Homonymy


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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Homonymy

 

a concept that plays an important role in logic, logical semantics, and semiotics and represents a natural generalization of the corresponding linguistic concept (homonyms).

Homonymy is the graphic and/or phonetic correspondence of words (and, in general, signs, combinations of signs, and combinations of words) that differ in sense and/or meaning. For example, the Russian words luk (onion) and luk (bow) are not, despite widespread treatment as such, “one word with two different meanings” but two words (homonyms) with the same spelling and pronunciation. Homonymy does not necessarily presuppose, as in the above example, that homonyms have the same grammatical characteristics. Differences in grammatical function are encountered in homographs, which are, in fact, sometimes distinguished from homonyms proper. For example, Russian est’, “to eat,” and est’, “[there] is/are,” are two homonymic verbs in different moods. A sharper example is found in the Russian words tri, “three,” and tri, “rub!”

The more the grammatical categories of homonyms differ, the more likely it is that their meanings have nothing in common— all the more so if, generally speaking, there are reasons to suppose that homonymy was the chance result of word formation in natural languages. However, the semantic relatedness of homonyms with similar grammatical functions, although perhaps not obvious, becomes increasingly probable. For example, if one considers the words “field” (of wheat), “field” (of activity), and “field” (of vision), the first may (with a few reservations) be considered a homonym of the second and third, in the sense defined above. But the relatedness of the last two is obvious: each, with great justification, may be considered a synonym of such words as “area” and “sphere,” and therefore they may be regarded as synonyms of each other.

The term “polysemy” is used to describe situations in which different meanings (or shades of meaning) are present in one and the same word or identically understood words. The imprecision of such a definition of polysemy results from the fact that it is often difficult to distinguish clearly between cases of homonymy and polysemy: the former is an extreme case of the latter. For example, the Russian words, kosa, “braid,” kosa, “spit of land,” and kosa, “scythe,” are typical homonyms and at the same time are clearly related: each of them denotes something long, relatively thin, and, perhaps, slightly curved—in a word, kosoi, “oblique,” “slanting,” “sloping,” “squinting.” In fact, the different meanings of the verb kosit’, “to slant,” “to mow,” “to squint,” are obviously related. The obvious common etymology of these homonyms suggests that the situation be qualified as one of polysemy. Roughly speaking, homonymy is, in fact, “veiled” polysemy (except in cases where homonymy results from purely accidental coincidences of word forms).

Thus, homonymy and polysemy are an inalienable attribute of ordinary, natural languages and contribute to the expressiveness of the colloquial and literary language. But in scientific contexts, such as mathematics and logic, homonymy is unacceptable, and in juridical contexts it may even be dangerous. Therefore, for scientific and legal needs, professional jargons are preferred. These jargons represent a part of the common spoken or literary language selected in a special way, less flexible and rich than the language as a whole but better adapted to the needs of the field they serve. In such jargons, homonymy is eliminated by the use of an adequately developed system of definitions. It is true that even in the language of the exact sciences, intensional homonymy is not eliminated. For example, in the phrases “a square is an equilateral rectangle” and “a square is an equiangular rhombus,” the term “square” has different meanings. But the clearly formulated (or at least tacitly understood) principle of extensionality, according to which concepts with coinciding meanings coincide with one another, in any case results in the elimination of extensional homonymy: in both phrases, the word “square” designates the same object. Even more radical measures are being taken to eliminate ambiguities in terminology in the languages of formal systems (calculi).

IU. A. GASTEV

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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