The Dangers of Polysemes and Homonyms

Polysemy is one of my new favorite words, a word that I have learned here at Lionbridge while researching language and translation. Polysemy is when a word (a polyseme) takes on multiple meanings, that are usually somehow related. Homonyms are words that have the same spelling and sound but are not at all related in meaning.

Measuring a yard with a yard stick

Measuring a yard with a yard stick

For example, “milk” is a polyseme that could mean to milk a cow, or it could mean milk the liquid that comes from a cow. These are two different but related definitions. The word “yard,” however, could be referring to a unit of measurement, or the grassy area in front of your house. This word is spelled and pronounced the same in both definitions, but the meanings are completely different, making it a homonym.

What could be so dangerous about words like these? Great question. The dangers come when words like this are going through language translation. If you are using a human person to translate your materials, you probably won’t run into any problems; but, if you’re using a machine translator, watch out.

Polysemes and homonyms are where machine translators trip up because each language doesn’t have the same polysemes and homonyms. Many verbs are formatted differently than nouns and adjectives, so if a word like “milk” goes into a machine translator, it’s hard for the machine to know whether it is the verb meaning or the noun. Homonyms are tough too because there are different words for different things in different languages. A machine has to figure out which word you mean before it can figure out which word fits the best in your destination language.

Even in one language, homonyms can be confusing. Have you ever been driving while someone else is giving you directions? You come up to a stop sign but your navigator isn’t paying attention…

“Right or left?” you say.
“Left… I think.”
“Left? Okay, I'm turning left," you say, as you start to turn.
“Right.”
“Right?” you shout, jerking the wheel the other way and slamming on the brakes.
“No, left! I meant right, correct. Turn left."

Meanwhile, the person behind you is getting pretty frustrated.

Just a week ago I was with my pregnant sister, who said to me: “I really don’t wanna shower.” The way I spelled “wanna” is important here because that’s how it sounded. For some reason, I took this to mean that she didn’t want to shower. After a minute or so of two different conversations, she realized that I had not understood her. “A baby shower,” she corrected me.“I don’t want a baby shower.” Oh… well that was awkward.

These incidents are small and unlikely. When reading or listening to something in context, it’s usually pretty easy to figure out what a word means. But do you trust that machine translator to figure it out? Plus, words and language are constantly changing. After all, literally doesn’t mean the same thing it did five years ago.

With Lionbridge onDemand, there’s always a human there to translate your content, or revise your content after a machine does the heavy lifting. We have in-country translators in over 250 languages, all around the world. Instead of hoping that machine will do the  trick, come check out what Lionbridge onDemand has to offer.