How has the study of polysemy progressed?


This article is a re-edited version of an article originally intended to be distributed as a printout to undergraduate students studying polysemy. Since this article is intended for undergraduate students in the same laboratory, it contains some technical terms. However, we will follow up with explanations.

(1) Knowing a polysemous words ≠ knowing the ‘meaning’ of a polysemic word

The word “polysemous”, if interpreted literally, means “a word with multiple meanings”. The word “polysemy” is, again, interpreted literally, “a word with the property of having many meanings. Here, we use the word “polysemy” to mean the property of a word to have many meanings.

Polysemy means “the property of having many meanings. So, does “learning many meanings” mean learning a word with polysemy? Does learning the meanings mean that you know the word?

No, I don’t think so. In other words, I don’t think that knowing the meaning of a word in the world – whether it is Japanese or English – does not mean that you “know” the word.

(2) “Knowing” grammar and various other things.

Take English verbs, for example. When the subject is “he” or such third person singular, and when it is used as the present tense, the verb conjugation changes. That is because we know the ‘grammatical aspect’ of ‘verb conjugation’. It is also because we know the ‘misuse aspect’ of ‘usage’ that we can use comrades differently in different conversations. Thus, knowing one word does not mean that you know it just because you know its meaning.

Besides, even a non-native speaker like me uses polysemous words instantly. In conversation, such words come up as a conditioned reflex. Is it produced from the “Japanese translation” of the word? That would be different, too.

In other words, even if they are not using the same meaning, they have knowledge other than the “Japanese translation” and are producing it in the form of English. It is better to think so.

Then, what do you mean by “knowledge other than Japanese translation” that is not written in the dictionary? That is the question, isn’t it? This is the problem that has been confusing researchers. In particular, cognitive linguistics, which I and my supervisor (Dr. Toshio Ohori) have been studying, has been seriously tackling this problem, even though it has been less than half a century since it was established.

(3) The Flow of Research on Polysemous Words in Cognitive Linguistics

When cognitive linguistics was first established, there were no tools to conduct research, so the first step is to popularize the concept of “polysemy”.

Then, a movement occurred to encompass the theory of polysemy in linguistics. Next, as research was conducted that included educational implications, research emerged that considered meaning counting. Then it was decided that we should consider a theory that could encompass both sides, that could consider educational and linguistic validity. That is now.

(4) What is the linguistic definition of “polysemy”?

Polysemous words are defined linguistically as “words with multiple related meanings in a single word form.” A single word form? multiple? Even the way dictionaries count meanings is different in each dictionary? What is the definition of related meanings? So, the fact is that there are many problems that arise when we try to apply this linguistic definition to education.

In my thesis, I concluded that ‘the linguistic definition of polysemy is meaningless. It is fine to draw a line between what is and is not a polysemic word, but it is not necessary to follow the linguistic definition of a polysemic word; it is up to the individual learner to draw the line. This is unfortunate for many linguists, but language is used “in practice. It is not used by itself.

However. In dictionaries and linguistic definitions, “semantics” is considered, i.e., the word by itself. This is the negative paradox we are trying to solve. This is what will lead to the clarification of the “multi-semantic” knowledge that Japanese people have of English. What makes it different from the other short senses? What if we apply this knowledge to education? My doctoral thesis research will be to draw certain conclusions about this.

Fortunately, I have already reached a partial conclusion on this point in my master’s thesis. I concluded in my master’s thesis that language is more effective when it is taught in the context of actual use. In other words, teaching in accordance with the principles of human language use increased the retention rate of words over a period of time more than teaching the words by themselves (as in the now popular phrase, “building confidence solves the problem in an instant”).

(5) Research in the doctoral program to be pursued

To expand on the research done in this master’s thesis. Talking about dictionaries, most word definitions in dictionaries are classified as “polysemous”. Not so, to see what kind of line is drawn between actual native speakers and non-native speakers regarding the boundary between polysemous and non-polysemous words. I guess this would be an erudite question.

In other words, it would be applying the mechanism of polysemy to the principle of word learning. Well, that’s how I wrote incoherently. Regarding the above, I will need to try to sort out the literature.