Colorado Research in Linguistics

Document Type

Working Paper


The semantic ambiguity of lexical forms is pervasive: Many, if not most, words have multiple meanings. For example, one can draw a gun, draw water from a well, or draw a diagram. Despite the frequency of this phenomenon, how human beings store and access these meanings is an open question. Do we have a separate representation in our mental lexicon for each “sense,” or do we store only one very generalized or core meaning for each word? If the latter, do we generate the nuances of each separate sense by rule or by accessing subrepresentations? To even speak of senses in this way implies that we can clearly identify the separate senses of a word. In this study, we use priming in a semantic decision task to investigate the effect of different levels of meaning relatedness on language processing. Both response time and accuracy followed a linear progression through four categories of meaning relatedness. These results suggest that the distinction between a single phonological form with unrelated meanings (homonyms) and a single form with related meanings (polysemes) may be more one of degree than of kind. They also imply that related word “senses” may be part of a continuum or cluster of meanings rather than discrete entities. In addition, results from specific comparisons between groups do not support the theory that each sense of a word has an entirely separate mental representation.

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