Zabotkina V. I., Boyarskaya E. L.(2017). On the challenge of polysemy in contemporary cognitive research: What is conscious and what is unconscious. Psychology in Russia: State of the Art, 10 (3), 28-39.
Background. The problem of polysemy has attracted scholars’ attention since antiquity and interest in the phenomenon never lessens. A substantial number of works have been published on the cognitive nature of meaning ambiguity. Despite a new emphasis on the cognitive aspects of polysemy, little has been done towards an integrated approach to the study of this linguistic phenomenon.
Objective and Method. This work’s objective was to contribute to an integrated interdisciplinary theory of polysemy. To this end, we explored the cognitive foundation of meaning using empirical and theoretical research methods, but mostly relying on semiotic analysis of texts central to the humanities. In particular, we analyzed the dichotomy of conscious vs. unconscious processing in the acquisition and use of polysemy. For the identification of cognitive patterns of polysemy development in ontogenesis, we used probabilistic conceptual modeling.
Results. The acquisition of meaning is a conscious process: it is a conscious interaction of the speaker with an interlocutor and their common social environment. On the other hand, meanings are unconscious unless a connection between the phonological, acoustic form and the concept is established. Correspondingly, polysemy is conscious when a new meaning is formed in the course of social interaction. However, polysemy, as an inherent language phenomenon, remains unconscious for native speakers, who are unaware of its presence provided they are not involved in some form of intentional language games (pun, zeugma or intended ambiguity).
Conclusion. The present approach to the analysis of meaning ambiguity seems to be a productive endeavor. Further research into polysemy has to be based on a range of additional types of evidence, including those obtained by methods of cognitive neuroscience.
Themes: Cognitive psychology
Keywords: cognition, polysemy, meaning acquisition, development, language games, concept, consciousness, unconscious processes