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Review of  From Polysemy to Semantic Change

Reviewer: Cinzia Citarrella
Book Title: From Polysemy to Semantic Change
Book Author: Martine Vanhove
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Semantics
Issue Number: 21.3510

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EDITOR: Vanhove, Martine
TITLE: From Polysemy to Semantic Change
SUBTITLE: Towards a Typology of Lexical Semantic Associations
SERIES: Studies in Language Companion Series, 106
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins Publishing Company
YEAR: 2008

Cinzia Citarrella, Department of Linguistics, University of Palermo, Italy


This volume, edited by Martine Vanhove, is a collection of papers connected to a
project carried out by the French CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche
Scientifique) in 2002. The focus is on a typology of semantic associations,
particularly polysemy, and the interrelated semantic changes, following a trend
in lexical studies during these past years (Koptjevskaya Tamm et al., 2007).

The book is divided into three parts: a state of the art report, theoretical and
methodological issues, and a series of case studies.

In the foreword the editor outlines the structure of the book and the topics of
the contributions. The first part, ''State of the art,'' comprises only paper by
Maria Koptjevskaya Tamm, who discusses lexical studies within modern typological
research. The author explores the type of meaning that can and cannot be
expressed by a single word, the type of meaning that can be expressed by one and
the same lexeme or by words derivationally related to each other, and the
cross-linguistic patterns that exist in lexicon-grammar interaction. She
analyses two opposite positions in the research on the questions of whether or
not lexical meaning non-linguistic shared cognition and if it is based on
universal categorization relative to basic concepts and situations. The
cross-linguistic diversity is shown by analysing data and methodology of many
works concerning universal common features and human experiences such as body,
colours, perception or motion (Brown 2005a, 2005b; Nerlove & Romney 1967,
Wälchli 2006). The author highlights the difficulty in translating many meanings
when precise semantic identity is required. Many universal concepts are not
complete lexical universals: some languages, for instance, do not lexicalize the
meaning of ‘to taste’ or ‘to touch’ or ‘to smell’ individually, meaning that
there are words which designate a general or multimodal perception. In some
languages, many basic words are polysemous: The lexeme for ‘hand’ may also
include the meaning of ‘arm,’ and in a variety of languages, as Samoan and
Turkana, the word for 'hand' includes the meaning ‘five,’ while in other
languages, such as Estonian or Kono, it also means ‘possession.’ Semantic
variation in different languages is also revealed by a discrepancy in
grammatical behaviour: The lexicon has an important role also in grammar
insomuch as many grammatical phenomena can be viewed as lexical. For instance,
verbal categories concerning aspect and tense are strictly connected to the
semantic values of the verbs and are subjected to linguistic variability.
Count-mass distinction, collectives, singular and pluralia tantum are also
linguistic variable issues concerning category of nouns.
The author also discusses methodological problems concerning the field of
lexical typology, especially with regard to new methods of data collection and
the achievement of an adequate consensus on the meta-language concerning
semantic features.

Part two, ''Theoretical and methodological issues'', contains seven studies that
explore different aspects of the theory and methodology of lexical typology
research. In the first paper, ''Words and their meaning: principles of variation
and stabilization,'' Stéphane Robert deals with the plasticity of natural
languages. He discusses if polysemy and polyreference are general rules across
languages. He analyzes the different ways in which meaning is construed and the
interlinguistic variability regarding the meaning of a word not being limited to
its referential value. Despite the existence of universal domains such as human
body, different languages and cultures segment reality in different ways: In
French or Italian, for instance, there is only one word to express 'toes' and
'fingers' ('doigts' and 'dita,' respectively). The polyreference of certain
terms is a feature of all languages. The same word is used to designate
different things with common characteristics. In French the word 'un bleu'
(literally, 'a blue'), for example, has a lot of referents such as a kind of
cheese, a beginner, or a bruise. Robert then focuses on intra-linguistic
variability, analyzing the detectable lexical networks and semantic variation by
metaphor and metonymy as cognitive mechanisms. These mechanisms generate
polysemy, increasing the expressive potential of languages, but also ambiguity.
For instance the word 'nú' in Gbaya designates the active part of an element but
it is also used metaphorically for the tip of the pin, the edge of a field or
the opening of a basket. Nonetheless, the situational context aids to activate
determined areas of knowledge base and avoid misunderstandings. In a discourse
situation, the reference frame is built through a dynamic process with different
mechanisms, such as application domains, semantic isotopics, contextual
linkages; all these mechanisms allow the stabilization of unit and sentence meaning.

