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Review of  Regularity in Semantic Change

Reviewer: Rolf Michael Kreyer
Book Title: Regularity in Semantic Change
Book Author: Richard B Dasher Elizabeth Closs Traugott
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 17.192

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Date: Fri, 13 Jan 2006 14:42:00 +0100
From: Rolf Kreyer
Subject: Regularity in Semantic Change

AUTHORS: Traugott, Elizabeth C.; Dasher, Richard B.
TITLE: Regularity in Semantic Change
SERIES: Cambridge Studies in Linguistics 97
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2005

Rolf Kreyer, Institut für Anglistik, Amerikanistik und Keltologie,
Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn, Germany

[A review of the first edition of this book, published in 2001, appears in -- Eds.]

The book by Traugott and Dasher aims to show that semantic change
can be described with reference to predictable unidirectional paths of
change. In particular, the authors argue for an 'Invited Inferencing
Theory of Semantic Change' (IITSC), the prime objective of which
is ''to account for the conventionalization of pragmatic meanings and
their reanalysis as semantic meanings.'' (35) Semantic change, thus,
is seen as a product of language use. Accordingly, the authors make
extensive use of contextualized data from diachronic corpora of
(mainly) English and Japanese spanning over more than one
thousand years to provide evidence for their claims.

The book is divided into six main chapters: the first gives an overview
of the general framework underlying the findings of the authors.
Chapter two discusses relevant previous and current work on
semantic change. The following four chapters are detailed case
studies relating to different areas of linguistic description, namely
modal verbs, adverbials with discourse marker function, performative
verbs and constructions, and social deictics. The book concludes with
a summary of the major findings and with some directions for future

Chapter one describes in detail the aim of the whole book. The
authors start off with the observation that ''the direction of semantic
change is often highly predictable, not only within a language but also
cross-linguistically.'' (4) To account for such regularities, the authors
suggest an Invited Inferencing Theory of Semantic Change' (IITSC),
which roughly can be sketched as follows: At the basis of semantic
change is the individual who makes innovative use of a particular word
with a particular coded meaning by exploiting 'invited inferences' ''in
associated streams of speech.'' (38) Such a particular utterance token
thus is used to convey a meaning by the speaker/writer which differs
from the original coded meaning. If this meaning persists in the speech
community and is also used by other speakers/writers the invited
inference will become a 'generalized invited inference': although the
original meaning is still the dominant one, an additional meaning
based on the invited inference is associated with the word. Once the
original meaning recedes to certain contexts or disappears altogether,
the generalized invited inference has become semanticized as a new
coded meaning of the word.

Basic to the authors' understanding of semantic change are the
notions of 'subjectivity' and 'intersubjectivity.' The former refers to the
explicit encoding of the ''SP/W's [speaker/writer's] point of view, for
example in deixis, modality, and marking of discourse strategies. [...
The latter] is most usefully thought of in parallel with subjectivity: as
the explicit, coded expression of SP/W's attention to the image
or ''self'' of AD/R [addressee/reader] in a social or epistemic sense, for
example, in honorification.'' (21-2)

The main mechanism underlying semantic change, according to the
authors, is subjectification, i.e. the development of meaning
components in lexemes that increase subjectivity, or, in the authors'
words ''the semasiological process whereby the SP/Ws
[speakers/writers] come over time to develop meanings for Ls
[lexemes] that encode or externalize their perspectives and attitudes
as constrained by the communicative world of the speech event,
rather than by the so-called ''real-world'' characteristics of the event or
situation referred to.'' (30)

This mechanism also accounts for one of four general tendencies in
semantic change, namely the development from non-subjective to
subjective to intersubjective meanings, i.e. from meanings that merely
express a particular state of the extralinguistic world, to meanings that
allow to express the speaker or writer's general point of view, to
meanings that serve to specifically express the speaker or writer's
attitude towards the hearer or reader or their needs.

The remaining three paths of semantic change are from truth-
conditional to non-truth conditional meaning, from contentful to
procedural meaning, and from meanings that only have scope within
the proposition to meanings that have scope over the whole
discourse. The figure below summarizes these four pragmatic-
semantic tendencies in semantic change (note that this diagram
should only be read horizontally, not vertically; s-w: scope within, s-o:
scope over) (cf. Traugott & Dasher 2005: 40):

nonsubjective > subjective > intersubjective
truth conditional > non-truth-conditional
content > content/procedural > procedural
s-w proposition > s-o proposition > s-o discourse

It is important to note, though, that not every lexeme has to undergo
these changes; each of the four lines of development are just possible
kinds of changes. However, ''if a lexeme with the appropriate
semantics undergoes change, it is probable that the change will be of
the type specified,'' (281) even though not every lexeme will undergo
all possible changes. In addition, the four paths are unidirectional, that
is a change in the opposite direction is usually ruled out. How these
general tendencies are instantiated in different semantic domains is
discussed in chapters three to six of the book. Before that, however,
in chapter 2 the authors discuss the scientific context in which their
model of semantic change is placed.

