Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Polysemy: A Second Language Pedagogical Concern

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posted on 2021-11-09, 01:14 authored by Parent, Kevin

This thesis is an examination of polysemy and its effects on second language learners, revealing it as a greater concern than it is normally accorded in pedagogical research. Arguing against a reliance on the dictionary to determine the number of senses a given word has, it begins with a thorough exploration of the concept, both from diachronic and synchronic perspectives, by contrasting it with the related concepts of homonymy and monosemy. A monosemic stance is argued for, which does not deny the existence of polysemy but argues for a framework in which contextual variations of a word are not considered discrete meanings. The British National Corpus is consulted for data demonstrating that instances of a word that may appear as discrete units of meanings actually form a single, unified usage. With monosemy redistributed to account for more than it normally does, and with polysemy relegated solely to semantics (factoring out syntax, pragmatics, etc.), polysemy becomes a considerably less sloppy concept, revealing that, at a top-down level, there are essentially only two varieties. The first of these is 'lexical metaphor,' in which there is a clear literalmetaphoric divide between uses, and the second is 'vicariant polysemy' in which senses are discrete but not synchronically explainable by metaphor. Using Hoey's notion of lexical priming, the factored-out elements of syntax, collocation, etc. are returned to, but strictly as effects of the semantic process of sense generation that should not be mistaken for the cause, though they frequently are. The second part of this thesis moves from the theoretical to the applied, reviewing the sparse literature on the subject. Techniques for raising awareness of the issue among students are discussed as are dictionary skills relevant to polysemy and homonymy. Attention is then turned toward homonymy, examining the problem it poses to word lists and providing the beginning of a solution by revealing which words on the General Service List are homonymic and giving the relative frequency of each meaning. A technique to assist learners in acquiring additional meanings of homonyms is examined, as is a technique for guessing new or novel meanings of polysemes in context.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Applied Linguistics

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies


Bauer, Laurie; Nation, Paul