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Polysemy in English and Arabic

By Abdel Rahman Mitib Altakhaineh


Lexical semantics, which is a branch of linguistic semantics, is concerned with the study of how and what words of a language denote (Pustejovsky, 1995). In other words, it studies the meanings and relations of words, and also seeks the identification of the semantics of lexical entries or items in language. In this regard, dealing with the meanings of lexical items or words requires paying close attention to the cases where multiple meanings of a certain word are existent.

Polysemy refers to a lexical relation where a single linguistic form has different senses that are related to each other by means of regular shifts or extensions from the basic meaning.

Within the field of lexical semantics, polysemy is of main concern. It is defined by Taylor (1995: 99; 2003: 638) as “the association of two or more related senses with a single linguistic form”. This means that polysemy refers to a lexical relation where a single linguistic form has different senses that are related to each other by means of regular shifts or extensions from the basic meaning (Cited in Britta Zawada’s article, 2007). A single linguistic form means a single phonological word form belonging to a single lexical category, i.e. word class such as N or V (Ibid). The word is derived from the Greek poly- , ‘many’, and sem- ‘sense’ or ‘meaning’. Therefore, polysemy is mainly the case of a single lexical item having multiple meanings. For instance, the word ‘fix’ has many meanings such as arrange, attach, get ready (food or drinks), set right (the hair), punish, and repair.

However, it has been argued that polysemy does overlap with other semantic terms such as homonymy, ambiguity, and vagueness. Despite this fact, several attempts have been made to differentiate between them. Taylor (1991: 101-102) has conducted a number of traditional semantic criteria or tests to distinguish between vagueness and ambiguity and to differentiate between monosemy and polysemy. He states that a word is monosemous (i.e. it has only one sense) if it is vague, and polysemous (i.e. it has more than one sense) if it is ambiguous (Ibid, 1991: 101). Correspondingly, a detailed discussion on the issue of polysemy, ambiguity, and vagueness will be presented in the next section of this proposal.

As a result, my research into the theoretical aspects of polysemy gave me the idea to conduct this research. This is because of the fact that the issue of polysemy is still problematic, and thus it is an interesting and a researchable topic. Also, I will only focus in this research on the phenomenon of polysemy in Arabic and English since the two languages are rich sources for collecting data required to illustrate the issue. This will shed light on the semantic and translation interface through the investigation and the analysis of a number of textbooks as will be discussed in the following sections.


The study of polysemy has a long history in the philosophy of language, linguistics, psychology, and literature. The complex relations between meanings and words were first noted by the Stoics (Robins, 1967). They observed that a single concept can be expressed by several different meanings, polysemy. However, most linguists, excluding cognitive linguists, have not paid much attention to the phenomenon of polysemy. Brugman 1981[1988]; Brugman and Lakoff 1988; and Lakoff 1987 are amongst those linguists of cognitive semantic who have accounted for this phenomenon. They have argued that lexical items constitute natural groups of related senses, and these senses are organised with respect to a primary sense and thus form polysemy links.

As an example, Brugman, in the 1980s, has conducted a pioneering work in the polysemy of the preposition ‘over’ (Brugman, 1981). His work was then followed by Lakoff (1987), Brugman and Lakoff (1988), Dewell (1994) and Kreitzer (1997). Brugman and Lakoff (1988) treated prepositions as “denoting a spatial relation between an element in focus (the figure), and an element not in focus (the ground)”. Therefore, the framework of Brugman/Lakoff took a highly precise approach to the semantics of prepositions. Accordingly, Lakoff (1987) has provided a network that contains no less than 24 different senses. However, Evans (2000), Kreitzer (1997), Ruhl (1989), Sandra (1998), Sandra and Rice (1995), and Tyler and Evans (2003), have questioned whether such an analysis is acceptable and justified, arguing that the analysis of Brugman and Lakoff is methodologically unrestricted.

Polysemy is a debated and difficult problem in lexical semantics. The problem of polysemy or the multiplicity of word meanings has preoccupied linguists since the past decades. The issue of polysemy continues to challenge linguists. Similarly, polysemy was the main aspect of the work of Yael Ravin (1990) about the relationship between semantic and syntactic structure. In that work, polysemy is regarded as a one-to-many relationship between syntactic or lexical forms and their corresponding meanings. Thus, polysemy is a fundamental aspect in defining the systematic relationship between meaning and structure. Moreover, Polysemy is rarely a problem for communication amongst people. This is because in communication we use or select the appropriate senses of words effortlessly and naturally. However, Byrd et al. (1987) states that there are almost 40% of the entries in Webster’s Seventh Dictionary have two or more senses. Furthermore, the most commonly used words tend to be the most polysemous. For instance, the verbrun has 29 senses in Webster’s, and also divided into nearly 125 sub-senses. Polysemy poses a problem in semantic theory and in semantic application, that is in translation or lexicography.

