GRIN - Lexical Relations: Homonymy (2023)

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Homonymy and Types of Homonyms

3. Reasons for Homonymy
3.1 Phonetic Convergence
3.2 Semantic Divergence
3.3 Foreign Influence
3.4 Loss of Sounds

4. Problems of Homonymy
4.1 Ambiguity
4.1.1 Safeguards against the Confusion of Ambigious Homonyms

5. Examples
5.1 ‘tear’
5.2 ‘ball’
5.3 ‘let’
5.4 ‘fine’

6. Conclusion


Hiermit erkläre ich, dass ich die vorliegende Arbeit selbst angefertigt und alle von mir benutzten Hilfsmittel und Quellen angegeben habe; alle wörtlichen Zitate und Entlehnungen aus fremden Arbeiten sind als solche gekennzeichnet.

1. Introduction

Comunicating via language is a significant property of human beings. The Oxford English Dictionary contains about 400 000 lexemes and the vocabulary of an average English speaker covers 250 000 words. During normal conversations about 4,000 or 5,000 words are used per hour and while reading a person reaches an amount of 14,000 or 15,000 words in an hour.[1] Usually one does not think about any relations between the words, the words we need in a particular situation come to our mind and we use them because they fulfill the function of communicating with others. When communicating via language we do not think about where the words historically come from or how they are related to each other.

From the linguistic point of view the words are not single units for themselves they are linked to each other by semantic (paradigmatic and syntagmatic) and formal relations. Syntagmatic relations are explained on the basis of meaning of words and paradigmatic relations deal with semantic and grammatical features. Formal relations are based on the form of lexemes. The focus of this paper will be on homonymy, which is a formal relationship between lexemes. In the first part the phenomenon will be explained in regard to its types, development and problems which can arise from homonymy. In the second part examples of homonymous lexemes will be analysed. It will be explained which type of homonymy they belong to, why they are homonyms and which problems can arise in written and spoken language when those homonymous lexemes are used.

2. Homonymy and Types of Homonyms

Briefly said homonyms are two or more different lexemes which have the same form but are unrelated in meaning and have different historical sources in language. The words which are homonyms usually have different entries in dictionaries.[2]

While investigating homonymy one also has to consider homophony and homography. Homophones are lexemes that have the same pronunciation, but can differ in spelling.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Homographs are spelled the same and are either different or identical in pronunciation.[3]

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Homonymy can therefore be seen as a subclass of homophony and homography.[4]

(Video) Lexical Semantic Relations

Homonymy can also be divided in absolute and partial homonymy. Absolute homonyms are unrelated in meaning, all their forms are identical in pronunciation as well as in spelling (citation forms and word forms) and those identical forms are grammatical equivalent.[5] Grammatical equivalents belong to the same word-class, have the same syntactic function and occur in the same grammatical environment.

mail1 [meIl] (noun ‘posted letters and parcels’)

mail2 [meIl] (noun ‘armour made of rings or chains’)

lap1 [læp] (noun ‘top part of the legs, forming a flat surface

when sitting down’)

lap2 [læp] (noun ‘a section of a journey or trip’)

Partial homonyms fail to fulfill one or more features of absolute homonymy.[6] There may be differences in form, pronunciation or spelling or a lack of grammatical equivalence.

visit1 [vIzIt] (verb ‘to see a person or a place for a short time’)

visit2 [vIzIt] (noun ‘a period of time when sb goes to see a

person or a place’)

rung1 [rΛŋ] (noun ‘a bar that forms a step of the ladder’)

rung2 [rΛŋ] (past part. of the verb ring)

To find out if lexemes are homonyms one has to investigate the etymology of the words, that means sources which the lexemes derive from, because homonyms have different origins in language.[7] If the words have the same historical source they are polysemous lexemes.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

race1 ‘running’ race2 ‘people, nationality’

Old Norse rās French race

tongue (1) ‘part of the body’

(Video) Lexical Semantics

illustration not visible in this excerpt

(2) ‘part of the shoe’

(3) ‘language/speech’

Old English tunge

A polysemous lexeme has two or more related senses, like tongue in the example above. Homonyms are, in contrast to polysemes, different lexemes which are semantically unrelated, there can not be found a relation between the meanings of the lexemes.[8] This feature can also be proved in the example: between the meanings of race1 and race2 can not be found any relation. In the example of tongue the common feature of sememes (1) and (2) is shape (metaphor) and sense (3) of the lexeme is impossible without (1) (a human needs the tongue to produce spoken language), which is a relation of metonomy.

3. Reasons for Hymonymy

3.1 Phonetic Convergence

The most common source of homonymy is the converging of sounds.[9] A result of phonetic changes is that words which originally had different forms fall together and become the same in spoken language; sometimes they even coincide in writing.[10] This form of homonomy is mainly found in languages which have many monosyllabic lexemes, for example in English and French.[11] Examples for phonetic convergence in English are:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

(table see: Ullmann, S., Semantics. An Introduction to the

Science of Meaning (Oxford: B Blackwell 1962) 176.)

