The difference between polysemic and homonymous words is important, if very subtle in formal terms. Indeed, both refer to identical words that can have different meanings depending on the context in which they are used.

difference between polysemy and homonymy

What are polysemic words?

Polysemic words can be defined as words which, depending on the context in which they are used and the tone in which they are spoken, can mean different things.

To give a concrete example, let us look at a common adjective in the English language, namely the word ‘fine’. This adjective can mean many different things and often causes problems for foreigners attempting to figure out how to use it in the English language. Depending on the word it describes, ‘fine’ can mean:

  • pleasing to the eye: ‘a fine woman’, ‘a fine house’, ‘a fine painting’;
  • big: ‘a fine mess’;
  • well-executed: ‘fine workmanship’;
  • terrible: ‘a fine situation!’ (said with bitter irony).

What are homonyms?

Homonyms are two words which are spelled the same but are also different and have different meanings. To make things even more difficult for foreigners, in English, two perfectly homonymous words can also be homophonic (pronounced exactly the same).

Here are some examples of very common homonyms:

  • bat: a nocturnal animal or an implement for hitting a ball;
  • right: the opposite of left or the opposite of wrong;
  • lie: an untruth or the act of reclining;
  • bark: a noise made by a dog or the outside of a tree;
  • duck: an aquatic bird or the action of bowing down quickly to evade a blow.

Homonymy and polysemy: the difference

The main difference between homonymy and polysemy is the fact that homonymous words are different words, with completely different roots and different meanings. Polysemic words, on the other hand, are the same words which have multiple meanings in common use.

Polysemy and homonymy: tips for translation

In translation, it is crucial to pay close attention to the context in which English homonymous and polysemic words are used.

To be sure of conveying the correct meaning in the target language, you must use the words or expressions closest to the meaning expressed by the English word in the context in which it is used.

Going back to the ‘fine’ example, ‘a fine woman’ can be translated into Italian as una bella donna, whereas ‘fine workmanship’ translates as pregevole fattura.

Homophonic words are much easier to translate into foreign languages than polysemic ones: all it takes is the ability to distinguish one word from another, which should be straightforward. For instance, the Italian word riso means both ‘rice’ and ‘laughed’, but no professional translator would ever write ‘We’re having laughed for starters’!

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What is the difference between homonymous words and polysemic words? And how do you translate them into another language?