In the second paper, ''The typology of semantic affinities,'' Bernard Pottier
shows how semantic affinities may be the result of meaning divergence, but also
convergence, i.e. respectively, polysemy or parasemy. A sign is called
'polysemic' when it has several values as the English word 'file,' which
designates a tool but also a folder, or 'plane,' which means 'aircraft' or a
typology of tree or a particular tool. Sharing common values among several signs
is called 'parasemy': The English verbs 'to grow', 'to increase' and 'to
raise,'. for example, show parasemy because they share the general meaning ‘to
go towards the +.’ The author presents a variety of cross-linguistic data and
dynamic graphs to visualize the semantic relationships between terms embodied in
texts. Polysemy and parasemy are grounded on different parameters: Polysemy is
connected to cultural habits, to the domains of instantiation a term is applied
to, to different synaesthetic fields, to mental schemas, used both by the sender
and the receiver; parasemy may be connected to different phenomena, like
polysemiosis, semiotization and co-hyponymy and co-semy.

Peter Koch's paper, ''Cognitive onomasiology and lexical change. Around the eye,''
looks at semantic change from a diachronic perspective and attempts to verify
cross-linguistic and polygenetic semantic parallels that are based not on
language affinities or cultural contacts, but on cognitive constants. In
particular, he analyses the evolution of words in the domain of 'eye,'
'eyebrow,' 'eyelid,' 'eyeball,' and 'eyelash' by detecting various cognitive

Neiloufar Family, in her study ''Mapping semantic spaces. A constructionist
account of the 'light verb' 'xordoen' 'eat' in Persian,'' analyses the semantic
space of the Persian light verb 'xordoen.' Through this analysis she makes a
semantic map of regularities in semantic spaces. In Persian, light verb
constructions are not fully compositional, as the meaning of the whole does not
derive from the meaning of the parts. The features of preverbal elements
activate certain meanings of light verbs creating an entirely different meaning,
even if motivated, if compared to the meaning of each component: For instance,
the term 'soemsir xordoen' means 'to be stabbed by a sword,' but its literary
meaning is 'sword eat.' The same verb 'xordoen' has also other meanings related
to being affected, suffering, exploiting, and being agitated as in the
expressions 'voesle-pine xordoen' ('to be patched up'), 'giji xordoen' ('to get
dizzy'), 'resve xordoen' ('to accept a bribe') or 'vul xordoen' ('to fidget').

In the paper ''Semantic maps and the typology of colexification. Intertwining
polysemous networks across languages,'' Alexandre François's aim is to discuss
methodological issues of a model in lexical typology, based on the model of
Semantic Maps (Croft 2001; Haspelmath 2003). The author proposes a contrastive
analysis of polysemous lexemes in different languages (African languages,
English, Classical Greek, Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Sanskrit, Latin) relating
to the notion of 'breathe' making use of semantic maps. François proposes a
table to recapitulate, for the corpus of each language, the set of other senses
to which the universal notion of ‘breathe’ is colexified, as ‘take a rest,’
‘blow,’ ‘take a vacation,’ ‘whisper,’ and so on. He gives a diagram that shows
all the semantic values for ‘breathe’ in the analyzed languages and the semantic
connections between them. Finally, for each language, he selects particular
subsets, the so-called “isolectic sets” (p. 186), from all the potential values.
His analysis reveals that, even if each polysemous lexeme is language-specific,
individual pairings of colexified senses can be compared across languages. His
data show that it is possible to identify some semantic universals in the
lexicon and that cross-linguistic variation is not infinite, but limited to a
range of possible cases.

Anna Zalizniak's paper, ''A catalogue of semantic shifts. Towards a typology of
semantic derivation,'' reflects some results of the work realized in the
Institute of Linguistics at the Russian Academy of Sciences under the
supervision of the author. She proposes a catalogue of synchronic and diachronic
semantic shifts that occurred in different languages and at different times,
which reveals samples of semantic derivation. The author suggests using these
data as criterion in linguistic reconstruction, as a basis for semantic
typology, and as a linguistic evidence to analyze cognitive processes.

The last paper of the second part of the volume, ''Semantic associations and
confluences in paradigmatic networks,'' is by Bruno Gaume, Karine Duvignau and
Martine Vanhove. The authors propose a method of analysis to distinguish
universal and non-universal semantic groupings. Their work is based on the
hypothesis that the paradigmatic diagrams, i.e. the graphs that show the
synonymic relations between words, of all natural languages, are hierarchically
structured small worlds. The authors present an algorithm, Prox, which
calculates the confluence between two vertices, which are words, so that it is
possible to quantify the semantic groupings of lexical units for a given
language. According to the hypothesis of the universal structure of paradigmatic
graphs, it is possible to conduct a semi-automatic and systematic research on
cross-linguistic semantic associations based on paradigmatic graphs.