Homonymy can also be a result of the loss of final consonants, which is more common in French than in English.[12]

3.2 Semantic Divergence

Homonymy can also result from sense-development going in different directions.[13] The meanings of a lexeme diverge that much that there can not be found any relation between them, here polysemy is replaced by homonymy and the unity of the word does no longer exist.[14] This kind of homonyms are called secondary homonyms.[15]

“This form of homonomy is the exact counterpart of a process discussed in the previous section: the reinterpretation of homonyms as though they were one word with two senses.”[16] In one process two words fall together to one form and in the other process one lexeme splits into two, which is the more common case.[17]

illustration not visible in this excerpt

It is difficult to decide whether lexemes are homonyms or polysemes because of the subjective concept one has of the lexeme. Besides that the decision often seems to be arbitrary.[18]

If the pronunciation of words is the same, the spelling can often be helpful in deciding if those lexemes are homonyms or not, like for instance discreet [dIاskri:t] – discrete [dIاskri:t] or tail [teIl] – tale [teIl].[19]

If the lexemes can occur in the same sentence, without confusion or repetition the speaker is not realizing any connection between the words, this suggests that they are homonyms.[20] An example for this phenomenon are the lexemes can1 (noun; ‘metal container containing food’) and can2 (verb; ‘being able to do sth’).

Mary can open the can.

(Video) Lexical Semantics, Synonymy, Antonymy, Hypernym, Hyponymy, Metonymy, Polysemy

Rhyme is also a feature which should be considered when investigating lexemes in regard to their homonymy, if the words rhyme with each other they are likely to be homonyms.[21] Ullmann uses a French example to explain this feature.

Et sa mâle vigueur, toujours en même point,

Succombe sous la force, et ne lui cède point.[22]

(Horace, Act IV, scene I)

In these two lines the lexemes point1 ( in English ‘point’) and point2 (‘negative particle’) are seen as homonyms.

3.3 Foreign Influence

The number of homonyms is English is very high since there have been many words borrowed from other languages during the development of the English language.[23] Those borrowings adapted themselves to the phonetic system of the English language and were also affected by the sound changes; therefore the borrowed lexemes sometimes overlapped with lexemes in the receiving language.[24] Sometimes even new borrowings overlapped with words borrowed earlier from another language. For instance fray1 being a verb (‘being worn through – e.g. textiles’) from French frayer (Latin fricare) coincides with fray2 (‘a discussion or conflict’) a noun already existing in English coming from Middle English fray. Another example for homonymy resulting from borrowing are the lexemes post1 (‘a long piece of wood or metal set in the ground’) and post2 (‘system for sending letters’). The lexeme post1 has its roots in Old English postis (Latin postis) and post2 is a French borrowing from poste.

Homonymy can also be caused by semantic borrowings from a foreign language, though this is a rare process.[25] Ullmann calls this process ‘loan-homonymy’.[26] An example for this phenomenon are the German homonyms Schloss1 ‘castle’ and Schloss2 ‘lock’ which influenced the Czech and Polish languages that are using the word zamek for ‘lock’ and for ‘castle’.[27]


[1] See: Aitchison, Jean, Linguistics (London: Hodder Headline Plc, 1999) 3.

[2] See: Yule, George, The Study of Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985) 96-97.

[3] See: Leisi, E., Das heutige Englisch (Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1985) 48.

[4] Ibid, 48.

[5] See: Lyons, J., Linguistic Semantics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) 55.

[6] Ibid, 55.

[7] Ibid, 28.

[8] Ibid, 28.

[9] See: Ullmann, S., Semantics. An Introduction to the Science of Meaning (Oxford: B. Black- well, 1962) 176.

(Video) What is Sense relations in semantics? polysemy, metonymy, hyponym, synonyms, Antonym and it's types

[10] Ibid, 176.

[11] Ibid, 176.

[12] Ibid, 177.

[13] Ibid, 177.

[14] Ibid, 177.

[15] Ibid, 177.

[16] Ibid, 178.

[17] Ibid, 178.

[18] Ibid, 178.

[19] Ibid, 179.

[20] Ibid, 179.

[21] Ibid, 179.

[22] Ibid, 179.

[23] Ibid, 180.

[24] Ibid, 180.

[25] Ibid, 180.

[26] Ibid, 180.

(Video) Semantic Relation

[27] Ibid, 180.


What is homonymy in lexical relation? ›

Homonymy is the relationship between words that are homonyms—words that have different meanings but are pronounced the same or spelled the same or both. It can also refer to the state of being homonyms. The word homonym can be used as a synonym for both homophone and homograph.

What are lexical homonyms examples? ›

Homonyms differing in graphic form, e.g. such lexical homonyms as knight — night or flower — flour, are easily perceived to be two different lexical units as any formal difference of words is felt as indicative of the existence of two separate lexical units.

What is a lexical homonym? ›

The words which can be used as different parts of speech and differ from one another due to their grammatical meanings are used as lexical-grammatical homonyms. The lexical-grammatical homonyms are identical due to their pronunciation and spelling though their components refer to different parts of speech.

What is homonymy and examples? ›

Homonyms may be words with identical pronunciations but different spellings and meanings, such as to, too, and two. Or they may be words with both identical pronunciations and identical spellings but different meanings, such as quail (the bird) and quail (to cringe).

What are the two types of homonymy? ›

There are two types of homonyms: homophones and homographs.
  • Homophones sound the same but are often spelled differently.
  • Homographs have the same spelling but do not necessarily sound the same.

What are the types of homonymy? ›

Using the broad definition in which any two words that share the same spelling or the same pronunciation are homonyms, it's possible to define five types of homonym in the English language. These are capitonyms, heteronyms, homographs, homophones and polysemes.

What is Hyponymy in lexical relations? ›

Hyponymy is a relation between two words in which the meaning of one of the words includes the meaning of the other word. The lexical relation corresponding to the inclusion of one class in another is hyponymy. Examples are : apple- fruit ; car- vehicles ; tool- furntiture ; cow - animal.


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