13.1975, Review: Semantics/Historical Ling: Traugott & Dasher

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Subject: 13.1975, Review: Semantics/Historical Ling: Traugott & Dasher

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Date:  Wed, 24 Jul 2002 18:10:14 +0000
From:  Diana Lewis <dmlewis at ermine.ox.ac.uk>
Subject:  Traugott & Dasher (2001) Regularity in Semantic Change

-------------------------------- Message 1 -------------------------------

Date:  Wed, 24 Jul 2002 18:10:14 +0000
From:  Diana Lewis <dmlewis at ermine.ox.ac.uk>
Subject:  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.

Book Announcement on Linguist:

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

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

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' >

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

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.


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


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