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As polysem (from ancient Greek πολύς polys "much more", and σῆμα sema 'sign') is in the linguistics a linguistic sign (eg. As word , morpheme , or Syntagma ) indicates that for various important content or terms is. The quality of being polysemic is called polysemy . Polyseme words are ambiguous .

Polysemy differs from homonymy mainly in the differentiation of a common semantic connection.

Polysemy can lead to misunderstandings and false conclusions, but it can also be used in a playful manner, linguistically or poetically.

Origin and Definitions

The word polysem is formed from ancient Greek πολύς polys "much" and σῆμα sema "sign" and is the opposite of monosemy ( μόνος monos "individual"). The term was introduced in 1897 by Michel Bréal . Polysemy is also to be differentiated from homonymy (Greek for "identity").

[1] Polysemy generally means ambiguity of a (linguistic) sign, especially of words (lexical ambiguity , also: ambiguity equivocation )
[2] Polysemy specifically means a systematic ambiguity - as opposed to random ambiguity (homonymy) .

The distinction between homonymy and polysemy is different so that polysemy can mean:

[2.1] a systematic ambiguity due to etymological relationship;
[2.2] a systematic ambiguity due to a relationship of the individual meanings that have a common basic meaning or common core meaning , which is often - but not necessarily - due to a common etymological root

The latter is the main use in the linguistic context.

Polysemy is not limited to words. There is a general polysemy of a sign in general, an expression or specifically a morpheme , a lexeme or the syntagma of a sentence.

Occurrence of polysemy

Most words are polysemous, i.e. they describe several more or less different facts that develop from a common context. Polysemy is considered to be the normal case in natural language and an expression of the linguistic economy principle .

Examples of a particularly large number of polysemes are:

  • Runner - According to the 1997 Guinness Book of Records , runner is the German word with the most meanings (24), Duden - The large dictionary of the German language, 4th edition. Mannheim 2012 [CD-ROM] only gives (more) 6 meanings : Carpet, chess, agriculture, construction, technology and sports with two sub-meanings a) running and b) obsolescent in foot and handball. In the older printed editions, some more generous polysemies were differentiated. In the following, according to this dictionary, the breakdown into lemmas (homonyms) and their polysemes - if differentiated - are given.
  • Bank (2 lemmas: 1st lemma from ahd. Banc = table, 5 polysemies; 2nd lemma from it. Banco with the two polysemies 1. a) credit company and b) building of the same and 2nd instance in gambling; apparently in tension with many understandable classifications in textbooks)
  • Bridge (8)
  • Atlas (3 lemmas (homonyms): 1. one of the titans, 3. first cervical vertebra, and 2. divided into 2.1 geographical maps in book form and 2.2 plates from a field of knowledge)
  • Wing (5)
  • Blow (16)
  • Zug (16; in an earlier printed edition 24)
  • Spring (5)

Further examples of polysemes: needle , nail , latch , roller , screw

Polysemes can arise in different ways. The causes of polysemy are metaphors (pictorial use), metonymy (non-literal use), denial of meaning (extended use), elliptical use (omitted use), revitalization of archaisms (repeated use), or technical language differentiation of terms.

Polysemy and Homonymy

If you take the main meaning as a basis, you get the following overview:

Homonymy has
different meanings,
often different origins
common root
and / or derived meaning,
e.g. B. Runner (athlete / chess piece)
same spelling,
different meaning,
often different pronunciation,
e.g. B. mōdern (rotten) and
modérn (progressive)
same pronunciation,
different meanings,
often different spelling,
e.g. B. paint and grind
Equivocation , homonymy and polysemy in relation

Polysemes have several meanings that are similar to one another. If this is not the case with ambiguous words, then homonymy is present instead . Words are considered to be homonymous if their meanings are so different that no similarity can be recognized between them. A clear distinction between polysemy and homonymy is not always possible.

The distinction between polysemy and homonymity is also widespread in such a way that polysemy is present when a word (a lexeme) has several meanings (meaning variants), and homonymy is given when (at least) two words have the same word body but different meanings. The difficulty then, however, is to indicate when one and when several words are present.

Whether polysemy or homonymy is present can often only be recognized with in-depth etymological knowledge.

The school example is a bank in the sense of (1) "financial institution" and (2) "seating". It is etymologically a word and is therefore a polyseme in the sense of [2.1], but no longer in the sense of [2.2] when viewed synchronously . It is therefore partly treated as a word in dictionaries, partly (e.g. in Duden) each meaning is given its own entry.
The term farmer has the meanings (1) “ farmer ” and (2) “bird cage”. Both meanings have a common etymological root, but they are clearly different formations: farmer "farmer" is a masculine and (as a rule ) weakly inflected, like ahd. Gibūro , from which it is derived, while farmer "bird cage" is both Neuter as well as masculine and heavily inflected, like ahd. Būr .

