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Review of  Regularity in Semantic Change

Reviewer: Diana M. Lewis
Book Title: Regularity in Semantic Change
Book Author: Richard B Dasher Elizabeth Closs Traugott
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Semantics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 13.1975

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Date: Tue, 23 Jul 2002 19:34:46 +0100 (BST)
From: Diana Lewis
Subject: Review: Traugott & Dasher (2001) Regularity in Semantic Change

Traugott, Elizabeth C., and Richard B. Dasher (2001) Regularity in Semantic Change. Cambridge University Press, hardback ISBN 0-52-158378-0, xx+341p, GBP 45, Cambridge Studies in Linguistics 96.

Diana Lewis, University of Oxford.

REGULARITY IN SEMANTIC CHANGE (RSC) focuses on the semantic-pragmatic interface. Traugott and Dasher (T&D) defend the position that there are cross-linguistic unidirectional tendencies in semantic change, at least in certain domains, and that internal semantic change largely occurs as the conventionalization of implicature. A further claim is that speakers/writers are the key innovators (implicatures are controlled by the speaker/writer), hence the name of the theory proposed: the 'Invited Inferencing Theory of Semantic Change' (IITSC). The major type of semantic change is claimed to be subjectification.

The emphasis is on "meaning changes that are primarily linguistic and that have implications for constraints on lexical insertion or grammatical function" (p. 11). Evidence is presented from the areas (broadly construed) of modality and deixis. The historical developments of modal verbs, discourse markers, performative verbs and social deixis are charted, the examples being mainly from English and Japanese.

No target audience is mentioned, but the book seems suitable for advanced undergraduate or postgraduate students with some background in language change and pragmatics.

Claims for unidirectional tendencies in semantic change have frequently been made in studies of grammaticalization. Traugott, in previous work, has examined the development of English discourse markers from a grammaticalization perspective (e.g. Traugott 1995). RSC argues that although "the greatest degree of semantic regularity has so far been found in conceptual structures the lexemes of which are typically associated with grammaticalization" (p. 3), regularity in semantic change is not limited to grammaticalizing lexemes. Regular patterns of semantic change are also found in other domains, "especially lexemes that are verbal and (in relevant languages) adjectival or adverbial" (ibid.). T&D do not dwell on the likely distinctions between the typical developments in these categories and those in nouns (or why nouns might be "particularly susceptible to extralinguistic factors" (p.4)), but they keep the focus of this book firmly on verbal and adverbial development.

The IITSC is set out in the first chapter. Assuming a broadly cognitive view of language, and drawing in part on ideas from prototype theory and construction grammar, the IITSC aims to account for the semanticization of pragmatic implicatures. It focuses on the fact that "online-production and processing make use of essentially syntagmatic relations and associations" (p. 9), and posits that associative, metonymic relationships are more important in change than metaphorical, analogical ones. In simplified terms, the model has speakers/writers exploiting invited inferences and re-weighting implicatures to the point where a lexeme acquires a stable utterance-type meaning (Levinson 2000), i.e. a default, though defeasible, interpretation in a context type. This utterance-type meaning can then semanticize into a new sense, Meaning(2), alongside Meaning(1). The path is: Coded meaning > utterance-token meanings > utterance-type (pragmatically polysemous) meaning > new coded meaning (and so semantic polysemy). The mechanisms of such changes are said to be language-external, in that they are processes of reasoning by speakers/writers (p. 40).

There follows (ch. 2) an overview of prior and current approaches to semantic change, from Bréal's still-influential categories of pejoration, amelioration, contagion, etc. through to recent work in historical pragmatics. From the early twentieth century, T&D draw particular attention to work on change within semantic fields. From more recent research, they focus on analyses of metaphor and metonymy by scholars of grammaticalization, on studies of subjectification, and on the formulation of neo-Gricean pragmatic principles and the relevance of these to semantic change. In particular, they build on Horn's neo-Gricean principles to argue for a 'Q[uantity]-heuristic ('make your contribution sufficient', implying 'at most p'), an R[elevance]-heuristic ('say no more than you must', implying 'at least p'), and an M[anner]-heuristic ('avoid prolixity/marked expression - marked situation'). It is application of the R-heuristic, they suggest, that can result in semantic change of the type discussed in this book.

