Polysemy and Homonymy in Beginning Vocabulary Acquisition

Polysemy simply means many meanings, so one word has several definitions and grammatical functions. Homonymy is a related concept broken into two parts: homophones and homographs.  Homophones are words that have the same pronunciation, whether or not they are spelled alike. Homographs are words that have the same spelling, but may or may not be pronounced alike. Homonyms are both homophones and homographs, i.e. words that are spelled and pronounced alike, but with different meanings.  It is important to learn the different spellings, pronunciations and meanings of words in the beginning stage of language learning or you could say something you don’t mean or understand something to be what it is not.

Polysemy of common verbs is probably something that should be learned early on. Verbs such as faire, mettre, and passer have numerous translations in English depending on how they are used and with which expressions. Faire doesn’t always mean simply to do or to make, as it is also translated as to be (especially when talking about the weather) and other various expressions such as to get used to (se faire à) or to worry (s’en faire).  The reflexive pronoun se and the prepositions that follow verbs can also completely change the meaning. Plaindre is to pity, but se plaindre is to complain. S’ennuyer is to get bored, but s’ennuyer de is to miss.

Homonyms are words like mer, mère, and maire. All of these nouns are pronounced the same so you really need to understand the context of the sentence or you won’t know whether someone is talking about the sea, a mother or a mayor. The word gare in French is most often first learned as train station.  It is very basic vocabulary that all beginners know. But gare also means something else. When it is an exclamation instead of a noun, it means watch out or be careful. Another homonym is bois. As a noun it means wood, but as a verb, it is the singular conjugation for the verb drink. Cours is a lesson, class or course (among others), but the verb form cours means run, race or compete.

Examples like these are easier to spot in writing, since nouns generally need an article in front of them, but in everyday speech if you cannot understand every word and only catch certain basic vocabulary, you could completely misunderstand the message.  This is also why learning the pronunciation of conjugations of verbs is important at the beginning stage.  French has a large number of homonyms between nouns and verbs because of the numerous conjugations so it is not enough to just focus on the nouns or adjectives that sound alike.

Obviously for words that are spelled the same, it easy to look up their definition(s) and pronunciation(s) in the dictionary. But for words that are not spelled the same, yet are pronounced the same, it can be a bit trickier.  Luckily the Dictionnaire du Francais that I posted about a few days ago does include notes about words that sound alike, and good vocabulary books include sections on homonyms, such as Vocabulaire expliqué du français (unfortunately, it is not available through Amazon.com)

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  • http://www.lefrancophoney.com/ April Hollands

    Homonyms are the bane of my French language learning! I misconstrue so many basic sentences by remembering the first meaning of a sound and instantly presuming it’s the correct one. “cent”/”scent”/”sans” is another great one!

  • http://www.lefrancophoney.com April Hollands

    Homonyms are the bane of my French language learning! I misconstrue so many basic sentences by remembering the first meaning of a sound and instantly presuming it’s the correct one. “cent”/”scent”/”sans” is another great one!

  • http://deuxoutroischoses.wordpress.com/ R

    “S’ennuyer is to get bored, but s’ennuyer de is to miss.”
    I had no idea about that! Good post! Plus I actually learnt something!

  • http://deuxoutroischoses.wordpress.com R

    “S’ennuyer is to get bored, but s’ennuyer de is to miss.”
    I had no idea about that! Good post! Plus I actually learnt something!

  • http://davidsswamp.blogspot.com/ David

    “s’ennuyer de” is very rare. I may have heard it a couple of times in my life, and I have never used it. It would be Canadian French, I wouldn’t be surprised.
    .-= David´s last blog ..Google Ad Gone Wrong =-.

  • http://davidsswamp.blogspot.com David

    “s’ennuyer de” is very rare. I may have heard it a couple of times in my life, and I have never used it. It would be Canadian French, I wouldn’t be surprised.
    .-= David´s last blog ..Google Ad Gone Wrong =-.