Against this background, it can be doubted whether the traditional distinction between polysemy and homonymy is of more than etymological value. It is therefore advisable either to speak of polysemy in the (softened) sense of [1] or, instead of polysemy / homonymy, to generalize (lexical) ambiguity, ambiguity or equivocation .

Types of polysemy

Polysemy through specialization

Many polysemes arise when an expression experiences a slightly different meaning when used in a special context . In this way, a new technical term of a technical language can arise from a general term . But the opposite way is also possible if a technical term is used over time in a general language meaning.

Regular polysemy

A special case of polysemy is regular polysemy , also called systematic polysemy or polysemic pattern . Regular polysemy applies to groups of lexical signs when a second meaning can be regularly deduced from one meaning. In the case of lexical signs that designate institutions, one can conclude that there is a further meaning indicating the members of the institution or the building of this institution.

In the following example, school designates an institution, a group of people and a building:

  1. "He still goes to school" (= institution)
  2. "The school is on strike today" (= all students, teachers, etc.)
  3. "Schools should be recognizable as such from the outside" (= building and, as such, also an institution)
  4. "Our school is under monument protection!" (= Concrete building)

In principle, something comparable is possible with the words university , kindergarten , parliament , town hall , bank , etc.

This form of polysemy is not recorded in the dictionary.

The school example is given by Bierwisch . It is sometimes seen as evidence that an expression is not directly ambiguous and vague . Based on the concept of family resemblance of Wittgenstein could therefore from one of meaning or concept family are spoken.

It would be more correct to grasp the multitude of readings as a common lexical ambiguity, in which the individual meanings can be derived from one another through the relationship of analogy, among other things. Neither is the expression healthy in “healthy organic food” and “healthy person” vague, just because in the first case it is used in an analogous meaning ( healthy = “that which maintains / provides health”).

Polysemy through expansion of meaning

Another form of ambiguity is the expansion of meaning through transferred use. In the sentence "Peter is a banana" the lexical sign banana is not used in a new, person-identifying sense. Only properties typical of bananas, such as being long and crooked, are transferred to Peter. This form of ambiguity is not coded in dictionaries either. If this form of transferring meaning solidifies in use, this is also registered in dictionaries (example pig in: "Peter is a pig").

Polysemy models

If a “semantic closeness” is required for polysemy as opposed to mere homonymy, this appears to require explanation. There are different theories about this. Among other things, there is a "two-level semantics" from Bierwisch . Alternatively, in the context of cognitive linguistics, polysemy is modeled like a network ("network model of polysemy").

Lexicographical recording of polysemy

Polysemy is a linguistic or lexicological phenomenon that cannot be read directly from the use of a lexical symbol.

When creating a dictionary ( lexicography ), the ambiguity of linguistic signs is captured by creating several semantic comments, one for each meaning, on the linguistic sign in question . In dictionaries, polysemes are treated under one keyword, while homonyms are treated under different keywords. So there is only one keyword horse that u. a. has the meanings "large mammal" and "gymnastics equipment", but two keywords bank with the meanings "seating" or "financial institution".

Polysemes and homonymous lexical signs also prove to be a problem with indexing within the documentation , where a subject is to be made accessible through individual, definable keywords ( lemmatization ) . For this reason, the keywords are separated from each other in a controlled vocabulary .

Quantitative recording of the polysemy

In particular, two different aspects of polysemy can be quantified: the frequency with which the different meanings of a particular linguistic unit are used, and the interaction of polysemy with other linguistic properties.

A quantitative aspect of polysemy consists in examining which different meanings a linguistic unit has, and then evaluating individual texts or text corpora to determine which of these meanings of a unit occurs and how often. If you arrange this result in a table according to the frequency of the individual meanings, you can adapt a mathematical model to the data in this table, which is understood as a legal hypothesis.

A second aspect concerns the relationships between polysemy and other language properties.

Word length

There is an interplay of word length and polysemy, which can be named as follows: the longer words are average, the lower their polysemy. Lu Wang provides clear evidence of this using the example of Chinese. The same thing was found in studies of Japanese: "... polysemy is inversely proportional to word length, ie words with more meanings are shorter." The same relationship applies to Indonesian. For German, Köhler demonstrated polysemy (for him: polylexy ) as a function of length.

Lexicon size

Polysemy is also negatively related to the extent of the lexicon of a language and positively related to the so-called polytexty of words; that means with the property of words to occur in a great many different texts / types of text.

Word history

The age of words also affects their polysemy: the older words are, the more different meanings they have on average. This connection has been proven, for example, for English and Japanese.


  • Norbert Fries: Ambiguity and vagueness, introduction and annotated bibliography . Niemeyer, Tübingen 1980, ISBN 3-484-10376-0 .
  • Volker Harm: Introduction to Lexicology. WBG, Darmstadt 2015 (Introduction to German Studies), ISBN 978-3-534-26384-4 , pp. 46–63.
  • Gergely Pethö: What is Polysemy? A Survey of Current Research and Results. In: Enikő Németh T., Károly Bibok: Pragmatics and the Flexibility of Word Meaning. Elsevier, Amsterdam 2001, ISBN 0-08-043971-3 , pp. 175-224 ( Current research in the semantics / pragmatics interface 8; English).

