Mechanism of lexical polysemy: marginal notes to the «active dictionary»

2020. № 3 (25), 277-294

S.M. Tolstaya Institute of Slavistics of the Russian Academy of Sciences (Russia, Moscow)


The Active dictionary of the Russian language, edited by Yu.D. Apresyan, introduces a new approach to lexical polysemy, its system, typology, and its mechanism. Different word classes have different degrees and different types of polysemy. In general, polysemy is less typical for subject words than for predicate ones and especially verbs, due to the complexity of the verb actant structure and the dependence of verb semantics on the lexical classes of its actants. Lexical polysemy is based on the following system mechanisms: metonymy and metaphor (typical for both subject words and predicates), the fundamental classification of predicates and predicate names, the system of their semantic (functional) actants (subject, object, counterpart, patient, tool, means, goal, locus, time, method, etc.), and the “taxonomic” classification of vocabulary (both subject and predicate). These statements are illustrated by the interpretation of the verbs vesti ‘to lead,’ valyat' ‘to bring down, to throw down,’ etc. The main difference between the identified meanings (lexemes) of the polysemous verb vesti lies in the lexical classes to which its object or patient (person or group of persons, vehicle, occupation or activity, finger, eye, etc.) belongs. The common semantic foundation for the former different meanings proves to be “the causation of object movement” with a formal indicator that the objects (patients) of the action vesti usually combine with the predicate idti ‘to go’ (mashina idet ʻthe car is moving,ʼ urok idet ʻthe class is underway,ʼ issledovaniya idut ʻthe research is underway,ʼ etc.). For the verb valyat', the common semantic foundation can be considered “the causation of changing the position of an object in space.” The lexeme of a polysemous word is not necessarily a semantic derivative of the other lexeme of the same word — it may appear “outside,” i.e. influenced by the correlative words (synonyms, antonyms, conversives, analogues, derivatives, etc.) and/or by condensation of fixed expressions with this word.