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Or, what is polysemy and how does it work?

This blog is about the concept of polysemy and how surprisingly common it is in the simplest of words. And as an example, I’m going to use the unassuming word “over”.  

So, Polysemy – say it aloud, it rolls very nicely when spoken. 

 What is it? It’s the concept of a word or phrase evolving to have many possible meanings. For example, the word pen is very different for sentences like:  

  • The horses are outside in a pen  
  • She used a red pen when editing for extra dramatic effect 

And even though these two words are spelled exactly the same, you don’t have to think twice about which pen is being referred to in sentences like:  

  • She tapped the pen against her lips  
  • They frolicked in the grassy, green pen  
  • The pen is mightier than the sword  

In others, it’s a little bit harder to make that semantic distinction: 

  • The pen is covered in mud  
  • The pen cost a lot  
  • The pen is useless 

All of this is really quite interesting from a linguistic perspective, because context-driven semantics and categorization are really *where it’s at* for most linguists.  

The word pen is roughly binary in meaning, two-sided, you can easily determine what is being referred to but you *always need context*. And, with words like pen, the words around it tell you whether the pen is made of fencing or some material to encase a tube of ink.  

But Brandy, you say, isn’t “pen” an example of homonymy and not polysemy? Well, maybe? We don’t actually know the origin of the Old English “penne” or if it relates to the Latin “penna” which means feather and was used to refer to the nibbed feather aka the quill. It would seem quite straightforward that the noun for an enclosure and that for a feather quill have little to do with each other right? Except, of course, that “Penne” was first used to describe a female swan and then used to describe the enclosure that keeps your flock of swans off the commons (public garden and farming area) and then adapted to refer to any old enclosure. (And also yes, the pasta, the worst kind of pasta, but this is a different language so go away, even though it does have the same meaning – a feather pen) So, is this an example of one word evolving to mean different things, maybe. Maybe not. There’s no evidence in either direction. Either way, it’s a great and straightforward example of words having different and binary meanings.

The word “Over”, which is so much more mundane, is also so much more complicated. In fact, the unassuming “over” has 7 definitions as a preposition and another 4 as an adverb. Moreover, and I use this word despite its antiquated sound, just to add some pretention to my blog, it achieves a thing which very few words are ever asked to achieve. It asks you to understand visuospatial movement in a geographical space based on nothing more than implied context and your understanding of how objects navigate the world around them.  

It achieves this by using metaphor, or the concept of a word standing in for an action or series of actions. And that was popularized by Ronald Langacker in his treatise on Cognitive Grammar. But, whether you find cognitive linguistics inane or brilliant, “other” remains quite something.  

So let’s go through a few examples of what I mean. In each case, take a minute to picture what the sentence is depicting.  

  • I spread the blanket over the bed  
  • The cat knocked the dish over the floor 
  • I spilled a glass of water over the table  
  • The plane flew over the hill  
  • We took a walking tour over the town 
  • Jenny is really over her job 
  • The age of man is over 
  • Fabien flipped his Tosti over 
  • I’m having friends over  
  • The lamp fell over 

You get where I’m going with this right? In practice, over is this remarkably complex word which can cause you to understand and even picture a vast array of geographically and spatially different movements with just 4 letters and 2 syllables.  

Some meanings also extend heavily into metaphor.  

  • I’m over you  
  • To have power over someone  

The defining problem with all of these definitions is that there are no features in common between all of them. Some of them do, in fact, have overlaps. In addition, the use of over has rules which are contextual based on the object being used.  

For example, why can you spread a tablecloth over the table and have the tablecloth touch the table but if you put a lamp over the table the lamp is floating over the table? In this case, over and on mean different things. But then: 

  • I spilled water on my keyboard 
  • I spilled water over my keyboard 

Ignoring the fact that we all know it would be coffee and not water, there’s no real semantic difference between these two phrases.  

And then it gets even more complicated when you start to interact with objects in your immediate space:  

  • I pulled the hat over my eyes (downward trajectory) 
  • I pulled my pants over my hips (upward trajectory) 
  • I pulled the blankets over myself (horizontal trajectory/covering) 
  • She climbed over the wall (upward and THEN downward trajectory) 
  • She spread lotion over her skin (covering)  
  • She pulled the socks over her feet (covering/upward) 
  • He bent over (downward trajectory) 
  • You knock the glass over (covering)  
  • He called the waiter over (pulling) 

More importantly, these words have specific rules as well. For example:  

  • To go over the fence 
  • To walk over the fence 
  • To stroll over the fence  

The latter probably sounds weird. But you’d have no issues were you talking about going over a flat plane:  

  • To go over a field  
  • To walk over a field 
  • To stroll over a field  

So, in addition to having contextually conditional uses and meanings, over has implicit grammatical rules which are bound by the construct of feasibility.  

