bill noble meaning in flux

Four kinds of semantic variation

people say words // words mean things // sometimes the same word means different things // why's that?

This is the first blog post I’m making as an official PhD student!

I’m still figuring things out, but so far I know my topic has something to do with semantic change—how word meanings shift over time. Semantic change is part of a broader category of phenomena I’ll call semantic variation. When the same word means two different things, that’s an example of semantic variation. Naturally, change is just variation over time.

When you think about the same word meaning two different things, polysemy (or homonymy) is probably the first thing that comes to mind. Originally I included polysemy in this list, but I actually think it’s different from the kind of thing I’m talking about in an important way.

Polysemy is when the same word can be used to mean two different things. Take the word bank, which has several possible meanings. If I say to you “let’s have lunch down by the bank”, I could be referring to a riverbank, or I could be talking about a bank-bank—somewhere you keep money.

But I’m interested in variation in the semantics of a word as a whole. The distinction I’m making here is related to Herman Paul’s occasional meaning vs. usual meaning,1 or perhaps more closely related to the more recent notion of situated meaning vs. meaning potential.2 Polysemy represents variation in situated meaning, whereas I’m talking about differences in meaning potential. But I’m not too familiar with these concepts yet… blog post for another day, perhaps.

Anyway, here’s my list of (the?) four kinds of semantic variation:

  1. Diversity – differences between speech communities
  2. Style – differences between individuals
  3. Change – changes in speech communities
  4. Adaptation – changes made during a dialogue

One - Semantic Diversity

Here’s where I say something about common ground, an idea developed by the psycholinguist Herbert H. Clark and others in the ’90s3. Common ground is a body of knowledge shared among some group of people. It’s related to the concept of common knowledge, where everyone knows a thing, and also everyone knows that everyone knows it, and everyone knows that everyone knows it (and so on).

Common ground needs to be based on something—there needs to be a reason for everyone to believe we’re all on the same page. For example, if you and I were to watch a tennis match together, certain facts, such as who won the match, are grounded (i.e. part of the common ground) between us. The event of watching the match serves as a basis for this common ground. This is what Clark calls a perceptual basis.

There’s another kind of basis called a communal basis, which grounds knowledge between individuals based on their belonging to the same community. For example, a nurse may assume that a doctor knows difference between a humerus and a femur based on their joint membership in a community of medical professionals.

Communal bases are what we rely on to ground linguistic knowledge, such as (surprise!) the meaning of words. In this framework, languages, dialects, the jargon shared by communities of practice, the unique set of inside jokes shared with your immediate family or a close circle of friends—all these things are the same kind of thing as far as common ground is concerned.

So, communities come first (conceptually, at least) and languages are just the linguistic common ground of the speech community. And each of these communities (sometimes nested, sometimes overlapping) may have different or similar understandings (or no understanding at all) of the meaning of any given word.

Two - Semantic Style

Usually when people talk about linguistic style it has to do with word choice, or how an individual tends to construct sentences syntactically—the sorts of things that contribute to tone and register. But I think there’s good reason to believe that style is also involved in the meaning of words.

Here’s an example from Barbara Johnstone’s The Linguistic Individual:4

I once stayed with my sister during a week when, just having moved to a new town, she made a number of phone calls inquiring about goods and services. During one of these conversations, I heard her begin a response with “Aaahh,” a drawn-out /a/ made lower and further back in her mouth than the /a/ she used in words such as father or hot and uttered at a low and very slowly falling pitch. I at once thought of our father, who makes exactly the same noise in the same conversational slot in phone conversations of the same sort. Aaahh is a small but unmistakable feature of his individual way of sounding. It means “I think I understand what you’ve said, and, if I’ve understood you correctly, I’m disappointed. Aaahh is the beginning of a rejoinder to a statement like “We do carry folding directors’ chairs , and they’re $175 each” or “We’ll be able to collect your bulky trash in two weeks or so.”

Now, Johnstone understood her sister’s Aahhh immediately because she belongs to a speech community where its meaning is common ground (i.e., her immediate family), but how did the person on the other end of the phone understand it? A naive view of common ground might lead you to think it wouldn’t be understood at all. Not so. For one thing, Johnstone describes how Aaahh always comes with a translation when her father uses it—a “synchronic repetition, in a more conventional form”.5 So, while there may be no common ground about Aaahh itself, listeners understand what he means by it because there is common ground around the meaning of other expressions that accompany it.

There’s an interesting question here about whether semantic style is truly variation in meaning potential, or if it takes advantage of meaning potential to produce a different situated meaning. My feeling is that stylistic variation can have its source in meaning potential, but something to think about more later…

Three - (Historic) semantic change

New words are coined, and the meaning of existing words change over time, even within the same speech community. There’s a lot to say about how and why this happens—we know, for example, that various social and communicative pressures contribute to the evolution of word meaning, and that there are certain patterns of semantic shift that words tend to follow. In a previous post I described some recent work that measures how words changing over time.

I’m particularly interested in how other kinds of semantic variation influence historic change. For example, it’s common far a new interpretation of a word to start in a smaller speech community and gain more widespread usage over time. Likewise, facets of an individual’s linguistic style may be picked up by others (like how Johnstone’s sister uses her dad’s Aaahh) and in that way contribute to historic change within a community.

Common ground can be useful for thinking about historic semantic change, too. What it means for historic semantic change to have taken place (in a given community) is that the new meaning is available to speakers without having to use the dialogue itself to create it. This brings us to the final kind of semantic variation.

Four - Semantic adaptation

Semantic adaptation is change that occurs over the course of a dialogue.

Every dialogue starts off with some shared semantic understanding—both people speak the same language, say. But the meanings available in their communal common ground may be rather imprecise. Or it perhaps there’s no built-in way of referring to some concept that’s important in the current discussion. As they converse, participants collaborate to refine what words mean in service of the present dialogue.

Here’s an example from a psychology-style experiment6 where participants were asked to participate in a collaborative challenge where they had to refer to some pictures of objects.

A: A docksider. B: A what?
A: Um.
B: Is that a kind of dog?
A: No, it’s a kind of um leather shoe, kinda preppy pennyloafer. B: Okay okay got it

In the remainder of the experiment, both A and B referred this card as the pennyloafer. A pennyloafer is (I think) a different shoe from a docksider. Perhaps A even knows this, but because of the collaborative nature of communication, the two agree on a new semantics for pennyloafer which, for the purposes of this dialogue, refers to the photo in question.

These kind of agreements—explicit and implicit—let us adjust the meaning of words in big ways and small. Sometimes those adjustments persist after the current dialogue. And they may be again introduced in future discussions with some of the same people, and perhaps some different people, and in this way semantic adaptation, over time, can become historic change.

  1. Paul, Hermann. Principles of the History of Language. Translated by Herbert Augustus Strong. London ; New York : Longmans, Green, 1891. 

  2. Linell, Per. Rethinking Language, Mind and World Dialogically : Interactional and Contextual Theories of Human Sense-Making. Information Age Publishing, 2009. 

  3. e.g., Clark, Herbert H. Using Language. Cambridge University Press, 1996. 

  4. Johnstone, Barbara. The Linguistic Individual: Self-Expression in Language and Linguistics. Oxford Studies in Sociolinguistics. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, Chapter 1. 

  5. The Linguistic Individual, Chapter 6. 

  6. Brennan, Susan E, and Herbert H Clark. “Conceptual Pacts and Lexical Choice in Conversation,” n.d., 12.