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Polysemy in ASL:

Definition: "polysemy"
po·ly·se·my /päˈlisəmē/ noun

"The coexistence of many possible meanings for a word or phrase."
(Source: Oxford online dictionary.)

An ASL teacher asks:
Dear Dr. Bill,
I am wondering if it is correct (that that one sign can convey more than one meaning and a person would know by context which meaning was intended (as is the case with so many words in the English language)?
- Thanks!

Dear _____,
Yes, certainly one sign can have several different meanings.
A word or sign having more than one meaning is known as "polysemy."
A word or sign that has more than one meaning is referred to as being "polysemous."

A few examples of ASL signs would include:


ASL signs have just as much right to be polysemous as English words do.

Consider the sign: COUNT
Context: "John is currently in the San Diego jail on one count of ..."
The sign COUNT (which can be used to mean "to count numbers") has been observed being used in a very popular ASL newscast (the Daily Moth) by a very skilled signer to mean "a separate charge in an indictment."

I point this out because all too often "experts" (note the quotes) try to tell others that you can't use some particular sign to mean "some specific meaning." While I appreciate and agree that it is important to use signs how they should be used -- I find that some people are overzealous in their limiting of the range of meanings for certain signs.

Just because the sign COUNT typically or traditionally has been used to refer to the counting of numbers doesn't mean that we Deaf (and other signers) can't also use it to refer to "a separate charge in a indictment" in a legal setting.




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