What are Polysemous Words? Exploring Classification and Examples

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Polysemous Words

Vietnamese is known to be one of the most challenging languages to read, write, and comprehend. Not only is pronunciation difficult, but the language also poses significant hurdles when it comes to word usage. One aspect that cannot be ignored when discussing the Vietnamese language is the prevalence of homonyms, also known as polysemous words. In this article, we will delve into the concept of polysemous words, their classification, and provide specific examples to enhance your understanding.

What do Polysemous Words Mean?

Polysemous words refer to words that have multiple meanings, apart from their original meaning. These words often have various characteristics and properties associated with a particular object or location. In essence, they can be understood in different ways. This phenomenon of multiple meanings is observed in languages around the world.

In Vietnamese, polysemous words encompass both literal and figurative meanings. These meanings are interconnected, with the original meaning focusing on the present, the direct meaning, and the literal meaning hidden behind it, indicating the usual characteristics of people or things.

The Reason Behind Polysemous Words

The existence of polysemous words in Vietnamese is attributed to the richness of the language and the limited number of words available to describe the vast concepts in the world. Additionally, certain concepts in Vietnamese carry similar but not identical meanings. Polysemous words can be found in all classes of words, including common words such as “do,” “by,” and “but,” as well as abstract words that are challenging to develop and define.

The Impact of Polysemous Words

Understanding polysemous words requires time and analysis to grasp the different meanings they convey. In some cases, polysemous words can be confusing and misleading, especially for foreign language learners. They can be confusing not only in word context but also in entire sentences.

For instance, the word “go” can have multiple interpretations. Consider the sentence “He is gone.” This sentence can cause confusion between the literal meaning of where the person went and the figurative meaning that suggests they passed away due to difficult circumstances. Polysemous phrases like these are often used to conceal painful truths.

Relation of Polysemy to Different Lexical Classes

Polysemous words have a substantial impact on different classes of words. Let’s explore how polysemous words affect general vocabulary and specialized vocabulary.

General Vocabulary Lessons

General vocabulary comprises words that are frequently used in everyday life, such as “sleep” and “delicious.” These words have multiple meanings and are associated with specific words. For example, the word “eat” has 12 different meanings, as it is used in various situations. Common words like these serve multiple purposes and can be interpreted differently.

Specialized Word Class

Specialized words belong to scientific fields and possess limited frequency of usage. They are less likely to be polysemous due to their specific contexts and narrower focus. Specialized words often have different meanings compared to common words, as academic requirements demand distinct interpretations. Thus, specialized words and common vocabulary differ significantly in usage.

Best Methods for Forming Multi-Meaning Words

Polysemous Words

There are various methods for forming polysemous words, including metaphor and metonymy. These methods contribute significantly to the efficient formation of multi-meaning words.

Metaphor Methods

Metaphor involves assigning names based on related beliefs and comparisons between objects. For example, the word “go” not only signifies physically moving from one place to another but can also convey the idea of sacrifice or loss due to an accident or noble cause. Synonyms often accompany metaphors, emphasizing similarities between objects.


Metonymy involves changing the meaning of words by transferring the names of one thing or phenomenon to another based on their relationship. For instance, the term “White House” refers to the administration of the outgoing American president, as it symbolizes the workplace and also alludes to the color of the building. Metonymy involves substituting parts of a concept for the whole, creating a shift in meaning.

Distinguishing Metaphorical and Metonymic Phenomena

Metaphor and metonymy are often confused, but they are distinct concepts. Metonymy involves a direct exchange of concepts, resulting in meaning that can be quite distinct, such as “White House” representing the administration of the President of the United States.

Some Ways to Classify Polysemous Words

Polysemous words can be classified in multiple ways, including based on their original and translated meanings, as well as their literal and figurative interpretations. Let’s explore a couple of these classifications.

Original Meaning and Translated Meaning

One classification criterion relies on the origin of the word’s meaning. The original meaning refers to the initial and recognizable meaning, often associated with common words related to social life. The translated meaning, on the other hand, is formed based on the original meaning. Analyzing the word “go,” we can observe both its original meaning and how it changes. The word “money” also exemplifies this classification, with various layers of meaning, some originating from Chinese language and others developed by the community.

Permanent Meaning and Non-Permanent Meaning

This criterion determines whether the word’s meaning remains stable universally or is only applicable in certain situations. Permanent meaning refers to the stable meaning structure of a word, while non-permanent meaning denotes contextual meaning. Non-permanent meaning is commonly found in allusions, fables, metaphors, and other forms of communicative language.

Some Examples of Polysemous Words

In Vietnamese, numerous words possess multiple meanings. Let’s consider the word “eat” as an example:

  • Eating rice: nourishing the body
  • Photogenic: referring to beauty that shines in photos
  • Stealing: taking someone’s belongings without permission
  • The river gnaws at the sea: extending towards the sea
  • Face painting: gradually destroying each part

To illustrate the varying interpretations of polysemous words, let’s examine the phrase, “I went to school in a white shirt, with a flock of songbirds. Every breeze caresses my hair, sad and happy memories overflow.”

In this sentence, the term “white shirt” metaphorically refers to female students in some cases. This particular meaning is non-permanent, indicating that a word’s meaning can evolve from non-permanent to permanent, depending on the community’s decision and usage.

By exploring polysemous words, we gain a deeper insight into their meaning and application. These words find extensive use in literature, Cheo operas, and even as a means of alleviating loneliness and suffering. Understanding the structure and grammar of polysemous words enhances language comprehension and usage.

So, there you have it. The article has provided an in-depth exploration of polysemous words, encompassing their concepts, classifications, and specific examples. Enhance your understanding of the Vietnamese language and elevate your communication skills with a comprehensive knowledge of polysemous words.

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