In addition, polysemy is quite problematic when it comes to ambiguity and vagueness. These three terms refer to different instances of plurality (multiplicity) of meaning. Regarding ambiguity, it is claimed that there are several types of it; however, lexical ambiguity is one of the types that is concerned with the multiple meanings or interpretations of a single word. For instance, the word (party) in ‘Alex joined the party yesterday’ has two unrelated meanings. It can mean either a group of people who have the same political aims and ideas in which case the sentence means that Alex joined a group of people who have the same political aims and ideas and he became a political member, or a social occasion to which people are invited to eat and drink in which case the sentence means that Alex joined one of the occasions that he was invited to such as birthday party. On the other hand, vagueness is the case where “two or more meanings associated with a given phonological form are… united as non-distinguished subcases of a single, more general meaning” (Tuggy, 1993: 167). As an example, the word ‘sad’ is vague if it is used more or less loosely in certain expressions such as in ‘Alex is very sad’ and ‘the sad truth is that many children never learn to read’. The meaning of ‘sad’ here covers a range of attitudes. In this sense, Deane (1988: 327, 345) states that these three phenomena form “a gradient between total semantic identity”; vagueness “and total semantic distinctness”; ambiguity, and “Polysemy seems somehow to straddle the border between identity and distinctness”. Therefore, polysemy is a case exists in between these two extremes. The boundaries between the categories of ambiguity, polysemy and vagueness are unclear or fuzzy. Thus, there are lexical instances that can be allocated to more than one group.

Langacker argues that polysemous words or lexical items always share similar etymological background, and they are considered as being semantically related by communicators, whereas homonymous words have the same phonological form.

Furthermore, polysemy is often mixed up with homonymy. However, Langacker (1991: 268) indicates that there is a clear-cut distinction between the two terms. He argues that polysemous words or lexical items always share similar etymological background, and they are considered as being semantically related by communicators, whereas homonymous words have the same phonological form. Hence, homonymy may be viewed as a subcategory of lexical ambiguity. A number of linguists like Löbner (2002: 39) claim the same for polysemy. In this respect, two types of lexical ambiguity are distinguished: homonymy that refers to cases in which a single word has the same form in writing and speech (e.g. brand, bank), and polysemy that refers to the phenomenon that one and the same word acquires different meanings often with regard to particular contexts. The following examples, as adopted from Pustejovsky’s book (1995: 27), illustrate the cases of homonymy and polysemy.

Cases of homonymy:

(1) a. The discussion turned on the feasibility of the scheme.

b. The bull turned on the matador.


(2) a. The judge asked the defendant to approach the bar.

b. The defendant was in the pub at the bar.

c. He bought a bar of soap.


(3) a. Mary walked along the bank of the river.

b. Harbor Bank is the richest bank in the city.


(4) a. First we leave the gate, and then we taxi down the runway.

b. John saw the taxi down the street.


(5) a. Drop me a line when you are in Boston.

b. We built a fence along the property line.


Cases of polysemy:


(1) a. The farm will fail unless the drought ends soon.

b. It is difficult to farm this land.


(2) a. The bank raised its interest rates yesterday.

b. The store is next to the newly constructed bank.

c. The bank appeared first in Italy in the Renaissance.


(3) a. The store is open.

b. The thief tried to open the door.


(4) a. John crawled through the window.

b. The window is closed.

c. The window is made of security glass.

(Pustejovsky, 1995: 27)

Overall, polysemy is just as homonymy. Both use the same word form, both in speech and in writing. However, the main difference between polysemy and homonymy is that the former represent different but related senses, whereas the latter represents different but unrelated senses or meanings(Katamba 2005: 173).


How can polysemy carry across to other languages? How can polysemous words be expressed or transferred into other languages? What problems can polysemy impose in translation or the semantic application? What criteria are used to tackle the issue of polysemy in translation? How does the context determine the appropriate sense of a polysemous word? What challenges might arise from polysemy during translation?  My hypothesis is that polysemy does carry across English and Arabic language but in a different way between the both.  This is apparent through the following examples that illustrate the use of polysemous words in both English and Arabic.

1. Polysemous words (in English)

I will make some coffee.

I will make the right decision.

I will make him wait here.

I will make him happy.

I will make a lot of money.

I will make a good teacher.

I will make him the head of the school.

The word Make has more than one interpretation. However, these interpretations seem to have related meanings. The verb make encodes a very general concept, but on particular occasions of use, it is used to communicate a more specific to that context or occasion. Hence, make is an ad hoc concept.

