Against monosemy, pt 1: The lexicon’s original sin

As I continue to prepare my paper on the semantics of compounding, I realized that I had a mostly finished review of Charles Ruhl’s (1989) On monosemy:  A study in linguistic semantics that I had never posted. This will be appearing in five parts over the next two weeks. I’ll provide a full bibliography in the final post, but hyperlinks for each citation appear at first reference. The goal here is to (1) present my thoughts about monosemy as a theoretical construct and (2) maintain a regular posting schedule while I am also devoting more of my time to getting my SBL paper finished on ὑδροποτέω and compounding. This is going to be a deep dive.

And to get it clarified at the start:

  1. polysemy = many senses
  2. monosemy = one sense

The problem of traditional dictionaries/lexicography

Charles Ruhl does not like polysemy in the lexicon. He does not like what he terms maximalist approaches to semantics. For him, it’s evidence of the failings of traditional dictionaries and the multiplication of word senses unnecessarily. In 1989, he published a rather substantial monograph dealing with large questions of how the meaning of words is structured within the lexicon. It is an odd book however. It does not explicitly lay out a problem that really needs be solved. At best there is merely a consistent undercurrent of frustration driving his discussions that polysemy is too closely linked to traditional lexicography, as found in, say, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (1976), among others. Dictionaries, and we also see this is the dictionaries of biblical languages, tend to multiply the senses of words to an extreme degree. BDAG, for example, lists seven major divisions for the verb δίδωμι, and then numerous subsenses that seem to continue ad infinitum (or ad nauseam, if you prefer). But this function as the frame of reference for Ruhl’s criticisms of how other people were approaching the subject of lexical semantics, both formal and functional.

Traditional dictionary accounts of discrete senses, especially when simply taken and assumed wholesale by linguistics, are certainly problematic. And Ruhl deserves credit for recognizing this serious descriptive problem. In his search for a corrective, Ruhl proposes a model that attempts to unite those discrete senses under the umbrella a larger more general and abstract single sense.

Ruhl was not the only one, however, who observed this difficulty. He was looking for solutions to many of the same challenges that several cognitive linguists in the 1980’s were also examining. In that context, perhaps the great irony of lexical semantics in the 1980’s is that at the same time that Ruhl was doing his own writing and research, a number of cognitive linguists were putting forward parallel proposals for solving the same difficulties found in traditional dictionaries. Thus, for Langacker (1987) what Ruhl calls his monosemic abstract unity of apparent disparate senses, are terms image schemas. The major differences between cognitive linguists, like Langacker, as compared to Ruhl are that they (1) maintained a different view of the relation between semantics and pragmatics and (2) rather than attempting to explain away polysemy as a separate domain of study, they instead sought to integrate highly abstract meaning along with polysemy together, giving primary importance to polysemic usage as the motivation for the abstract image schematic meaning. And in fairness, Ruhl himself does not discard the existence of polysemy; he merely separates it from grammar and recategorizes it within pragmatics instead then claims the abstract monoseme is logically prior to the pragmatic usage. He emphasizes this himself as early as his preface.

I only briefly discuss here topics that are usually considered pragmatic. I am working closer to lexical bone, claiming that meaning almost universally ceded to be semantic should be considered pragmatic. My claims of lexical monosemy imply that lexical meaning must be highly abstract (though still specific to a particular language), and thus highly formal, some of it highly remote from all ambient contingencies. I hope to show functionalists that the most functional linguistic ability is based on a high degree of formal autonomy (Ruhl 1989, ix).

In a sense, then, the question of monosemy vs. polysemy may be then conceived as in terms two issues of the nature meaning:

  • What is relationship between semantics and pragmatics Is it a continuum or two discrete domains? Ruhl separates them and places a substantial portion of meaning expression within the domain of pragmatics.
  • Does pragmatics motivate semantics or vice versa? Or to put it another way: how do words mean? Are general, abstract senses a product of the diversity of language use (functionalism) or do these abstract senses have a high degree of linguistic autonomy which then motivates the diversity of language use (generativism)?

The next few posts will examine in turn each of these issues and then we’ll conclude with some suggestions for those still interested in working with Ruhl’s ideas.

6 thoughts on “Against monosemy, pt 1: The lexicon’s original sin

Add yours

  1. I hope your posts will mention Wittgenstein, Austin, and ordinary language philosophy. The issues you raise are some of the central questions that were tackled by those thinkers/movement.

    1. I won’t be dealing with Austin or Wittgenstein here, but I have discussed elsewhere the theories of human categorization that linguists have developed as a result of Wittgenstein’s work, particularly in this piece on middle voice:

      Austin and his work on speech act theory, is a much larger topic than mere lexical semantics, it definitely deserves some attention from me at some point in the future.

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