The third (and last) part of the book includes six case studies focused on
cross-linguistic analyses relating to different languages and semantic domains.

In the first paper, ''About 'Eating' in a few Niger-Congo languages,'' Emilio
Bonvini deals with the ‘eating’ semantic domain in Niger-Congo languages and the
range of meaning related to it. Even though eating is a physiological experience
of all humans, the semantic domain is also used for other experiences, not only
''controlled activities,'' but also ''undergone activities'' (p. 282). The term
'eat' can be considered a possible linguistic universal as it denotes a
universal activity. On the other hand, 'eating' is a polysemous domain,
difficult to be translated as far as its polysemous value is not universal.

The second paper, ''Eating beyond certainties,'' is focused on the semantic domain
of eating as well. The analysis, both diachronic and synchronic, by Christine
Hénault, reveals the existence of parallelism concerning verbs with the meaning
of 'eat' and its hyponyms in Indo-European Languages and in classical Arabic,
Nahuatl, Mwotlap, and Inuit. These similarities concern not only concrete
aspects, but also cognitive, emotional and physical aspects related to 'eat.'
For instance, the French expression 'manger des yeux', literally 'eat eyes,'
means 'look avidly;' the Russian hyperonymic verb 'est' ('eat') is used in a
colloquial expression as 'Nu, cto sjel?', literally 'so, did you eat it?', which
means 'So, you got put in your place all right!'; in Mwotlap, 'eat' is
interpreted as 'burn' in expressions as 'N-em mino,' literally 'my house has
been entirely eaten,' expressing that the house has burnt down. The author
argues for the existence of universal semantic associations between the concepts
of eating, suffering, and tormenting, even though more data need are needed to
check it.

Pascal Boyeldieu's paper, ''From semantic change to polysemy. The cases of
'meat/animal' and 'drink','' is focused on affinities between the two concepts of
'meat'/'animal' and 'drink.' In many languages, such as English or French, the
concepts of meat and animal are distinct; by contrast, in several African
languages one polysemous term is used to cover both meanings. It is a diachronic
polysemy: The original meaning is 'meat' from which the meaning of 'animal'
derives. The term for 'drink' is also polysemous in several languages, but here
the author argues that it is a synchronic polysemy.

The forth paper, ''Is a 'friend' an enemy? Between 'proximity' and 'opposition',''
is by Sergueï Sakhno and Nicole Tersis. It describes isosemies, semantic
analogies between different languages, particularly Indo-European and
Eskimo-Aleut, for the semantic domain of 'friend.' The cross-linguistic
variation is analyzed both from a synchronic and diachronic perspective, through
etymological discussions. Although many cultural factors influence language,
some semantic associations seem to be shared: Data from the analyzed languages
reveal that the concept of 'friend' is usually associated with concepts of
duality, complementarity, and proximity. These semantic associations are
attested both in synchronously for several languages such as Russian or
Austronesian languages, and diachronously, as shown by etymological data from
old Indo-European languages.

In the paper, ''Semantic associations between sensory modalities, prehension and
mental perceptions. A crosslinguistic perspective,'' Martine Vanhove proposes a
synchronic and diachronic analysis of semantic associations between vision,
hearing, prehension, and mental perception in different languages (Afroasiatic,
Austronesian, Creole, Eskimo, Indo-European, Niger-Congo, Nilo-Saharan,
Sino-Tibetan) in order to investigate the possibility of cognitive universals.
The author proposes a typological classification of semantic associations
starting from the examination, for each lexical item, of the details of semantic
networks, morpho-syntactic frames, contextual uses, and historical data. The
study shows a hierarchical existence of physical senses. The auditory modality
prevails cross-linguistically; vision and prehension come next; it is not a
lexical universal that literacy privileges sight as opposed to hearing.