The development in some modal verbs of epistemic meanings from deontic meanings is described in detail in the next chapter. T&D present case studies of the development of English 'must' (from ability/permission through obligation to epistemic uses), English 'ought to' (from possession 'have' through obligation to epistemic uses), and Chinese 'de' (from 'obtain' through ability/permission to implied epistemic possibility). All these developments evidence a tendency towards more speaker-oriented meaning, and so greater subjectification. The forms' acquisition of modal meaning also involves acquiring 'procedural meaning' in addition to 'content meaning'.

The next case study is the development of adverbials with discourse marking functions. Analyses of 'indeed', 'in fact', and 'actually' show how the semantic development of each (manner or similar meaning > epistemic meaning > elaborative or clarificatory connective) is paralleled by its syntactic development involving ever-increasing scope (VP-internal adverbial > sentential adverbial > clause-external discourse marker). 'Well' and 'let's' then further exemplify the development of or extension of intersubjective meaning. Finally, Japanese 'sate', which signals a topic shift or acts as a hedge, shows a historical trajectory from manner ('thus') to causal connective, topic-shift marker, 'exclamatory lexeme', and, nowadays, a formulaic expression marking the start of the body of a letter. In all these cases, subjective and often intersubjective meanings develop out of more objective, 'content' meanings.

Chapter 5 describes the development of performative verbs and constructions from non-performatives. Typical sources for performative verbs are terms relating to visual perception, vocalization, mental states and object manipulation. Detailed histories are given, again emphasizing subjectification of meaning, of English 'promise', Chinese 'bao' ('defend' > 'defend verbally' > 'guarantee') and Japanese 'aisatu' ('move physically' > 'question-and-answer' > 'answer' > 'greeting').

The last main chapter deals with the development of social deictics. The history of Japanese provides good sources of data here, since "there has been an almost complete turnover in the large inventories of Jp. predicate honorifics and SD [social deictic] pronouns" (p. 242). Honorifics are typically recruited from among six main types of non-honorific predicates. Moreover, it is 'referent honorifics' (which encode the status of the participants in the described event) which are recruited, and which may then give rise to 'addressee honorifics' (which encode the status of the participants in the speech event), not vice versa. Case histories include Japanese 'kudasaru' ('[respectful] give [to speaker/writer]') and 'saburahu>sooroo' ('[polite] be').

Regularities in semantic change are hard to pin down. Ullmann described how, following Bréal, in the 1880s-1930s period, scholars set out to discover laws of semantic change, and to establish taxonomies of change. But "the quest for 'laws' met with very limited success, and the classificatory zeal resulted in a number of ambitious schemes built on slender empirical data" (Ullmann 1962: 196). Slender empirical data can still be a problem. The past two decades, however, have seen a renewal of interest in both semantics and language change. Typological studies and grammaticalization studies have both provided an impetus for a new look at the possibility of universal pathways or tendencies in meaning change. RSC can be seen as a product of such impetus.

In past discussions of semantic change, perhaps too little attention has been paid to (a) the notion that different types (entities, attributes, predicates) or semantic domains may tend to undergo different kinds of change by different kinds of mechanism, and (b) the relevance to semantic change of the context types (both textual and communicative) in which lexemes regularly occur. RSC takes both into account. Moreover, many of the difficulties inherent in interpreting the sorts of data with which historical pragmaticists have to work are acknowledged and discussed. RSC assembles an extremely valuable range of case histories of lexical semantic change and builds a persuasive argument for the importance of the role of discourse context in semantic change, and for gradual metonymic extension.

