Homonymy refers to a situation where we have two or more words with the same shape. Although they have the same shape, homonyms are considered distinct lexemes, mainly because they have unrelated meanings and different etymologies.
There is, however, some difficulty in the establishment of ‘sameness’ of shape, owing to the fact that we do not make the same distinctions in both speech and writing. Thus, lead (metal) and lead (dog's lead) are spelt the same but pronounced differently; while right, rite and write are spelt differently but pronounced the same. For the first case, the term ‘homograph’ (same spelling) may be used; for the second ‘homophone’ (same sound) is the appropriate term. In addition to the difference in meaning, homonyms may also be kept apart by syntactic differences. For example, when homonyms belong to different word classes, as in the case of tender, which has different lexemes as adjective, verb and noun, each homonym has not only a distinct meaning, but also a different grammatical function. The same observation applies to pairs of words such as bear (noun) and bear (verb), grave (adjective) and grave (noun), hail (noun) and hail (verb), hoarse (adjective) and horse (noun).
Because of the sameness of shape, there is a danger of homonymous conflict or clashes in the sense that two homonyms with totally different meanings may both make sense in the same utterance. For example,
The route was very long
The root was very long;
Helen didn’t see the bat (animal)
Helen didn’t see the bat.(wooden implement)
However, there are at least two different safeguards against any possibility of confusion: the difference in word class and the difference in spelling, besides the difference in overall context.
Many homonyms exist only in theory, since in practice there is no risk of any confusion, because they belong to different word classes. Consider the pairs of homophones knows (verb) and nose (noun), rights (noun) and writes (verb). Apart from differences in meaning, it is difficult to imagine a context in which both members of a given pair might occur interchangeably. They are in ‘complementary distribution’, in the sense that where one occurs the other cannot occur. However, it must be specified that since the members of each pair differ in word class, the choice of one homonym instead of the other is determined mainly by the rules of syntax, not those of lexicology. Similar types of restriction also apply to pairs of homonyms which are identical in spelling and pronunciation, e.g. grave (adjective) versus grave (noun), stick (verb) versus stick (noun). This analysis shows that difference in grammatical class contributes to a substantial reduction in the number of ‘effective’ homonyms in English. However, it must also be acknowledged that difference in class alone does not automatically rule out all possibilities of confusion.
English has a non-phonetic writing system, in the sense that there is no absolute one-to-one correspondence between the letters of writing and the sounds in the pronunciation of words. Consequently, spelling will often help to differentiate between words which are identical in sound. This aspect also reduces the number of homonyms on the written and printed page; it may also be useful in spoken language because it provides a quick and easy way of removing confusion. For example, if there is any doubt in the listener’s mind whether we mean rite or write, route or root, it may be much simpler to spell the words out than to define their meanings.
This discussion of the elimination of homonym clashes shows, among other things, that, in this respect, English writing is more intelligible than speech and that homonymy in the language as a whole, spoken as well as written, is reduced by writing conventions. It also shows that even if we focus on individual words, grammatical and graphological considerations play an important role in the distinction between homonyms. Before we turn to multiword lexemes, it is important to note that there is no clear-cut dividing line between polysemy and homonymy. The major difficulty, as we have seen, is that it is not at all clear how far meanings need to diverge before we treat the words representing them as separate. However, according to Lehrer (1974), the results of experiments suggest that native speakers are generally in agreement over a fair range of examples of homonymy and polysemy, although there is still a considerable residue of borderline cases (quoted in Lyons).
In the lexeme was simply referred to as ‘lexical word’ in opposition to ‘grammatical word’. We also gave examples of lexemes consisting of single words. We want to expand on the discussion in by examining with appropriate examples two types of multiword lexeme. But first, let us revisit our definition of lexeme.
Following Crystal a lexeme or lexical item is a ‘unit of lexical meaning, which exists regardless of any inflectional endings it may have or the number of words it may contain’. Crystal adds that ‘the headwords in a dictionary are lexemes’. This definition shows clearly that a lexeme may consist of one word, such as big, boy, break, down, quick: but it may also contain more than one word, e.g. away from, brother-in-law, cut down on, hurry up, in front of, switch on, steam iron.
