Classification of homonyms in English

classification of homonyms

Classification of homonyms: The subdivision of homonyms mentioned above is certainly not precise enough and does not reflect certain important feature of these words, and, most important of all, their status as parts of speech.

According to the A.I Smirnitsky homonyms are classified into two large classes

1. Full homonyms:

Full lexical homonyms are words which represent the same category of parts of speech and have the same paradigm

– match : a game , a contest

– match : a short piece of word used producing fire

– wren : member of the Women’s royal Naval Service

– wren : a bird

2. Partial homonyms:

are subdivided into three subgroups:

a. Simple lexico-grammatical partial homonyms: are words which belong to the same category of parts of speech. Their paradigm has one identical form, but it is never the same form, as will be seen from these examples:

– (to) found (v): past indefinite, past participle of “to find”

– to lay (v): past indefinite of “to lie”

b. Complex lexico-grammatical partial homonyms: are words of different category of parts of speech which have one identical form in their paradigms:

– Rose (n)

-Rose (v) : past indefinite of to rise

– maid (n)

-made (v) : past indefinite , past participle of to make

– left (a)

– left (v) : past indefinite, past participle of to leave

– bean (n)

-bean (v) : past participle of “tobe”

c. Partial lexical homonyms: are words of the same category of part of speech which are identical only in their corresponding forms: 

– to lie ( lay, lain ) (v)

– to lie ( lied, lied ) v

– to hang ( hung, hung)v

To hang ( hanged, hanged(v)

3. Polysemy versus homonymy

To distinguish between homonyms (full homonyms) and poly-semantic words is sometimes quite a problem and requires a number of criteria.

a. Semantic criterion

If there is a logical relationship between the meanings of a word, this word is a poly-semantic word:

“head”: – part of the body

– person

– leader…

On the contrary, if there is no logical relationship between the meanings of a word, this word is actually not one word but one of the homonyms – full homonyms. (see examples of full homonyms above).

b. Derivational criterion: When one or more meanings of a “word” can form its/ their own derivatives, we have homonyms:

– air – aircraft, airport, airline

– air (suggestive appearance) – no derivatives.

c. Synonymy – based criterion

When the synonyms of two or more words have nothing in common – these words are homonyms:

Bay – gulf

Bay – barking

d. Combinability criterion:

When two or more meanings of a word have different combining ability or different paradigms, we have homonyms:

– game (sth to play) two games

– game (hunted animal) – no plural form:

or: long – longer – longest

(to) long – longed – have/ has longed

4. Sources of homonyms

The break of polysemy:

Many English homonyms were once originally one word but due to the development of language, the meanings of the same word have moved so far from each other that they are now regarded as separate: “box” has now acquired various meanings (container, to fight with fists, a kind of shrub etc) so we now have different words “box”.

Phonetic and morphologic coincidence: this is the greatest factor leading to the appearance of homonyms. As English developed, many words which were phonetically or morphologically different have coincided in form:

Love (old English: lufu)

To love (old English: lufian)

Or: I – eye; bee – be

This also happened to borrowed words:

Arm (OE: yearn – part of the body)

Arm (French: arms – weapons) ./.


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