rather foolish smile. In the same way to swagger means "to walk", but to walk in a defiant or insolent manner. Mumbling is also a way of speaking, but of speaking indistinctly or unintelligibly.

Synonyms are one of the language's most important expressive means. The above examples convincingly demonstrate that the principal function of synonyms is to represent the same phenomenon in different aspects, shades and variations.

And here is an example of how a great writer may use synonyms for stylistic purposes. In this extract from ^ Death of a Hero R. Aldington describes a group of survivors painfully retreating after a defeat in battle:

"... The Frontshires [name of battalion] staggered rather than walked down the bumpy trench ... About fifty men, the flotsam of the wrecked battalion,


stumbled past them .... They shambled heavily along, not keeping step or attempting to, bent wearily forward under the weight of their equipment, their unseeing eyes turned to the muddy ground."

In this extract the verb to walk is used with its three synonyms, each of which describes the process of walking in its own way. In contrast to walk the other three words do not merely convey the bare idea of going on foot but connote the manner of walking as well. Stagger means "to sway while walking" and, also, implies a considerable, sometimes painful, effort. Stumble, means "to walk tripping over uneven ground and nearly falling." Shamble implies dragging one's feet while walking; a physical effort is also connoted by the word.

The use of all these synonyms in the extract creates a vivid picture of exhausted, broken men marching from the battle-field and enhances the general atmosphere of defeat and hopelessness.

A carefully chosen word from a group of synonyms is a great asset not only on the printed page but also in a speaker's utterance. It was Mark Twain who said that the difference between the right word and just the right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning-bug.

The skill to choose the most suitable word in every context and every situation is an essential part of the language learning process. Students should be taught both to discern the various connotations in the meanings of synonyms and to choose the word appropriate to each context.

^ Criteria of Synonymy

Synonymy is associated with some theoretical problems which at present are still an object of controversy. Probably, the most controversial among these is


the problem of criteria of synonymy. To put it in simpler words, we are still not certain which words should correctly be considered as synonyms, nor are we agreed as to the characteristic features which qualify two or more words as synonyms.

Traditional linguistics solved this problem with the conceptual criterion and defined synonyms as words of the same category of parts of speech conveying the same concept but differing either in shades of meaning or in stylistic characteristics.

Some aspects of this definition have been criticised. It has been pointed out that linguistic phenomena should be defined in linguistic terms and that the use of the term concept makes this an extralinguistic definition. The term "shades of meaning" has been condemned for its vagueness and lack of precision.

In contemporary research on synonymy semantic criterion is frequently used. In terms of componential analysis synonyms may be defined as words with the same denotation, or the same denotative component, but differing in connotations, or in connotative components (see Ch. 7).

Though not beyond criticism, this approach has its advantages and suggests certain new methods of analysing synonyms.

A group of synonyms may be studied with the help of their dictionary definitions (definitional analysis). In this work the data from various dictionaries are analysed comparatively. After that the definitions are subjected to transformational operations (transformational analysis). In this way, the semantic components of each analysed word are singled out.

Here are the results of the definitional and transformational analysis of some of the numerous synonyms for the verb to look.



to stare: to glare: to gaze: to

glance: to peer:

to peer:



to look

steadily, lastingly

in surprise, curiosity, etc.

to look

steadily, lastingly

in anger, rage, fury

to look

steadily, lastingly

in tenderness, admiration, wonder

to look

briefly, in passing

to look

steadily, lastingly

by stealth; through an opening or from a concealed location

to look

steadily, lastingly

with difficulty or strain

The common denotation convincingly shows that, according to the semantic criterion, the words grouped in the above table are synonyms. The connotative components represented on the right side of the table highlight their differentiations.

In modern research on synonyms
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