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A pragmatic solution to the polysemy paradox

Ingrid Lossius Falkum

Thursday, October 01, 2009, 12:00pm - 07:00pm

University College London

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Natural languages exhibit polysemy. Polysemy is seen as the case where what we perceive to be a single word has two or multiple related senses. When we use the word run for instance, it takes on different meanings depending on whether we're talking about running a half marathon, running some water, running on gasoline, running on empty, running a shop, running away from responsibilities, and so on. While it is largely unproblematic from the point of view of communication, polysemy poses a range of theoretical and descriptive problems. This has been described as the polysemy paradox (Ravin & Leacock 2000). In this talk, I claim that the source of the paradox can be found in the traditional assumption about polysemy as a fact about language, i.e. as a phenomenon requiring a lexical semantic analysis. Against this lexical semantic view, I argue that polysemy should be seen as a natural consequence of how communication works; it results from our capacity to infer the meanings/thoughts that speakers intend to communicate to us taking the linguistic expression employed as crucial but not fully determining evidence. In this way, polysemy is rooted in the more general phenomenon of underdetermination of a speaker's meaning by the language, and its study belongs to the realm of pragmatics. This pragmatic approach, I argue, provides a more promising way of tackling the theoretical challenges associated with polysemy; one that will contribute to resolving the paradox.

Ingrid Lossius Falkum