The last paper, ''Cats and bugs. Some remarks about semantic parallelism,'' deals
with the importance of anthropological and cultural features to explain semantic
parallelisms. Michel Masson focuses his attention on parallelisms associating
‘monkey’ and ‘cat’ with drunkenness and also ‘cat’, ‘monkey’, and ‘insects’ to
black mood and dreadful creatures. In different languages the name of the cat is
frequently used to designate other animals, such as civets, named 'gattozibetto'
in Italian and 'chat musqué' in French, or as leeches, named 'mignatta' in
Italian. Additionally, Spanish 'gato-paul' (‘long-tailed monkey’) or German
'Meerkatze' (‘sea cat’) indicate different kind of monkeys. The semantic
association between cats, insects, and monkeys has a cultural explanation as
cats and monkeys have long been considered devilish creatures and the contact of
insects with the earth makes them close to the world of the dead. Cats and
monkeys are also associated with depression and drunkenness, as revealed by
Portuguese 'engatado' (‘sickly’) or Spanish 'monicaco' (‘puny’): Mental
disturbances were considered as form of being possessed. The study aims at
showing that semantic parallelisms are not necessarily isolated, but rather,
that networks of connected semantic features exist.


This volume combines theoretical and practical discussions on polysemy and
semantic shift. The papers comprising the first two parts of the book are
focused on theory and methodology: principles of variation, stabilization,
semantic affinities and the model of semantic maps are illustrated and examined.
These studies are a good starting point for scholars who want to undertake
lexical analyses and lexical typology research.

The papers in the third part of the book offer a wide range of studies through
cross-linguistic data analyses. Despite linguistic variability, some semantic
shifts seem to be universal. For instance, semantic associations that link
vision, hearing, prehension, and mental perception are detectable in many
languages. It is worth noting the range of languages analyzed, from English to
African languages, Austronesian, Classical Greek, Creole, Eskimo, Latin,
Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Sanskrit, Sino-Tibetan. These are all very different
languages in terms of typology and history, and the conceptual patterns
connected with the socio-cultural elements are diverse as well.

These studies are good examples of linguistic analyses and suggest new input for
future studies on lexical typology. The semantic domains analyzed in the
proposed papers should be studied in other languages, and the collected data
examined in order to evaluate the possibility that some polysemic domains are
The topics developed in ''From Polysemy to Semantic Change'' are also quite
interesting from the perspective of language teaching. Polysemy is a very
important feature in language acquisition as it is a fundamental mechanism in
lexicon expansion and organization. Regardless of being in first, second or
foreign language acquisition, lexicon is relevant. The importance of lexicon has
been stressed in language teaching, in fact, many methods are based on expanding
students’ lexicon (Lewis, 1993). According to the Lexical Approach (Lewis,
1993), lexis plays a more dominant role in language teaching than it
traditionally has. Lexical semantics and semantic compositionality, polysemy and
figurative language are fundamental issues to expand the lexicon and improve
linguistic competence.

Overall, this edited volume is a fine reader for those who are interested in
applied linguistics and especially in language teaching and acquisition. The
conclusions of the various analyses reveal it is possible to distinguish common
features in semantic shifts in very diverse languages, from Indo-European
languages to Sino-Tibetan languages, from African languages to Finno-Ugric, etc.
The universal mechanisms underlying semantic change may be a helpful starting
point for developing a method to improve lexical competence.


Brown, C.H. 2005a. Hand and arm. In: Haspelmath et al. (Eds.), 522-525

Brown, C.H. 2005b. Finger and hand. In: Haspelmath et al. (Eds.), 526-529

Croft, W. 1990. Typology and Universals. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Croft, W. 2001. Radical Construction Grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Haspelmath, M. 2003. The geometry of grammatical meaning: semantic maps and
cross-linguistic comparison. In M. Tomasello (ed.), The New Psychology of
Language, Vol. 2, New York: Erlbaum, 211-243.

Haspelmath, M., Dryer, M, Gil, D. & Comrie, B. (Eds., 2005). The World Atlas of
Language Structures (WALS). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Koptjevskaya Tamm, M., Vanhove, M. & Koch, P. 2007. Typological approaches to
lexical semantics. Linguistic Typology 11 (1): 159-185.

Lewis, M. 1993. The Lexical Approach: The State of ELT and a Way Forward. Hove,
UK: Language Teaching Publications.

Nerlove, S. &Romney, A.K. 1967. Sibling terminology and cross-sex behavior.
American Anthropologist 74: 1249-1253.

Wälchli, B. 2006. Lexicalization patterns in motion events revisited. Ms.
University of Konstanz.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER Cinzia Citarrella, Ph.D. in Linguistics, is currently a lecturer of Translation Studies at the University of Palermo, Facoltà di Lettere e Filosofia, and is a certified Italian as a Second Language teacher. Her main academic interests are Translation Studies, Cognitive Linguistics and Metaphor, and Language Teaching.