v22: nagel

Polysemy means a word having multiple meanings. But not just any meanings, polysemy refers to related meanings. If the meanings are unrelated, it’s called homonymy. This example from Wikipedia seems reasonable enough: bank as a financial institution and the bank of a river are homonyms, but the bed you sleep on and the bed of a river are polysemes.

But how do you decide if two meanings are related? The first edition of Lexis (“E-Journal in English Lexicology”) was devoted to the topic of polysemy, and there are some nice points made in the introduction (which is not to say you shouldn’t read the whole thing yourself; the final article in the journal has the catchy title Unbalanced, Idle, Canonical and Particular):

Ambiguity rarely occurs in discourse, for human beings, who are nearly always in a position, thanks to contextual elements, to disambiguate the comprehension of the informative content but it remains a source of problems for automatic comprehension.
There is no simple means to identify the different senses of a word.
The difference between homonymy on the one hand and polysemy on the other is to be thought of in terms of a continuum rather than a dichotomy.

So how do you work out if the separate meanings for a word are related? My first word in this blog was mjäll, which means both tender and dandruff, which are related and thus polysemes, although the relationship was not at all obvious.

Consider nagel. This is the nail on a finger, as opposed to spik, the nail used in carpentry. The former is a flat plate, the latter a spike, so are the different senses of the English nail polysemes or homonyms, what do you think? According to the OED, both meanings in English have the same etymology, the original word also including claw, so polysemes, I guess. But interesting that Swedish has two words where English has only one (it’s hard to imagine the different senses of nail being confused). And have a look at other North Germanic languages:

finger carpentry
Swedish nagel spik
Norwegian negl spiker
Danish negl nagle
Icelandic nögl nagli

Which I suppose is a good argument for trying to learn only one foreign language at a time, no matter how similar they may appear to be.

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Published in: on June 13, 2010 at 21:42  Comments (1)  
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  1. You could use the word nagel in carpentry too. The usage is rather uncommon these days though – except in specific instances – which would lead to quite a few people being confused and not “getting” it despite the fact that they know the meaning of the word. Most Swedes would understand the following sentence: “En spik används för att nagla fast ett object mot ett annat object”. Even more Swedes know what the word fastnaglad means. E.g. “Jag satt som fastnaglad”.


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