Web links

Wiktionary: Polysemy  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. a b Homberger: Subject dictionary for linguistics. 2000; Entry polyseme.
  2. Essai de sémantique: science des significations, Paris, Hachette, 1897, 154–172 ( digitized version )
  3. ^ Dtv-Lexikon: in 20 volumes (1992), keyword polysemy ISBN 3-423-05998-2 : “Ambiguity of a linguistic sign”.
  4. a b Ulrich: Basic Linguistic Concepts. 5th edition 2002, ISBN 978-3-443-03111-4 , Polysemie .
  5. ^ A b c Meibauer: Introduction to German linguistics. 2nd edition 2007, p. 193.
  6. ^ The terminology of "random" and "systematic ambiguity" can be found in Meibauer 2007.
  7. Ulrich 2002: "Polysemy requires a still recognizable connection of meanings".
  8. a b Schwarz, Chur: Semantik 5th ed. 2007, p. 56.
  9. ^ Rainbow, Meyer: Dictionary of Philosophical Terms. 2005, entry polysemy .
  10. a b Kühn: Lexikologie 1994, p. 55.
  11. a b quote literally after fur: linguistics. 1996, p. 216.
  12. ^ Kessel, Reimann: Basic knowledge of German contemporary language. Tübingen (Fink), 2005, ISBN 3-8252-2704-9 , p. 163f. require related meanings and at least one identical semantic characteristic for a polysemy.
  13. ^ Pospiech: Semantics. In: Volmert (Hrsg.): Grundkurs Sprachwissenschaft. 5th edition 2005, ISBN 3-8252-1879-1 , p. 160.
  14. a b Duden. German universal dictionary . Dudenverlag, Mannheim / Vienna / Zurich 1983, ISBN 3-411-02175-6 .
  15. Kessel, Reimann, 2005, p. 166.
  16. Volker Harm: Introduction to Lexicology. WBG, Darmstadt 2015 (Introduction to German Studies), ISBN 978-3-534-26384-4 , p. 52.
  17. ^ A b Volker Harm: Introduction to Lexicology. WBG, Darmstadt 2015 (Introduction to German Studies), ISBN 978-3-534-26384-4 , p. 53.
  18. a b Schwarz, Chur: Semantics. P. 57.
  19. In detail Volker Harm: Introduction to Lexicology. WBG, Darmstadt 2015 (Introduction to German Studies), ISBN 978-3-534-26384-4 , pp. 52–59.
  20. Emmerich Kelih, Gabriel Altmann: A continuous model for polysemy , in: Glottometrics 31, 2015, pp. 31–37 (English; PDF; 1.65 MB ).
  21. ^ Lu Wang: Word length in Chinese. In: Reinhard Köhler, Gabriel Altmann (eds.): Issues in Quantitative Linguistics 3. Dedicated to Karl-Heinz Best on the occasion of his 70th birthday . Lüdenscheid: RAM-Verlag 2013, pp. 39–53. ISBN 978-3-942303-12-5 (English).
  22. Haruko Sanada: Investigations in Japanese Historical Lexicology (Revised Edition). Peust & Gutschmidt Verlag, Göttingen 2008, p. 116. ISBN 978-3-933043-12-2 (English).
  23. ^ Gabriel Altmann : Semantics. In: Gabriel Altmann, Dariusch Bagheri, Hans Goebl, Reinhard Köhler, Claudia Prün: Introduction to quantitative lexicology. Peust & Gutschmidt, Göttingen 2002, pp. 79–89, “Polysemy and length”, pp. 86–89. ISBN 3-933043-09-3 .
  24. Reinhard Köhler : On linguistic synergetics: Structure and dynamics of the lexicon. Brockmeyer, Bochum 1986, pp. 100-102, 169. ISBN 3-88339-538-2 .
  25. Reinhard Köhler: On linguistic synergetics: Structure and dynamics of the lexicon. Brockmeyer, Bochum 1986, p. 77. ISBN 3-88339-538-2 .
  26. Reinhard Köhler: On linguistic synergetics: Structure and dynamics of the lexicon. Brockmeyer, Bochum 1986, pp. 103-104, 169. ISBN 3-88339-538-2 .
  27. ^ Karl-Heinz Best : Quantitative Linguistics. An approximation. 3rd, heavily revised edition. Peust & Gutschmidt Verlag, Göttingen 206, p. 129. ISBN 3-933043-17-4 .
  28. Udo Strauss, Gabriel Altmann: Age and polysemy of words , in: Glottometrics 6, 2003, pp. 61–64 (English; PDF; 1.36 MB ).
  29. ^ Haruko Sanada-Yogo: Analysis of Japanese Vocabulary by the Theory of Synergetic Linguistics. In: Journal of Quantitative Linguistics 6, No. 3, pp. 239-251, especially pp. 244, 247f (English).