One objection to the IITSC might be that the theory is not properly predictive. But such predictability is not the aim. As Harris & Campbell point out, "That the fact of change is not fully predictable does not entail either that change is random or that the limits of change cannot be stated" (1995: 6). The claims of RSC are about what kinds of internal change are most likely to occur, should change occur, and by what mechanisms. Internal (cognitive, psycholinguistic) and external (socio-political) pressures for change may conflict. The main claim is that semantic change is not random, but is subject to identifiable regular pressures which, when they prevail over other, ad hoc pressures, lead to greater subjectivity of meaning, by the gradual semanticization of pragmatic inferences resulting from speaker/writer intention.

Another, more substantive, possible objection concerns frequency. Claims about regularities in change are necessarily statistical claims. The unidirectional argument is an argument about the relative frequency of particular semantic pathways, yet the statistical significance of the changes discussed is not addressed in RSC. Ultimately, for such generalized claims about change to be upheld, it will be necessary to clarify what the semantic change population is and what sampling is appropriate. This difficulty is perhaps a weakness of the semasiological approach. The data are persuasive, but by electing to examine the histories of small groups of 'successful' expressions belonging synchronically to certain modal, subjective areas of meaning, and without any quantification, it is hard to reach firm conclusions about semantic change in general. The same applies to the claim that, at the level of individual lexemes, it is 'preferred strategies' of speakers/writers that lead to semantic change, since this is presumably a claim about frequency of strategy.

Occasionally, the reader feels that categories are in danger of becoming blurred. Four main pragmatic-semantic diachronic regularities are proposed in RSC: (1) -subjective > +subjective (2) contentful > procedural (3) increase in scope (4) +truth-conditional > -truth-conditional. This implies a semantic theory that posits at least these four parameters of meaning. However, T&D do not claim they are necessarily independent of each other (p. 284), and in fact their status and inter-relations warrant further investigation and clarification. 'Procedural meanings', for example, are described as "primarily indexical of speaker/writer's attitude to the discourse and the participants in it; they index metatextual relations between propositions or between propositions and the non-linguistic context" (p. 10). But it is not quite clear what the evidence is for the binary distinction, nor whether contentful and procedural meanings are assumed to have different cognitive qualities, nor exactly how 'procedural' relates to 'metatextual' or 'subjective' or even to 'pragmatic', with which it seems sometimes to overlap (e.g., 'contentful meaning' is also contrasted with 'pragmatic meaning' (p. 96)). Overall, it is not immediately obvious that the contentful/procedural distinction is necessary or useful to the main arguments of RSC. There is also some uncertainty over the status of subjectification, which is described in the conclusion as "the main mechanism of semantic change" (p. 279), when previous chapters had seemed to argue that subjectification was a type of semantic change.

We need many more detailed, quantitative analyses across time of lexical tokens in their textual and communicative contexts. This is a task that future studies in historical pragmatics, using large historical corpora, should have much to contribute to. Meanwhile, RSC is a most valuable contribution towards addressing this vast gap in our understanding of language, and towards a better understanding of the complexities of lexical semantic change.

The book's authors and purchasers deserve better editing. Many of the otherwise excellent figures are positioned to cause reader confusion and annoyance. Several are even printed, quite unnecessarily, in different chapter sections from the ones they relate to. And the page listings in the general index are incomplete and inaccurate. No doubt these flaws will be amended in subsequent printings.

Harris, A. C. & Campbell, L. (1995) Historical Syntax in Cross-Linguistic Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Levinson, S. C. (2000). Presumptive Meanings: The theory of generalized conversational implicature. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Traugott, E. C. (1995) 'The role of the development of discourse markers in a theory of grammaticalization'. Paper presented at the Twelfth International Conference on Historical Linguistics, Manchester, August 1995.

Ullmann, S. (1962) Semantics. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER Diana Lewis has research interests in lexical semantics and pragmatics, language change and variation, corpus linguistics and contrastive linguistics.

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