Chapter 2 gives a brief outline of previous and current research on
semantic change and discusses Bréal, major research of the early
twentieth century (Meillet, Bloomfield, Saussure, the concept of
semantic fields as discussed, among others, by Trier, Stern, or Berlin
and Kay) and contemporary approaches, such as studies on
metaphor, metonymy and invited inference, issues of grammicalization
and historical pragmatics. With regard to these different approaches
to semantic change, the authors consider their book to be ''a
contribution especially to the interface between historical pragmatics
and historical semantics, building on the various approaches [...]
sketched in [...] chapter [2], especially Neogricean pragmatics.'' (104)
Specifically, the authors contend that semantic change is dominated
by what Horn (1984) has formulated as the R[elevance]-heuristic,
i.e. ''say/write no more than you must, and mean more thereby'': ''[T]he
R-heuristic leads to change because it evokes utterance meanings
beyond what is said; in other words, it involves ''pragmatic
strengthening''.'' (19)

Chapter three presents three case studies on the development of
modal auxiliaries and particles, namely English 'must' and 'ought to'
and Chinese 'de'. Of the more general paths of semantic change
posited in chapter one, the authors find the following instantiations in
the semantic change of modal verbs (cf. Traugott & Dasher 2005:

premodal > deontic > epistemic
content > content/procedural
s-w proposition > s-o proposition
deontic-nonsubjective > deontic-subjective
epistemic-nonsubjective > epistemic-subjective

As an example of the first path consider the discussion of the
development of 'must'. In OE 'must' or 'mot-' usually had the meaning
of ability or permission, as for instance in (1):
(1) (c. 880 Boethius 5, 12.12 [Traugott & Dasher 2005: 123])
Mot ic nu cunnian hwon þinre fæstrædnesse, ...
''May I now inquire a little about your fortitude, ...''

In later OE and EarlyME 'mot-' acquired an additional deontic meaning
(2) (c. 1000 AECHom I, 17 (App) 182.240 [Traugott & Dasher 2005:
we moton eow secgan eowre sawle þearfe, licige eow ne licige eow.
''we must tell you about your soul's need, whether it please you or not.''

The epistemic use of 'must' occurs sporadically already in LateOE and
ME. A fully semanticized and regular epistemic use, however, does
not occur before the EarlyMdE period.

(3) (1586 Apr. 30, Dudley [Traugott & Dasher 2005: 129])
... surely his expences cannott be lytle, albeyt his grefe must be more
to have no countenance at all but his own estate.
''... surely his expenses can't be small, although it must be an even
greater grief to him that he has no standing other than his own

In chapter 4 the authors analyse case studies on the development of
adverbials in discourse marker function. Three classes are discussed:
(1) discourse markers that signal local connectivity, i.e. between
utterances, (2) discourse markers that have developed intersubjective
meaning, i.e. that explicitly mark the speaker's or writer's attention to
the addressee, and (3) discourse markers that signal global
connectivity, i.e. that serve discourse structuring purposes on a more
global level. As to the first group, the authors discuss
English 'indeed,' 'in fact,' and 'actually,' and find that all three
underwent similar changes in the history of English, namely a
development from clause-internal adverbial to epistemic sentential
adverbial to discourse marker. As examples of discourse markers with
intersubjective meanings English 'well' and 'let's' are discussed. With
the former, for instance, Traugott & Dasher find a widening of contexts
in which 'well' in discourse marker function occurs: ''At first it is
anchored in the speech of others than the narrator; then it comes to
be preempted to the narrator/speaker/writer's perspective, and finally
it develops meanings with strong orientation to AD/R's [addressee's or
reader's] face.'' (176) A similar increase in intersubjectivity is also
shown for 'let's'.

In addition, however, 'let's' has also undergone ''a shift from content
meanings based in argument structure at the clausal level to
pragmatic procedural meanings based in argument structure at the
discourse level.'' (177) The final case study in chapter 4 involves
Japanese 'sate': it originates in a clause-internal adverbial function
(similar to English 'thus') and gradually extents scope over the whole
clause and, finally, over larger portions of the discourse.
Concomitantly, the authors claim, an increase in subjectification is also
given which eventually leads to an increase in intersubjective meaning
when 'sate' serves as a hedging device and as an epistolary formula.
The findings on adverbials with discourse-marker function, again, are
summarized in four correlated paths of directionality in semantic
development (cf. Traugott & Dasher 2005: 187):
Adverb(manner) > Adverb(adversative) > Adverb(elaboration) > Adverb hedge
content > content/procedural > procedural
s-w propostion > s-o proposition > s-o discourse
nonsubjective > subjective > intersubjective