And then there’s the fact that the words go and over are both so incredibly polysemous that you could take that simple phrase “to go over a field” and translate: 

  • To walk across the field  
  • To fly over the field  
  • To survey the field 
  • To look for a lost object in the field 
  • To go by route of the field on the way to a destination  

That “vagueness” means that readers or listeners have to pay careful attention to the semantics of any information before or after the sentence in order to derive anything meaningful from it at all. Without that, most of us would narrow the meaning down to the first option “to walk over the field”, that could be quite incorrect if it happened that you were talking about renting a small plane and crop-dusting your uncle’s oat field. 

Let’s try some more:  

  • There are blankets all over the bed (full coverage)  
  • There’s blood all over the floor (chaotic dispersal)  
  • There are guards all over the palace (chaotic dispersal) 
  • Chagrin all over his face (? full coverage) 
  • Her writing was all over the place (chaotic dispersal)

In this case, only one of these sentences would be grammatically correct without the word “all”. That’s the first. But, they all ask you to imagine how the object interacts with its environment in order to derive any meaning from it at all. You need to know what the object is doing in order to translate the word “over”.  

And that results in an incredibly rich and diverse number of ways to translate a single word.  

And that’s without even counting the special cases. Like:  

I’m over joyed (overjoy (v.) 

What? How is that special? Well, it entered the English lexicon as an attempt at translating supergaudere (Psalms xxxiv) and was synonymous with “to rejoice over”. The modern sense didn’t exist until some 3 centuries later. And even better, it’s super transitive but almost always used in a past tense sense. You do not experience overjoy you are overjoyed.  

How do you get to over from Latin super? Well, they have the same root, which means “Above”.  

That’s also where words like “over excited” come from. They’re not standardized uses but rather corruptions of an existing phrase, “overjoyed”. Think in the context of the German “Uber” and Dutch “Over”, rather than in the context of English. Likely that holds true for overeat, overdo, and overinterpret, although that’s my own interpretation, don’t take my word for it.  

And then there’s the radio comms version:  

Roger Murdock: Flight 2-0-9er, you are cleared for take-off. 
Captain Oveur: Roger! 
Roger Murdock: Huh? 
Tower: L.A. departure frequency, 123 point 9’er. 
Captain Oveur: Roger! 
Roger Murdock: Huh? 
Victor Basta: Request vector, over. 
Captain Oveur: What? 
Tower: Flight 2-0-9er cleared for vector 324. 
Roger Murdock: We have clearance, Clarence. 
Captain Oveur: Roger, Roger. What’s our vector, Victor? 
Tower: Tower’s radio clearance, over! 
Captain Oveur: That’s Clarence Oveur. Over. 
Tower: Over. 
Captain Oveur: Roger. 
Roger Murdock: Huh? 
Tower voice: Roger, over! 
Roger Murdock: What? 
Captain Oveur: Huh? 
Victor Basta: Who? 

Of course, Over is just a procedure word used to communicate “I have finished talking and expect a reply”. It has no more specific meaning or relation to the other word than the procedure word Roger does to anyone who happens to be named Roger. Although some procedure words like Wilco (will comply) have meaning and others are just rude (Do you read?). 

Are all words polysemous? No. Not at all. The word “Grandfather” is a good example of monosemy. And any variations you might think of like grandfathering and grandfather clauses are all spinoffs from the root word asking you to understand the original word, rather than asking you to understand and project different understandings of the world and its nature.  

And, of course, polysemy is not a clearly defined thing. After all, where does polysemy end and homonymy begin? When is a word simply vague?  

Eventually, polysemy is great for human speakers. It allows us to intelligently predict meaning based on our relationship and familiarity with the space we are in – a concept known as pragmatism. That’s why San Francisco residents are able to get away with calling their city “The City” as though there were no other city on earth. Locals are able to contextually interpret what is meant using their understanding of the world and how they navigate it. But that same testament to the human ability to categorize and re-arrange an ever-changing environment, to use language not as a static and rule-bound dinosaur but as a living means of communication that adapts to its environment and to its speakers, turns out to wreck absolute havoc for natural language processing. The feat of reading over and translating a long list of visual and spatial reactions of objects interacting with the world is effortless for most 5-year-olds, yet AI? The best of them, even the ones effortlessly beating human players at StarCraft, struggle to do it.  

In fact, the “simple” act of processing a word like “Over” means first selecting the most logical sense (of which there are 11) and then further disambiguating it. They can’t. They can’t calculate the physical movement intended by a word like Over. Instead, the best they can do is pull from a database of statistical likelihoods and apply pragmatic analysis and discourse integration, and even then, they often fail. And that simple fact, where natural language processors can’t make sense of words like over in non-standard senses or senses without context, is one of the reasons why I don’t listen when people tell me those programs will eventually take over my job. They won’t because, with the technology we have now, they’ll never be able to treat language with the elasticity of the human mind.  

Which, quite frankly, is pretty impressive.