In contrast, we cannot use the same word ‘make’ in Arabic to carry more than one meaning even if their meanings are related. There are different interpretations for every use of make in Arabic that give specific meanings. Consider the examples below and their meanings in Arabic.

I will makesome coffee. ((يعد /i: əd/ (Literally: ‘to prepare’)

I will make the right decision.  (يتخذ) /i: ətəxð/ (Literally: ‘to take a decision’)

I will make him wait here. (يجبر) /i: ədʒəbr/ (Literally: ‘to force’)

I will make him happy. (يجعل ) /i: ədʒəl/     (Literally: ‘make’)

I will make a lot of money.يكسب)  ) /i: əksəb/    (Literally: ‘earn’)

2. Polysemous words (in Arabic)

Polysemy does occur in Arabic, and polysemous words can be found in many examples in the language. The following examples illustrate this phenomenon where one word can express different but related meanings. However, some cultural information is sometimes needed, i.e. if you get to know the cultural aspect behind the use of this word, then you can get to know the exact meaning of it.

(Tariq conquered Alandalas  ) فتح طارق الاندلس  .1

(Tariq opened the door) فتح طارق الباب .2

The same verb has two translations or interpretations depending on the object in each sentence. If we recognise that the object in sentence 1 is a name of an old city, we translate it as above ‘to conquer’; otherwise, we have to translate it as in sentence 2.

The investigation of the phenomenon of polysemy will be investigated based on two main novels. They are: (1) Season of Migration to the North (Mawsim al-Hiǧra ilā ash-Shamāl), a novel by Tayeb Salih (1966) which was originally published in Arabic, and (2) Robison Crusoe, a novel by Daniel Defoe (1719). The choice of these two novels in particular to be the source data for analysis is because of the fact that these two novels contain rich examples addressing the issue of polysemy. I will choose two translations for the novels in question through which I will compare, investigate and select polysemous words to tackle the objectives of the research questions. The translation of these words will show how important polysemy plays in such texts. By the end of the research, I hope to find a solution that may contribute in the understanding of how polysemous words in English and Arabic could be tackled in translation, and how such research can benefit translators and linguists to thoroughly comprehend this phenomenon to better handle it.



Qualitative analysis will be carried out since it includes analyzing materials to thoroughly investigate this phenomenon. The term qualitative research is generic and includes methodologies that are described as naturalistic, ethnographic, anthropological, field, or participant observer research (Halliday, 2004). It stresses the significance of looking at variables in the natural setting in which they are found, and thus the interaction between variables is vital. With regard to the detailed data, they are gathered through open ended questions that deliver direct quotations. This differs from quantitative research which attempts to collect data by objective methods to deliver information about comparisons, predictions, and relations, and tries to remove the investigator from the investigation (Smith, 1983). Lincoln and Guba (1985) and Marshall and Rossman (1989) define qualitative research as it is more likely to happen in a natural setting or atmosphere. Also, Richards (2003: 264) states that the most key element of good qualitative research is the relationship between the claims made and the data used to support these claims. Moreover, he says that “Perhaps the greatest danger facing a novice researcher is the desire to claim too much in order to live up to an exaggerated idea of what research can achieve…The aim, then, should be to share insights rather than to change the world” (Ibid, 2003: 264).

In this context, the rationale for doing qualitative research as opposed to quantitative research in this study has been illuminated by Silverman (2009). He claims that the advantages of the qualitative research are that it provides comprehensive and in-depth information. Besides, it allows the researcher to gain a holistic overview of the context under study, i.e. it seeks a wide understanding of the entire situation. In addition, Brown and Rogers (2002) similarly note that the qualitative research is a repetitive, flexible process that offers the researcher to respond to unanticipated occasions that may arise in the route of the research.


Therefore, the choice of qualitative over quantitative is to gain an in-depth understanding of the issue of polysemy and to answer the research questions precisely and comprehensively. This is because qualitative methods involve an analysis of data such as words. This is evident in that the researcher is interested in process, meaning, and understanding gained through words or pictures. By conducting this qualitative research, I will seek answers to the research questions and then produce findings that are applicable to the study. This will be done through a comparative study of the two novels I have previously mentioned.



To sum up, the phenomenon of polysemy is still a controversial and a problematic issue across languages. This work will be an attempt to identify the alleged differences of the use of polysemy in English and Arabic. Furthermore, the distinction between Arabic polysemous words and English ones will be discussed thoroughly, and an analysis will be carried out depending on the data provided. It is hoped that this research will explain this phenomenon deeply, namely with reference to English and Arabic. Also, it will shed light on the semantic and translation interface. Ultimately, this research will be of high value to scholars in the field of linguistics, semantics in particular, and translators at the same time.




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Dedicated to my close friend, Valentina Garoia, for everything.


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