  • http://www.ielanguages.com Jennie Wagner

    @David: I hear it all the time. People constantly ask “tes parents s’ennuyent de toi ?”

  • http://www.ielanguages.com Jennie

    @David: I hear it all the time. People constantly ask “tes parents s’ennuyent de toi ?”

  • http://ichestudiolangues.wordpress.com/ Jessica

    Hey Jennie! Thanks again for commenting on my blog, I added you to my blogroll. :)
    I really like your blog, and your University degrees look pretty much like what I want mine to be one day! haha
    Keep it up! :)

  • http://ichestudiolangues.wordpress.com Jessica

    Hey Jennie! Thanks again for commenting on my blog, I added you to my blogroll. :)
    I really like your blog, and your University degrees look pretty much like what I want mine to be one day! haha
    Keep it up! :)

  • http://davidsswamp.blogspot.com/ David

    @Jenn: It’s gotta be regional then.

  • http://davidsswamp.blogspot.com David

    @Jenn: It’s gotta be regional then.

  • http://www.ielanguages.com Jennie Wagner

    @David: Maybe it’s just really common in Savoie? It’s always listed in standard dictionaries, but as the very last entry after all the “bored” meanings; in the sense of languir.

  • http://www.ielanguages.com Jennie

    @David: Maybe it’s just really common in Savoie? It’s always listed in standard dictionaries, but as the very last entry after all the “bored” meanings; in the sense of languir.

  • http://france-bienvenue.fr/ Anne

    I think we use “s’ennuyer de quelqu’un” pretty much everywhere, except maybe in the south of France where they say “se languir de quelqu’un ” instead. Before moving to Marseille I had never heard people say “je me languis de toi/ de mes parents / de ma famille”.
    Regarding “mer” and “mère”, I agree with you Jennie: they are pronounced the same. At least that’s what I thought growing up in Paris ! But people from the south don’t pronounce them the same ! “mer” is much shorter for them because there’s no “e” at the end! It’s very subtle but it is true that they pronounce the “-re” syllable at the end of “maire” or “mère” in a different way !

  • http://france-bienvenue.fr Anne

    I think we use “s’ennuyer de quelqu’un” pretty much everywhere, except maybe in the south of France where they say “se languir de quelqu’un ” instead. Before moving to Marseille I had never heard people say “je me languis de toi/ de mes parents / de ma famille”.
    Regarding “mer” and “mère”, I agree with you Jennie: they are pronounced the same. At least that’s what I thought growing up in Paris ! But people from the south don’t pronounce them the same ! “mer” is much shorter for them because there’s no “e” at the end! It’s very subtle but it is true that they pronounce the “-re” syllable at the end of “maire” or “mère” in a different way !

  • http://davidsswamp.blogspot.com/ David

    Yeah, I agree with Anne with mer and mère. I definitely don’t pronounce them the same way.
    Regional accents once again.
    .-= David´s last blog ..How to find the Droids we’re looking for? =-.

  • http://davidsswamp.blogspot.com David

    Yeah, I agree with Anne with mer and mère. I definitely don’t pronounce them the same way.
    Regional accents once again.
    .-= David´s last blog ..How to find the Droids we’re looking for? =-.

  • Bob Blackburn

    Japanese has a ton of these. The kanji are different; but, the pronunciation is the same. I am at a lower level in French; but, I hope there are a lot less.

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I created this blog in September 2006 when I moved to France from Michigan to teach English. Many of the earlier posts are about my personal life in France, dealing with culture shock, traveling in Europe and becoming fluent in French. In January 2010, I started focusing more on teaching and learning languages in general. In July 2011, I relocated to Australia to start my PhD in Applied Linguistics. Although I am no longer living in France, my research is on foreign language pedagogy and I teach French at the university so these themes appear most often on the blog. I also continue to post about traveling (though now my trips are usually in Australia) and being an American abroad.

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