[Lingtyp] Does bipolar polysemy exist?

Maia Ponsonnet maia.ponsonnet at uwa.edu.au
Thu May 31 19:31:24 EDT 2018

Hi Stela and others,

I suppose "in isolation" is the key point here: it seems empirically possible to me that some languages make use of bipolar polysemies where the contrastive meanings would be conditionned by different contexts. This is usually how natural languages handle polysemy anyway?

On "believe" verbs, there is also the well-known asymetry in implications:

"I believe that p" = p is true

"she believes that p" = p is false

I agree that this is a slightly different matter, but it does point out to the role of context, and how perhaps it could operate to bring about bipolar polysemies?

Cheers, Maïa

Dr Maïa Ponsonnet
Senior Lecturer in Linguistics
ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Fellow

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From: Lingtyp <lingtyp-bounces at listserv.linguistlist.org> on behalf of Stela Manova <stela.manova at univie.ac.at>
Sent: Thursday, 31 May 2018 10:52 PM
To: Volker Gast
Cc: lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org
Subject: Re: [Lingtyp] Does bipolar polysemy exist?

In support of Volker Gast’s thoughts, I would like to approach the problem from a mathematical / computer science point of view, which allows for a clear generalization.

Words, like numbers, are sequence of elements, i.e. think of the word ‘human’ as similar to the number, let me say, 124.  In mathematics, a way to make 124 the opposite is through adding minus before it, thus -124. The same strategy exists in linguistics and it is called negation, in our case ‘non-human’. Alternative ways to change the meaning of a sequence of elements in mathematics and in linguistics are: 1) modifying the sequence, e.g. 224 instead of 124 and ’numan' instead of ‘human'; and 2) combining that sequence with other elements, i.e. putting a form into context in linguistics. However, in mathematics / computer science, in isolation, a sequence of elements always has a single meaning because if it has not, no computation is possible.  I think that the same logic applies to linguistics, i.e. it is impossible to have a form (lexeme) in isolation associated with two opposite meanings.



Dr. Stela MANOVA
Middle European Interdisciplinary Master Program in Cognitive Science
Department of Philosophy
University of Vienna
Universitätsstraße 7
A-1010 Vienna

Email: stela.manova at univie.ac.at<mailto:stela.manova at univie.ac.at>
URL: http://homepage.univie.ac.at/stela.manova/

On 31.05.2018, at 15:32, Volker Gast <volker.gast at uni-jena.de<mailto:volker.gast at uni-jena.de>> wrote:

The question is, does Sahidic Coptic 'ehrai' mean 'up' and 'down' or simply 'changing its position on a vertical axis'?

Same for lexemes meaning both 'yesterday' and 'tomorrow' -- they could simply mean 'not today'. German has an adverb 'einst', which means either 'in the past' or 'in the future' -- it's an adverbial of (remote) non-present time.

There are languages that use the same word for 'son-in-law' and 'mother-in-law'. But then, these words simply mean 'non-[blood-related] relative'.

'Host' and 'guest' (also etymologically related in English, as far as I know) can be subsumed under 'role in a context of hospitality'. Such cases are very common, I think. We Germans tend to confuse Engl. 'borrow' and 'lend', as we don't differentiate between these meanings. Germ. 'leihen' bassically means 'being involved in a temporary exchange of goods, with an obligation to return the exchanged goods'. The sentential context tells you who lends and who borrows.

There are probably languages that do not distinguish between dogs and foxes. A dog cannot be a fox, but a canid/canine can be either. That's a simple matter of hierarchical organization (heteronymy/hyperonymy).

With respect to 'personne' etc., polarity items interact with the sentential environment. I don't think that they 'mean' anything out of context.

I think the question is whether there are words denoting complementary sets. I don't see how this could work, as you would end up with an inherently contradictory predicate, as David pointed out. For instance, an adjective denoting both 'colorful' and 'colorless' -- and nothing else -- could not truthfully be predicated of any object (except perhaps in lexicalized cases of irony, but then, we'd have to assume that a new lexeme has been created).

And I agree that it is hard to think of an internally negated version of 'go'. Such a verb would denote events that imply the absence of going. 'Stay' is probably a candidate, but verbs are not normally organized in terms of complementarity.

To conclude, I think the question is not an empirical one. A word which indicates both membership to a category C and non-membership to that category cannot truthfully be predicated of any individual or object, and a word that cannot be used truthfully would likely drop out of use pretty soon; and it would probably not even emerge in the first place.

But it might be useful to provide more precise definitions to begin with, specifically of the syntagm 'bipolar polysemy'.


Prof. V. Gast

On Thu, 31 May 2018, Eitan Grossman wrote:

In the Sahidic dialect of Coptic (Afroasiatic), ehrai means 'up' and 'down.'
Eitan GrossmanLecturer, Department of Linguistics/School of Language Sciences
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972 2 588 3809
Fax: +972 2 588 1224
On Thu, May 31, 2018 at 2:15 PM, Mathias Jenny <mathias.jenny at uzh.ch> wrote:
     In Thai, cʰâj means 'be so', but in literary style it is also used to mean 'not be so'.
Mathias Jenny
mathias.jenny at uzh.ch
On Thu, May 31, 2018 at 1:07 PM Giorgio Francesco Arcodia <giorgio.arcodia at unimib.it> wrote:
I don't know if that counts, but: in Italian, ospite means both 'host' and 'guest'. In a given situation, you can't be both, so, (I guess) in a sense this word can be the
negation of itself.
Apologies, semantics is not my forte.
2018-05-31 13:03 GMT+02:00 Mattis List <mattis.list at lingpy.org>:
     Wouldn't the frequent cases of pronouns or pronoun-like words in French
     (personne = "person, nobody", pas = "step, not", etc.) come close to
     this notion? And this process has historically also be claimed for other
     negation words, like Ancient Greek "ou", if I am not mistaken.



     On 2018-05-31 12:57, Joo Ian wrote:
     > Dear all,
     > I would like to know if the following universal claim holds:
     > /There exists no lexeme that can mean X and the negation of X. (For
     > example, no lexeme can express “to go” and “to not go”)./
     > I wonder if such “bipolar polysemy” exists in any lexeme, because I
     > cannot think of any, and whether this claim is truly universal.
     > I would appreciate to know if there is any counter-evidence.
     > From Hong Kong,
     > Ian Joo
     > http://ianjoo.academia.edu
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