Word senses

Hugh Rabagliati, Mahesh Srinivasan

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review


Across languages, most frequent words are also highly ambiguous, and carry multiple distinct but related senses of meaning. This chapter aims to explain why words have the particular senses that they do, discussing to what degree word senses are arbitrary cultural conventions or reflections of how speakers conceptualize the world around them. The chapter reviews theoretical proposals about the nature of word senses drawn from linguistics and psychology, and evaluates these proposals against a large recent body of experimental work on the topic. Finally, the chapter suggests that word senses reflect a balance between two communicative pressures: A pressure toward facilitating fast and efficient conversational exchanges, and one toward making languages easier for children to learn.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationOxford Handbook of Experimental Semantics and Pragmatics
EditorsNapoleon Katsos, Chris Cummins
PublisherOxford University Press
ISBN (Print)9780198791768
Publication statusPublished - 19 Mar 2019


  • polysemy
  • word senses
  • language evolution
  • lexicon
  • metonymy
  • metaphor


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