For some words, such as adverbs or prepositions, which have no grammatical variants, the headword consists of only one form. But in most cases, the headword is considered as the base form or citation form of the word, from which all the other related word forms may be derived. For example, speak is the lexeme, the base form; while speaks, spoke, speaking and spoken are all derived forms. We shall come back to the way dictionaries treat multiword lexemes. For now, let us discuss two of the main types of multiword lexeme, viz. multiword verbs mid idioms. For economy of presentation, the other main type of multiword lexeme, i.e. compounds (steam iron), will be dealt with.
In multiword verbs, the main verb and one or two particles can be analysed as constituents of a single unit. Following Quirk et al, we shall make a distinction between ‘phrasal verbs’, ‘prepositional verbs’ and ‘phrasal-prepositional verbs’.
We shall first discuss the criteria for the classification of multiword verbs into sub-classes, then we shall examine these sub-classes in turn. We shall use two main criteria in our identification of the different sub-classes of multiword verbs: first, the notion of ‘transitivity’ and the relative position of the direct object will establish the distinction between prepositional and phrasal verbs; secondly, the number of particles following the main verb will help distinguish between prepositional and phrasal verbs on the one hand and phrasal- prepositional verbs on the other.
Prepositional verbs are always followed by an object, i.e. they are all transitive, e.g. call for (John), look at (him). But they are all characterized by the fact that the object cannot occur between the particle and the main verb: hence ‘*call John for’, ‘*look him at’ are both ungrammatical (*has its usual meaning of an ungrammatical form or structure). Phrasal verbs may be followed by an object, i.e. they may be either transitive, such as bring up, look up, or intransitive, such as give in, sit down. By contrast with prepositional verbs, transitive phrasal verbs are characterized by the fact that the object may occur between the main verb and the particle without resulting in unacceptable structures, e.g. ‘bring them up’, ‘look John up’. Phrasal-prepositional verbs constitute a bridge class between phrasal and prepositional verbs. Like all prepositional (and some phrasal) verbs, phrasal- prepositional verbs are transitive. But since they can easily be distinguished by the fact that they have two particles, transitivity is not used as a distinctive feature for this sub-group of multiword verbs; e.g. check up on (my friend), get away with (that), stand up for (your rights).
Other examples of prepositional verbs include ask for, believe in, care for, deal with, refer to, write about. Such verbs vary in the extent to which the combination preserves the individual meanings of verb and particle. In cases such as ask for and refer to, the meaning of the multiword verb can be derived from that of its constituents. But in cases such as go into (a problem), ‘investigate’, come by (the book), ‘obtain’, the multiword verb is best treated as an idiomatic expression.
Intransitive phrasal verbs consist of a main verb followed by a particle. Most of the particles are adverbials of place. Normally the particle cannot be separated from its verb. Hence, ‘*broke again down’ is ungrammatical. However, particles referring to directions can be modified by intensifies, e.g. come right back, go straight ahead, go straight on. Other examples of intransitive phrasal verbs are: blow up, catch on, get up, play around, stand up, take off, turn up. This list is enough to show that phrasal verbs vary in the extent to which the combination preserves the individual meanings of the verb and particle. In several cases the meaning of the phrasal verb may be derived from that of its constituents; but in instances such as give in, ‘surrender’, catch on, ‘understand’, and turn up, ‘appear’, it is clear that the meaning of the construction cannot be predicted from the meanings of the verb and particle in isolation. With most transitive phrasal verbs, the particle can either precede or follow the direct object,
They switched on the light.
They switched the light on.
However, the particle cannot precede personal pronouns, e.g.
They switched it on and not
*They switched on it.
As a general rule, the particle tends to precede the object if the object is long or if the intention is that the object should receive end-focus.
