[Lingtyp] does bipolar polysemy exist?

Claude Hagège claude-hagege at wanadoo.fr
Tue Jun 5 20:11:31 UTC 2018

Dear  Ian Joo , dear all 


To come back to Ian’s query, and after the interesting discussion on google, mathematics and computers, I’d like to recall that Abel’s  book Über den Gegensinn der Urworte (Leipzig 1884, also cited in this online debate by Frans Plank), which was inspired by Bain’s   theory (Logic, London, 1870) on the essential relativity of knowledge and the duality of all experience, offers various evidence in support of the claim that very old  (i.e. not any) languages contain many words with two opposite meanings, i.e. kinds of Janus bifrons.

Freud was seduced by this notion, which seemed to provide valuable linguistic support for  his theory of dreams as the expression of archaic and alogical thought. But a precise and detailed study (E. Benveniste’s  « Remarques sur la fonction du langage dans la découverte freudienne », La Psychanalyse, 1956, 1, 3-16) has since shown that none of Abel’s arguments  can withstand close scrutiny.

However, many languages  exhibit cases of enantiosemy, i.e. co-presence of two opposite meanings. In Classical Arabic, for example, we find    اصرد  ‘așrada « to reach one’s goal » or « to miss it »,   سخن ا  ‘așhana « to sheathe » or « to  unsheath »,  تاثم  ta’aθθama « to sin » or « to abstain from sin ». In Amharic, we have sababbara « to break into pieces » or « to break slightly ».  

We often find also, rather than enantiosemy,  the including of two meanings under one global heading. Languages are able to subsume multiples under extensible classifications, whose  very  vagueness allows  them to better capture reality while contributing to the dynamic of vocabularies. Classical Arabic is known to contain a number of words that express a relation, however asymmetrical, betwwen two terms : thus,   باع  bāˁa once had the meaning « buy » as well as « sell », thus designating, actually, the operation of exchange, without expressing its asymmetry. 

Classical Arabic possesses other neutral words, found in ancient poetry, whose double value is often assumed by translators to be a contradiction : ex.   تخانف tahānafa « to be disturbed by a powerful movement of the soul », whence, depending on the context, either « burst into tears » or « burst into laughter », تغشمر taġašmara « to act according to one’s own judgment », whence, depending on the context, « to be just » or « to be unjust ». Similarly, prepositions, postpositions, etc. often express the relation itself, which explains their use in apparently contradictory contexts, like French la passion qu’elle éprouve envers lui (« the passion she feels toward  him »)  / la répulsion qu’elle éprouve envers lui (« the repulsion she feels toward him »).

         In all of these cases, what we observe is the ordering of opposing elements under the heading of their common features. 

This can also be illustrated with examples from resultative verbs in (Mandarin) Chinese. Thus 开 kāi, meaning « to open » when used independently, can take two opposite meanings when combined with a preceding verb in a resultative verb group, i.e. either 分 fēn « to divide » as in (1) below, or 化 huà « to fuse »  as in (2) : 


(1) 是什么原因使这对恋人分开了 ?


(shì shénme yuányīn shǐ zhèi duì liànrén fēn-kāi le ?) 

« for what reason has this couple separated ? » /


(2)  糖在水里化开了 


(táng zài shuǐ li huà-kāi le) 

« the sugar has melted in water ».


All the best



(Claude Hagège, Collège de France, Chaire de Théorie Linguistique, Paris)

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