My question is a little bit tricky (for me) to put in a title. I will try to describe:

There are different types of writing systems, such as logographic, true alphabets and segmental scripts. Not sure if this is the cause of it, but my issue is that I noted that certain alphabet types, such as the "featural linear alphabet" used by e.g. Korean leads to words/characters being reused extensively with different meanings. Take for example 치다 which has the meaning of "strike, hit, beat", but also many many other meanings. It is one of the most frequent used words (at position 366 of circa 6000). On the other hand, those words in English (a Latin alphabet language) are often very distinct, but they were counted to be only at 30,000 (?) words. At the same time, there are ~200.000 words though in Korean?

I assume these effects may be similarly present in Chinese and Japanese, although my knowledge of those languages is limited. My question is now:

How is the effect called in the Linguistics, in which a word has either (as in English) only a few (usually one) meanings vs. routinely having multiple meanings (as in Korean)?

1 Answer 1


I'm not sure but if I got it right you are asking about how to call a word that has multiple meanings. In that case, we're talking about polysemous words (as opposed to monosemous).

In any case I don't see why the type of writing would affect how many meanings a word has. The various meanings are gained/lost through usage: speakers determine them by using the word in a certain context.

The 30,000 words in English that you linked to are the words by frequency: English (as most languages) has much more words than that (almost obvious considering that. The exact number is pretty much impossible to determine the most obvious reason being the fact that the vocabulary corpus changes every day, but according to all the studies I've seen we're between ~140,000 and 1,000,000.

I'm saying this because you compared what I think is the total count of words in Korean (let's assume it's more or less correct since you gave no reference) to the list by frequency in English. That's not a good comparison of course.

You say that words with one meaning in Korean are the exception. That's a strong statement, as we don't have hard data to support that. To me it looks like monosemous words are less common (since language tends to re-use existing words a lot) but my judgement here might be biased.

Yes, polysemy refers to words with more meanings, but it's different from homonymy.

  • Polysemy: a word has different meanings, they might have some relation (not necessarily, though; it's not a requirement). E.g. Dog refers to

    an animal, a wicked man, a mechanical device for gripping, etc.

  • Homonymy: two or more words sound the same but are unrelated (e.g. where, wear)

Note that polynymy (even if it seems like so) has no reason to be here as it means something different.

Finally, you can't say "homonymous language": what does it mean? A language that only consists of homonyms doesn't exist and the same is true for the other features. As far as I know there isn't a name for languages using this type of characterization. All languages have homonyms, polysemous/monosemous words, etc, and the amount of these words is always changing and for this reason you can't use it as a distinguishing feature, since it's not distinguishing at all.

  • By the way, you said "~200.000 words though in Korean", are you referring to the total words or the "word list by frequency" (which I doubt though)?
    – Alenanno
    Jan 30, 2013 at 20:51
  • The word list by frequency is only 6.000 words. Jan 31, 2013 at 4:22
  • You are right that the usage determines the context, you are definitely more knowledgeable than me. But I meant this in a broader sense and as a question. As I am not even sure if Korean really has more or less (I actually expected less) words (in the sense of words differing in their spelling) than English. I appreciate any guidance, because I want to find that out too. Finally, do I understand you write that any word with more than one meaning is polysemous? Jan 31, 2013 at 4:25
  • To clarify: There might certainly be words in Korean that have only one meaning. But those are certainly the exception! I didn't realize homonymy and polysemy when writing my question, but due to these tendences, could you e.g. call the whole language as such a "polynym language" or a "homonym(ous?) language" -e.g. English - or would that be incorrect? Is there any such characterization for languages on the basis of this underlying difference? Or am I overthinking?.. Jan 31, 2013 at 4:31
  • 1
    @grunwald2.0 I replied to your doubts in my answer. Hope it helps. If there are more doubts, feel free to re-comment here. :)
    – Alenanno
    Jan 31, 2013 at 10:59

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