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Article

The Mental Representation of Polysemy across Word Classes

Frontiers in Psychology. 2018. Vol. 9. P. 1-16.

Experimental studies on polysemy have come to contradictory conclusions on whether words with multiple senses are stored as separate or shared mental representations. The present study examined the semantic relatedness and semantic similarity of literal and non-literal (metonymic and metaphorical) senses of three word classes: nouns, verbs, and adjectives. Two methods were used: a psycholinguistic experiment and a distributional analysis of corpus data. In the experiment, participants were presented with 6–12 short phrases containing a polysemous word in literal, metonymic, or metaphorical senses and were asked to classify them so that phrases with the same perceived sense were grouped together. To investigate the impact of professional background on their decisions, participants were controlled for linguistic vs. non-linguistic education. For nouns and verbs, all participants preferred to group together phrases with literal and metonymic senses, but not any other pairs of senses. For adjectives, two pairs of senses were often grouped together: literal with metonymic, and metonymic with metaphorical. Participants with a linguistic background were more accurate than participants with non-linguistic backgrounds, although both groups shared principal patterns of sense classification. For the distributional analysis of corpus data, we used a semantic vector approach to quantify the similarity of phrases with literal, metonymic, and metaphorical senses in the corpora. We found that phrases with literal and metonymic senses had the highest degree of similarity for the three word classes, and that metonymic and metaphorical senses of adjectives had the highest degree of similarity among all word classes. These findings are in line with the experimental results. Overall, the results suggest that the mental representation of a polysemous word depends on its word class. In nouns and verbs, literal and metonymic senses are stored together, while metaphorical senses are stored separately; in adjectives, metonymic senses significantly overlap with both literal and metaphorical senses.