Other examples of phrasal-prepositional verbs include keep out of, stay away from, look down on, ‘despise’, look up to, ‘respect’. Like phrasal and prepositional verbs, some phrasal-prepositional verbs are more idiomatic than others. Some, like stay away from or keep out of, both meaning ‘avoid’, are easily understood from their individual elements, though many have figurative meaning, e.g. stand up for, ‘support’, walk away with, ‘steal and take away’. Others are fused combinations and it is difficult, if not impossible, to derive the meaning of the multiword verb from that of its constituents, e.g. put up with, ‘tolerate’, walk out on, ‘desert’. There are still others where there is a fusion of the verb with one of the particles. For example, put up with can mean ‘tolerate’ as in
I can’t put up with heavy smokers
but it can also mean ‘stay with’ and in that sense put up by itself stands for the unit ‘stay’. Similarly, keep up with (the Joneses) ‘to compete with one's neighbours or stay level with social changes’ may be analysed as consisting of the prepositional verb keep up plus the preposition with. Another example is given by the series check, check on, check up on, which consists of three transitive verbs of similar meaning, i.e. ‘investigate’.
Idioms may be treated as a type of collocation involving two or more words in context. However, since the meaning of an idiom can not be predicted from the meanings of its constituents, we may also consider idioms as a type of multiword lexeme. Before we discuss their characteristics, we will define and give appropriate examples of idioms in English.
In most general terms, an idiom may be defined as a phrase, the meaning of which cannot be predicted from the individual meanings of the morphemes it comprises. For example, when we say that someone ‘kicked the bucket’, we do not imply that they necessarily hit a certain type of container for liquids with their foot; what we mean is that they died. Similarly, when we say ‘Don’t beat a dead horse’ we do not imply that the carcass of a certain kind of animal is involved; what we mean is that the person should not waste time harping on about an issue that has already been decided. When we say that John used a ‘red herring’ in his argument, we do not imply that he made use of a specific type of fish called ‘herring’; instead we mean that John introduced an irrelevant question to turn attention away from the main issue. Other examples of idiom are ‘bury the hatchet’, ‘come up smelling like a rose’, ‘have an axe to grind’, ‘have a bone to pick with somebody’, 'have second thoughts’, ‘hit the nail right on the head’, ‘hit the sack’, ‘let the cat out of the bag’, ‘on the straight and narrow’, ‘straight from the horse’s mouth’, ‘take the bull by the horns’, ‘wash one’s dirty linen in public’.
From the above examples, chosen at random, it is apparent that most idioms are easily recognized as ‘frozen’ metaphors. However, once they are established as fixed lexical units, frozen metaphors tend to lose their vividness, and speakers often lose sight of their metaphorical origins. For instance, the metaphorical origin of ‘kick the bucket’ is not readily apparent to most speakers of modern English, and is in any case disputed.
Besides ‘full’ idioms, lexicologists also identify what are called 'partial idioms’. In such idioms, some of the words have their usual moaning while the others have meanings that are peculiar to that particular structure. Thus, in ‘red hair’ the word hair has its usual moaning because it does refer to the fine filaments growing from the human head; hut rod is idiomatic in the sense that it does not refer to the strict colour term. Similarly, in ‘to make a bed’, a bed is not idiomatic because it does refer to the piece of furniture used to sleep on; however, to make is not used in the usual sense of ‘to manufacture’. An interesting set of partial idioms involves the word white, since ‘white coffee’ is brown in colour, ‘white wine’ is usually yellow, and ‘white people’ are generally off-pink. While the words coffee, wine, and people have their usual meanings, white is perhaps idiomatic at least to some degree: it could be interpreted as ‘the lightest in colour of that usually to be found’. Black is, of course, used as its antonym for ‘coffee’ and ‘people’ (though again neither is black in colour terms); yet it is not used for wine. Thus, we may say that even partial idiomaticity can be a matter of degree and may in some cases be little more than a matter of collocational restriction. For instance, we can say that black collocates with coffee and people but not with wine.
- Lehrer, A. (1974) Semantic Fields and Lexical Structure, North Holland Publishing Co.
- Lyons, J. (1977) Semantics, Vols1 and 2, Cambridge University Press.
- Quirk, R., Greenbaum, S., Leech, G. and Svartvik, J. (1985) A Comprehensive grammar of the English Language, Longman.