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Polysemy, semantic structure of a polysemantic word

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Polysemy is a phenomenon of language not of speech. The sum total of many contexts in which the word is observed to occur permits the lexicographers to record cases of identical meaning and cases that differ in meaning. They are registered by lexicographers and found in dictionaries.

A distinction has to be drawn between the lexical meaning of a word in speech, we shall call it contextual meaning, and the semantic structure of a word in language. Thus the semantic structure of the verb act comprises several variants: 'do something', 'behave', 'take a part in a play', 'pretend'. If one examines this word in the following aphorism: Some men have acted courage who had it not; but no man can act wit (Halifax), one sees it in a definite context that particularises it and makes possible only one meaning 'pretend'. This contextual meaning has a connotation of irony. The unusual grammatical meaning of transitivity (act is as a rule intransitive) and the lexical meaning of objects to this verb make a slight difference in the lexical meaning.

As a rule the contextual meaning represents only one of the possible variants of the word but this one variant may render a complicated notion or emotion analyzable into several semes. In this case we deal not with the semantic structure of the word but with the semantic structure of one of its meanings. Polysemy does not interfere with the communicative function of the language because the situation and context cancel all the unwanted meanings.

Sometimes, as, for instance in puns, the ambiguity is intended, the words are purposefully used so as to emphasise their different meanings. Consider the replica of lady Constance, whose son, Arthur Plantagenet is betrayed by treacherous allies:

LYMOGES (Duke of Austria): Lady Constance, peace!

CONSTANCE: War! war! no peace! peace is to me a war (Shakespeare).

In the time of Shakespeare peace as an interjection meant 'Silence!' But lady Constance takes up the main meaning - the antonym of war.

Geoffrey Leech uses the term reflected meaning for what is communicated through associations with another sense of the same word, that is all cases when one meaning of the word forms part of the listener's response to another meaning. G. Leech illustrates his point by the following example. Hearing in the Church Service the expression The Holy Ghost, he found his reaction conditioned by the everyday unreligious and awesome meaning 'the shade of a dead person supposed to visit the living'. The case where reflected meaning intrudes due to suggestivity of the expression may be also illustrated by taboo words and euphemisms connected with the physiology of sex.



Consider also the following joke, based on the clash of different meanings of the word expose ('leave unprotected', 'put up for show', 'reveal the guilt of'). E. g.: Painting is the art of protecting flat surfaces from the weather and exposing them to the critic.

Or, a similar case: "Why did they hang this picture?" "Perhaps, they could not find the artist."

 


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