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Semantic Maps:
Methods and Applications
Semantic Maps: Methods and Applications

Manuscripts open for commentary

The following manuscripts from the conference are available for commentary. A commentary should be maximally about 2-3 pages in length (and might also be very short!), discussing any aspect of these papers. Please send commentaries to Michael Cysouw before 28 February 2009. You can either download all papers as a single zip-file, or select individual papers below.

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Kasper Boye

Semantic maps and the identification of cross-linguistic generic categories: Evidentiality and its relation to Epistemic Modality

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Cross-linguistic generic categories like Evidentiality, Tense, Aspect, Number and Person are entrenched in linguistic theory. However, it is not clear that that there is much empirical substance to them. There is a remarkable lack of criteria for what counts as a category. This paper tries to show that semantic maps can be used to give empirical substance to claims about cross-linguistic generic categories. It is argued that as falsifiable cross-linguistic generalizations semantic maps provide us with a criterion for categorial status and category membership as well as with a basis for identifying relations between different categories. However, it is also argued that there are limits to the use of semantic maps in evaluating claims about cross-linguistic generic categories, and that the criterion for categorial status and category membership provided by semantic maps ultimately needs to be supplemented by other criteria. In its argumentation the paper focuses on the category of Evidentiality and on the relation between Evidentiality and Epistemic Modality.


Sonia Cristofaro

Semantic maps and mental representation

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Semantic maps are usually assumed to describe a universal arrangement of different conceptual situations in a speaker's mind, as determined by perceived relations of similarity between these conceptual situations. The paper provides a number of arguments that challenge this view, based on various types of evidence from processes of semantic change and synchronic implicational universals. The multifunctionality patterns described by semantic maps may originate from processes of form-function recombination in particular contexts, rather than than any perceived similarity between individual conceptual components. These patterns may also originate from the fact that a particular functional principle leads to the association of a particular construction type with different conceptual situations, independently of any specific relation between these conceptual situations as such. A number of synchronic and diachronic phenomena pertaining to the very structure of individual semantic maps further reveal that, even if one assumes that these provide a representation of similarity relations between different conceptual situations, they do so only to a limited extent.


Michael Cysouw

Semantic maps as metrics on meaning

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By using the world’s linguistic diversity, the study of meaning can be transformed from an introspective inquiry into an subject of empirical investigation. For this to be possible, the notion of meaning has to be operationalised by defining the meaning of an expression as the collection of all contexts in which the expression can be used. Under this definition, meaning can be empirically investigated by sampling contexts. A semantic map is a technique to show the relations between such sampled contextual occurrences. Or, formulated more technically, a semantic map is a visualization of a metric on contexts sampled to represent a domain of meaning. Or, put more succinctly, a semantic map is a metric on meaning.

To establish such a metric, a notion of (dis)similarity is needed. The similarity between two meanings can be empirically investigated by looking at their encoding in many different languages. The more similar these encodings, in language after language, the more similar the contexts. So, to investigate the similarity between two contextualized meanings, only judgments about the similarity between expressions within the structure of individual languages are needed. As an example of the this approach, data on the cross-linguistic variation in inchoative/causative alternations from Haspelmath (1993) is reanalyzed.


Ferdinand de Haan

Building a semantic map: top-down versus bottom-up approaches

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This paper contrasts two methods for constructing semantic maps: the top-down and bottom-up model. It is argued that the bottom-up approach can be illuminating in solving some long-standing issues. First, a sharp distinction is made between functions and domains: functions are indivisible semantic units and domains are sets of functions. A bottom-up model starts with the functions and works its way up to the domain-level. The difference between a bottom-up and top-down model is illustrated by looking at the problem of evidentiality and epistemic modality, specifically the question of whether the verb /must/ is epistemic or evidential. it is argued that by looking at the functions of /must/ and related verb (such as /be bound to, will/ and the Dutch cognate verb /moeten/) we can construct a semantic map that is both more accurate and more open to linguistic inquiry than a top-down map.


