Polysemy is the type of lexical ambiguity where a word has multiple distinct but related interpretations. In the past decade, it has been the subject of a great many studies across multiple disciplines including linguistics, psychology, neuroscience, and computational linguistics, which have made it increasingly clear that the complexity of polysemy precludes simple, universal answers, especially concerning the representation and processing of polysemous words. But fuelled by the growing availability of large, crowdsourced datasets providing substantial empirical evidence; improved behavioral methodology; and the development of contextualized language models capable of encoding the fine-grained meaning of a word within a given context, the literature on polysemy recently has developed more complex theoretical analyses.

In this survey we discuss these recent contributions to the investigation of polysemy against the backdrop of a long legacy of research across multiple decades and disciplines. Our aim is to bring together different perspectives to achieve a more complete picture of the heterogeneity and complexity of the phenomenon of polysemy. Specifically, we highlight evidence supporting a range of hybrid models of the mental processing of polysemes. These hybrid models combine elements from different previous theoretical approaches to explain patterns and idiosyncrasies in the processing of polysemous that the best known models so far have failed to account for. Our literature review finds that (i) traditional analyses of polysemy can be limited in their generalizability by loose definitions and selective materials; (ii) linguistic tests provide useful evidence on individual cases, but fail to capture the full range of factors involved in the processing of polysemous sense extensions; and (iii) recent behavioral (psycho) linguistics studies, large-scale annotation efforts, and investigations leveraging contextualized language models provide accumulating evidence suggesting that polysemous sense similarity covers a wide spectrum between identity of sense and homonymy-like unrelatedness of meaning.

We hope that the interdisciplinary account of polysemy provided in this survey inspires further fundamental research on the nature of polysemy and better equips applied research to deal with the complexity surrounding the phenomenon, for example, by enabling the development of benchmarks and testing paradigms for large language models informed by a greater portion of the rich evidence on the phenomenon currently available.

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Action Editor: Zhiyuan Liu

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