Polysemy is the term used in semantic analysis to describe the situation in which a word has two or more related meanings. No matter how simple this definition seems to be, polysemy is not a clear-cut concept. For decades, linguists from different schools have been trying to give a sound account of what polysemy is and how it can be accounted for (see Section 1.2). Unfortunately, it is still true that polysemy remains a somehow muddy field in linguistic research.
The main purpose behind the present study is the analysis of the polysemy that exists in perception verbs in English, Basque and Spanish. Perception verbs in these languages not only convey meanings related to the physical perception of each sense modality (vision, hearing, touch, smell and taste), but they are used to express other meanings as well (‘to meet’ as in I’ll see you at seven, ‘suspicion’ as in to smell fishy, ‘to experience’ as in to taste success). The aim is, therefore, to find out which semantic extensions are found in this semantic field, but also to put forward hypotheses as to why and how these polysemous senses happen.
Why it is possible that, for instance, the verb to see can mean both ‘to perceive with one’s eyes’, but also ‘to understand’ as in I see what you mean. Why whenever we want to express that we are emotionally moved we use the verb to touch (as in deeply touched), but we cannot use any other perception verb such as to smell, to hear to convey the same meaning. In other words, the question is why these semantic extensions seem to occur between very specific conceptual domains and not others.
The reasons why these semantic extensions take place are important, but the question of how these meanings are obtained is equally crucial. How these semantic extensions are carried out, that is how two different conceptual domains, such as physical visual perception and intellection are connected, and brought together. How is it possible to shift from a physical domain to a more abstract domain? How many elements take part in the creation of the polysemy found in these verbs?
And finally, this study will address the issue of how universal these polysemous senses are to be considered; that is to say, whether these semantic extensions are particular to one language or shared by different unrelated languages. For this purpose, three languages from different families have been chosen: two Indo-European languages, English (Germanic) and Spanish (Romance), and Basque, a non-Indo- European language, apparently related to nothing else at all.
In this thesis, I will tackle these questions and provide a framework which will shed some light on the study and understanding of polysemy.
The basic theoretical assumptions in this thesis belong to the framework of Cognitive Linguistics. The main theoretical and methodological principles of this model are presented in Section 1.1. In Section 1.2, I offer an overview of the state of the art in polysemy. Three main trends in polysemy are analysed: Traditional Semantics (Section 1.2.1), Cognitive Semantics (Section 1.2.2), and Lexical Semantics (Section 1.2.3). This chapter finishes with an outline of the organisation of this thesis in Section 1.3.