Kees Hengeveld & Eva van Lier

An implicational map of parts of speech

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In this paper we present a two-dimensional implicational map of parts-of-speech. We show that this map constitutes an improvement with respect to the one-dimensional parts-of-speech hierarchy originally proposed in Hengeveld (1992) in terms of typological adequacy. In addition, our map is an innovation in relation to traditional semantic maps, since it is implicational in nature, and since the typological implications it contains are hierarchically ordered with respect to one another. Finally, our proposal shows that the analytical primitives underlying map models need not be exclusively semantic in nature, but may also include other dimensions; in this case pragmatic ones.


Eugenio R. Luján

Semantic maps and word formation: Agents, Instruments, and related semantic roles

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The semantic map methodology has been applied mainly to the analysis of the multifunctionality of grammatical morphemes. They allow for dealing with this problem without having to decide between monosemic and polysemic analyses. Similar issues arise when dealing with derivational morphemes and word formation patterns, so that this methodology can be extended to their analysis. As a case study, causal semantic roles are surveyed in this paper, both synchronically and diachronically. Only Agents and Instruments seem to have specific word formation patterns, while Force and Means cannot be identified as proper semantic roles in word formation.

Semantic maps based on word formation patterns also allow for interesting comparisons to those drawn on the basis of grammatical morphemes. Given that they are based on different data, but semantically overlap to a certain extent, this can help to throw some light on the general validity of the results of the methodology. For instance, from a diacrhonic perspective there is an interesting difference concerning the evolution of Agent and Instruments markers as grammatical morphemes from word formation patterns. In word formation it is Agents that evolve into Instruments and this is the evolution expected according to the predictions made on the basis of general abstraction scales.


Andrej L. Malchukov

Analyzing semantic maps: a multifactorial approach

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In this paper I argue that semantic similarity is not the only factor which motivates polysemy patterns cross-linguistically, as well as show that these other factors (markedness, distinguishability, etc) may give rise to polysemies problematic for established semantic maps. Only when these other interfering factors, both functional and structural, are featured out, a semantic network emerges and a ‘similarity map’ reduces to a semantic map.


Caterina Mauri

Semantic Maps or Coding Maps? Towards a unified account of the coding degree, coding complexity and coding distance of coordination relations

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The aim of this paper is to explore the degree to which semantic maps and conceptual spaces may comprehensively describe the cross-linguistic variation, by discussing the types of phenomena that may be consistently represented in a unified account. By analyzing the cross-linguistic coding of coordination relations, it will be argued that the degree to which every conceptual situation is explicitly coded by means of dedicated markers and the cross-linguistic possibility that two conceptual situations are coded by means of the same construction (coding degree) are not the only dimensions of cross-linguistic variation that may be described on a semantic map. On the contrary, it is possible to build a unified coding map accounting also for the presence and morphophonological complexity of overt markers coding the conceptual situations at issue (coding complexity). The integration of this representation with the Multi-Dimensional Scaling (MDS) technique will provide a representation for a further dimension of variation, namely the frequency with which two conceptual situations are coded by means of the same marker across languages (coding distance). The coding map and the MDS map will be argued to be compatible and complementary, thus highlighting the possibility to build a unified representation of the coding degree, coding distance, and coding complexity of coordination relations.


Heiko Narrog

A diachronic dimension in maps of case functions

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One of the advantages of classical semantic maps with distinct connections between individual meanings (or functions) is that they are well suited for the inclusion of diachronic information. This paper intends to demonstrate how information on the directionality of meaning extension can be integrated into such maps. For this purpose, the diachronic dimension of three areas of case function, namely Companion-Instrument, Source-Agent, and Goal-Recipient, was investigated. As a result, it was found that in the case of most connections between meanings/functions in these areas, a clear directionality can be hypothesized, and relatively robust diachronic semantic maps can be constructed.


Loïc-Michel Perrin

Polysemous qualities and universal networks

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Andrea Sansò

How conceptual are semantic maps?

