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The semantics and pragmatics of polysemy: a relevance-­theoretic account

Falkum, I.L.; (2011) The semantics and pragmatics of polysemy: a relevance-­theoretic account. Doctoral thesis , UCL (University College London). Green open access

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This thesis investigates the phenomenon of polysemy: a single lexical form with two or multiple related senses (e.g. catch the rabbit/order the rabbit; lose a wallet/lose a relative; a handsome man/a handsome gift). I develop a pragmatic account of polysemy within the framework of Sperber and Wilson’s relevance theory, where new senses for a word are constructed during on-line comprehension by means of a single process of ad hoc concept construction, which adjusts the meanings of individual words in different directions. While polysemy is largely unproblematic from the perspective of communication, it poses a range of theoretical and descriptive problems. This is sometimes termed the polysemy paradox. A widely held view in lexical semantics is that word meanings must consist of complex representations in order to capture the sense relations involved in polysemy. Contrary to this view, I argue that a conceptual atomist approach, which treats word meanings as unstructured atoms and thereby avoids the range of problems associated with decompositional theories of word meaning, may be at least as able to account for polysemy when paired with an adequate pragmatic theory. My proposed solution to the polysemy paradox is to treat polysemy as a fundamentally communicative phenomenon, which arises as a result of encoded lexical concepts being massively underdetermining of speaker-intended concepts, and is grounded in our pragmatic inferential ability. According to this approach, the role of the linguistic system in giving rise to polysemy is to provide a minimal input, or clue, which the pragmatic system uses as evidence to yield hypotheses about occasion-specific, speaker-intended meanings. I further show how this pragmatic approach can account for cases of ‘systematic polysemy’, usually seen as prime candidates for an analysis in terms of lexical rule application. Finally, I develop an account of metonymy within the overall framework of relevance-theory.

Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Title: The semantics and pragmatics of polysemy: a relevance-­theoretic account
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
Language: English
UCL classification: UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Life and Medical Sciences > Faculty of Brain Sciences > Div of Psychology and Lang Sciences > Linguistics
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/1139079
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