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Spanish tip of the month – Polisemia - Polysemy

What is "polisemia"? According to the Real Academia de la Lengua Española, polisemia is "Pluralidad de significados de una palabra o de cualquier signo lingüístico." ("Plurality of meanings of a word or any liguistic sign.")

Or, in other words: Polisemia: una palabra que tiene varios significados. That is: A word with different meanings. So we can talk about polysemic words, or palabras polisémicas. The meaning of a polysemic word depends on the context, on the sentence or situation it is used.

Let's chose, for example the Spanish word "radio".

We have one word and different meanings:

  • (1) (Geometry) "Segmento lineal que une el centro del círculo con la circunferencia." (English: "radius")
  • (2) "Rayo de la rueda." (English: "spoke")
  • (3) (Anatomy) "Hueso contiguo al cúbito, un poco más corto y situado en posición inferior a él, y con el cual forma el antebrazo." (English: "radius")
These three definitions, from the Real Academia de la Lengua, are connected to the Spanish masculine word "radio".

But in Spanish we also have a feminine (4) radio! That's the "machine" we use to listen to radio stations.

Let's now see some sentences using the word "radio":

(1) El radio mide 3 centímetros.


(Image by Hallvard Straume)

(2) El radio de la rueda está roto.

(Image by Gregory David Harington)

(3) Mi radio está roto.

(Image by LadyofHats)


(4) La radio está sobre la mesa.

(Image by DarKobra at Deviantart)

So, as you can see, one word, several meanings. And the only way to know what "are we talking about" is conext.

So, whenever you find a new word and want to know what does it mean, take a look at the dictionary and, depending on the word, you'll find different meanings for that word. If so, you'll be learning a polysemic word.

Finally, here is the list of vocabulary used in the examples:

(1) El radio mide 3 centímetros.
El = the
radio = radium
mide = measures
centímetros = centimeters
(2) El radio de la rueda está roto.
El = the
radio = spoke
de = of
la = the
rueda = wheel
está = is
roto = broken

(3) Mi radio está roto.
Mi = my
radio = radius (bone)
está = is
roto = broken
(4) La radio está sobre la mesa.
La = the
radio = radio
está = is
sobre = on
the = la
mesa = table

The book Practice Makes Perfect: Spanish Vocabulary (Practice Makes Perfect Series) can help you studying Spanish vocabulary, starting with the alphabet, but also including irregular verbs, para and por section, or information about the passive voice. A great compendium of grammar, vocabulary and exercises.

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Content copyright © 2013 by Angeles Fernández. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Angeles Fernández. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Angeles Fernández for details.



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