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The question addressed in this paper is whether (and to what extent) a semantic map aimed at representing the multifunctionality of a given construction (or set of constructions) in discourse can be thought of as endowed with conceptual reality. To be considered as a mental representation that is essentially similar in all human brains, such a map should meet two requirements: (i) its nodes should be bundles of semantic and pragmatic properties that form conceptual archetypes, that is, ways of conceptualizing and categorizing dynamic or static configurations that are fundamental to human experience; (ii) there should be a high degree of regularity in the data material, i.e. each construction should be associated with a node or a contiguous set of nodes in a regular way. However, observing the use of grammatical constructions in discourse provides us with compelling evidence that discourse contexts are complex entities involving many different variables, and that “a perfect fit is not the usual state of affairs for models of complex human behavior (including language)” (Croft and Poole 2008: 6). Based on a previous analysis of various passive and impersonal constructions in a parallel corpus of five European languages, I will argue that a first-generation semantic map representing the distribution of these constructions in discourse and comprising a few conceptual archetypes may be only an idealized abstraction over the conflicting evidence of the association between discourse contexts and construction types. As an ideali-zation, such a map is not particularly informative as to language-specific tendencies and idiosyncracies, and does not allow us to analyze all the datasets that we might be interested in analyzing. On the other hand, a sec-ond-generation semantic map proves to be a more reliable tool for representing variation in discourse and does not force the analyst to posit (and multiply) conceptual structures where there may be none.


Remi van Trijp

Grammaticalization and Semantic Maps: Evidence from Artificial Language Evolution

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Semantic maps have offered linguists an appealing and empirically rooted methodology for describing recurrent structural patterns in language development and the multifunctionality of grammatical categories. Although some researchers argue that semantic maps are universal and given, others provide evidence that there are no fixed or universal maps. This paper takes the position that semantic maps are a useful way to visualize the grammatical evolution of a language (particularly the evolution of semantic structuring) but that this grammatical evolution is a consequence of distributed processes whereby language users shape and reshape their language. So it is a challenge to find out what these processes are and whether they indeed generate the kind of semantic maps observed for human languages. This work takes a design stance towards the question of the emergence of linguistic structure and investigates how grammar can be formed in populations of autonomous artificial “agents” that play “language games” with each other about situations they perceive through a sensori-motor embodiment. The experiments reported here investigate whether semantic maps for case markers could emerge through grammaticalization processes without the need for a universal conceptual space.


Bernhard Wälchli

Similarity semantics and building probabilistic semantic maps from parallel texts

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This paper deals with statistical (non-implicational) semantic maps, built automatically using classical multidimensional scaling from a direct comparison of parallel text data (the Gospel according to Mark) in the domain of motion events (case/adpositions) in 153 languages from all continents in 190 parallel clauses. The practical objective of is to present one way (among other possible ways) how semantic maps can be built easily and fully automatically from large typological datasets (Section 3). Its methodological objective is to demonstrate that semantic maps can be built in various ways and that sampling of languages and small differences in the method chosen to build a semantic map can have a strong influence on the results (Section 4), which does not mean that semantic space is arbitrary, but rather that it is dynamic (having stretching and shrinking dimensions). The theoretical aim of the paper is to discuss similarity semantics, the implicit theoretical basis behind the semantic map approach, and to show that similarity semantics is not novel, but has a long-standing tradition in philosophy and psychology (Section 2).


Joost Zwarts

Semantic map geometry: two approaches

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A semantic map is a ‘spatial’ representation of a how a set of linguistic meanings hangs together. More similar meanings are closer together on the map while less similar meanings are further apart. Underlying the spatial representation is a particular geometry that defines how similarities correspond to spatial distances or connections, either in graphs or in MDS. This paper is about two different ways in which the geometry of a semantic map can be derived and applied, working from cross-linguistic data or working from a semantic model. These two approaches can complement, inform, and correct each other, because they both have their limitations.

After a brief introduction to the notion of semantic maps in section 1, I will explain the two approaches in section 2 and some of the limitations and pitfalls in section 3 and section 4. Section 5 concludes the paper.