The next series of case studies in chapter 5 concerns the
development of performative verbs and constructions, in particular
directives and declaratives. As an example of the first, the authors
consider the semantic changes in the English verb 'promise.' The
verb ''seems to have been coined from the noun'' (205), which,
borrowed from Latin shortly after 1400, had a spatial meaning, i.e. ''a
promise was something ''sent forward''.'' (205) The verb 'promise'
seems to have undergone changes along two paths: it is likely to have
been used performatively when introducing sentential complements in
the first person present tense. This shows an increase in subjectivity
since ''it expresses the speaker's approbation of authority as an actor
attempting to match world to word.'' (209) A further change leads to
the use of the verb as epistemic parenthetical in LateME:

(4) (1469 Paston I, 542 [Traugott & Dasher 2005: 207])
He losyth sore hys tyme her, I promyse yow.
''he is wasting his time badly here, actually.''

This use also is an instance of intersubjectification ''since it explicitly
pays attention to AD/R's [addressee's or reader's] image needs in the
here and now of the speech event. [... It acknowledges] at the
discourse level that AD/R might have doubts about SP/W's message.''
(209) In contrast to this use of the verb, the second path of change is
most frequent in third-person contexts. The first change is that to an
epistemic meaning of the verb, i.e. ''portend'', a change that also
shows an increase in subjectivity since it makes an explicit statement
about the belief-state of the speaker. This use, again, seems ''to be a
precursor for the development in the eighteenth century of
nonperformative raising uses with nonfinite complements,'' as in
example (5):

(5) (1700 Congreve, Way of the World, Act I [Traugott & Dasher 2005:
I have seen him. He promises to be an extraordinary person;

One of two examples of declaratives discussed in this book is
Japanese 'aisatu', which ''entered Japanese as a Zen term for a
particular type of religious training that involved speech events.'' (219)
A first change in meaning, namely that from ''question and answer''
to ''answer'', according to the authors, is indicative of subjectification.
The final change is its associations ''with the speech act of ''greeting,''
apparently first as an indirect way of describing this act and more
recently as a declarative performative to name a particular speech act
as one of greetings.'' (219) This, in the view of the authors, shows an
increase in intersubjectification. As a summary of their findings the
authors name the following paths of semantic change (cf. Traugott &
Dasher 2005: 225):

Pre-speech-act-verb > speech-act-verb > performative > parenthetical
content > content/procedural > procedural
s-w proposition > s-o proposition > s-o discourse
nonsubjective > subjective > intersubjective

The final set of case studies involves the development of social
deictics, which ''directly encod[e...] within their semantic structures the
conceptualized relative social standing (superiority/inferiority, (non)
intimacy, in-group versus out-group status, etc.) of a participant either
in the CDE [conceptualized described event] or in the CSE
[conceptualized speech event] by ''pointing'' to that social standing
from the deictic ground (perspective) of SP/W relative to AD/R and
other elements of the CSE.'' (226) In the centre of the authors'
observations stand a subclass of social deictics, namely referent and
addressee honorifics for Japanese predicate items (verbs, adjectives
and copula). The semantic development of these seems to
encompass four distinct stages:
-- These honorifics usually start off as nonhonorific lexemes
without any social deictic meaning component and are only concerned
with the conceptualized described event (CDE). (Stage 1)
-- This is the referent honorific stage: Lexemes on this stage
are still primarily concerned with the described event, but they have
acquired an additional social deictic meaning. As a consequence, the
world of the conceptualized speech event (CSE) 'informs', i.e.
interacts and enriches, the described event, because the deictic
pointing realized in the referent honorific ''is made from a grounding in
the CSE, namely SP/W's conceptualization of his or her status vis-à-
vis AD/R.'' (236) (Stage 2)
-- Some of these referent honorifics may develop into
addressee honorific lexemes (Stage 3),
-- and even further into addressee honorific affixes. (Stage 4)

The difference between the first and the last two stages lies in their
dependence vs. independence from the described event: while
referent honorifics ''point to the social standing of at least
one ''referent,'' i.e. participant in the CDE, addressee honorifics
directly encode the social deictic positioning of AD/R relative to SP/W
independently of their possible roles in the CDE.'' (240) The difference
between the two kinds of addressee honorific elements lies in the fact
that the first still retains non-social-deictic meaning which continues to
inform the conceptualized described event. With addressee honorific
affixes, however, the non-social-deictic component does not interact
with the described event but ''is procedural rather than contentful: it
plays a role in the marking of discourse structure by orienting the
utterance in which it appears to the ongoing discourse [...].'' (241) The
kinds of lexemes that undergo the change from stage 1 to stage 2
point to the conclusion that although ''[m]any of these patterns of
semantic change may appear to represent metaphoric shifts across
conceptual domains [...] it is consistently the case that new predicate
honorifics in Japanese develop from those L[exeme]s and
constructions that index social status marking as a GIIN [generalized
invited inference].'' (244) In addition, the authors claim that the rise of
social deictic meaning ''intrinsically involves the development of
procedural meaning'' (245), subjectification and intersubjectification.

Summing up, Traugott & Dasher again posit four correlated paths of
semantic development in social deictics, where RefHon = Referent
honorific, AddHon = Adressee honorific (cf. Traugott & Dasher 2005:

pre-honorific > RefHon > lexical AddHon > affixal AddHon
informs CDE > CDE/(CSE) > CSE/(CDE) > CSE
content > content/procedural > procedural
nonsubjective > coded subjectivity > coded intersubjectivity


The appeal and the strength of Traugott and Dasher's book, in my
view, lies in the central role that the authors ascribe to language use,
pragmatic considerations and principles, and the speaker or writer
as ''the prime negotiator (with the AD/R) of reference and of meaning
in general [...].'' (7) This focus on actual language use and,
consequently, the discussion of contextualized data allow the authors
to investigate the influence of invited inference in processes of
semantic change, which eventually leads to the formulation of the
model of the Invited Inference Theory of Semantic Change (IITSC).

In addition to emphasizing the importance of language use in semantic
change, and in addition to providing a convincing explanation of
semantic change, a further merit of this study is the identification of
regular correlated paths of semantic change. These generalizations
are interesting and insightful and provide testable hypotheses for
future research.

The evidence the authors adduce to substantiate their claims is
usually convincing, and the wealth and range (as regards aspects of
the linguistic system as well as languages) of examples is very
impressive. However, one has to keep in mind, that the authors
provide 'only' a set of case studies. That is the authors manage to
show that for some lexemes, semantic change can be explained by
IITSC. They leave open, however, how these findings relate to other
lexemes of the respective semantic domains, i.e. what is the
proportion of instances of semantic change in one domain that can be
explained by IITSC? It would have been interesting to have an
exhaustive analysis of, say, all modal verbs in English to see if the
mechanisms and paths the authors describe can also account for
other tokens. This would help to substantiate their claim that ''if a
lexeme with the appropriate semantics undergoes change, it is
probable that the change will be of the type specified.'' (281) A further
point of criticism concerns the sparseness of frequency data in the
study (sections 6.4 and 6.5 being notable exceptions). Since the
authors make use, for instance, of the Helsinki Corpus it would have
been useful to provide information on the distribution of the different
meanings over time. In particular, a more extensive use of corpus data
would have been helpful in describing the step from invited inference
to generalized invited inference. What are the possible contexts that
allow an invited inference of a particular kind, and do all of these
contexts lead to the development of generalized invited inferences?
Information on these aspects would definitely have made this study
still more convincing. So, although the study is based on corpus data,
it is not a corpus-study in the strict sense: the corpora used, for the
most part, do not seem to have been analysed exhaustively but rather
been used as a convenient source for illustrative examples.

Another remark concerns the 'balancing' of languages in the case
studies within the different semantic domains. The first three sets of
case studies, i.e. discussion of modal verbs, adverbials with discourse
marker function and performative verbs and constructions are
primarily concerned with English data, although some information on
Chinese and/or Japanese data is also given. The analysis of social
deictics, in contrast, heavily draws on Japanese data and only
provides supplementary analyses of English examples. A more
balanced choice of material would have made the cross-linguistic
relevance of the authors' finding even clearer.

A final note should be made with regard to the fact that some of the
case studies in this book are based on earlier publications of the
authors: those that are familiar with the works of Traugott and Dasher,
therefore, will find less new information (although still enough!) in this
book than those which are unfamiliar with the authors previous work.

On the whole, the book by Traugott and Dasher is a highly stimulating
and interesting read, which, on the basis of a large range of
examples, provides an innovative and convincing analysis of semantic
change. Particularly appealing is the book's focus on language use
and pragmatic mechanisms. This, in my view, is a very promising
approach to semantic change, and it is hoped that further research
along these lines will be conducted.


Horn, Laurence R. 1984. Toward a new taxonomy for pragmatic
inference: Q-based and R-based implicature. In D. Schiffrin (ed.),
Meaning, Form, and Use in Context: Linguistic Applications;
Georgetown University Round Table '84, 11-42. Washington DC:
Georgetown University Press.

Rolf Kreyer is an Assistant Professor of Modern English Linguistics in
the department of English, American and Celtic Studies of the
University of Bonn, Germany. His research interests include corpus
linguistics, syntax, and text linguistics. He is the author of "Inversion in
Modern Written English. Syntactic Complexity, Information Status and
the Creative Writer", which will soon be published by Gunter Narr. At
present he is working on a corpus-linguistic study that aims to analyse
the interaction of language use and grammar.

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