Semantic Change in Grammaticalization


中国校外教育(下旬) 2009年12期


Abstract:Generally speaking,grammaticalization is the abstraction of lexical items or constructions which have developed into the minimal grammatical units in a certain context. As a universal linguistic phenomenon, grammaticalization has attracted the attention of eastern and western scholars for a long time. However, it hadn't become a hot topic in the study of language until the beginning of the 1970s. It is widely agreed that a typical grammaticalization involves change at various levels, such as, phonemic, semantic/ pragmatic and morphosyntactic levels. In this paper we tend to study grammaticalization from the functional perspective and take semantic/functional change involved in it as our focus in order to deepen our understanding of grammaticalization phenomena.

Key words:grammaticalization semantic/functional change English study

Grammaticalization, as a subset of language change, has much in common with general language change. In order to understand grammaticalization better, we should answer the question: What could be the driving force behind it? In the functionalists' opinion, grammaticalization is a semantically led development, so a study of its semantic change will undoubtedly help us to answer the question. For this reason, much grammaticalization research has focused on the kinds of meaning changes involved in grammaticalization since early eighties of last century. In this paper, we will discuss the following issues: (1) the role of meaning change in grammaticalization, (2) cognition and semantic change, (3) communication and semantic change, (4) paths of semantic change in grammaticalization.

1. The Role of Meaning Change in Grammaticalization

In the mainstream linguistic literature, grammatical constructions have been examined primarily with regard to their morphosyntactic behavior-morphology of structural components, syntactic ordering, iteration, dependency, etc. This interest is of course in harmony with one of the common beliefs of advocates of the autonomous syntactic approach (Lightfoot, 1991; Warner, 1993; Newmeyer, 1998). According to them, semantic developments do not have a clear-cut independence form and any priority over formal, morphosyntactic change; grammaticalization and language change in general are motivated by formal change rather than by semantic change. Lightfoot (1991: 148), for instance, claims that the meaning change in the grammaticalization of the English modal auxiliaries was entirely a by-product of syntactic recategorialization, thus implying that grammaticalization is not a semantically led development. But this view cannot give any reasonable account of the extensive evidence that grammaticalization affects similar classes of lexical items in similar ways across a wide number of languages. Bybee and her colleagues, for instance, find that there are two most common paths for the development of future tense morpheme in the language of the world in their various studies of verbal morphology (e.g. Bybee, 1985; Bybee and Dahl, 1989):

a. The Movement Path

movement towards a goal→intention→future

b. The Volition path

volition or desire→ intention→future

Heine et al. (1991) and Bybee et al (1994) report another cross-linguistically pervasive grammaticalization path: the development of a spatial adpositional structure with an adposition expressing co-location into the progressive, that is, be at/on/in/with + place-denoting Noun Phrase→progressive.

So language is not an autonomous system, neither is grammmaticalization in it. Grammaticalization is triggered by the needs of human communication. Meaning change plays an important role in grammaticalization. It drives formal change rather than being driven by it (Kuteva, 2001). The change from lexical items to grammatical items is not an arbitrary development; it is a semantically led one instead.

2. Cognition and Semantic Change

(1)Language and Cognition

“Cognition is essentially the process of knowing, and it encompasses thinking, decision-making, judging, imagining, problem-solving, categorizing, and reasoning – all higher mental processes of human being” (Bower, 1987: 208). Language and cognition have close relationship. Language is systematically grounded in human cognition. It is an integral part of human cognition and advanced system of social communication that represents the highest achievement of human cognition.

In the last three decades, many scholars have done research into the correlation between language and cognition. Berlin and Kay's (1969) work in color terms, followed by Kay and MacDaniel's (1978) lexical semantic analysis of basic color terms, have proposed that human physiology underlines certain universal trends in semantics. Fillmore (1977) has argued for change in our understanding of the internal structure of word meaning; in particular, the internal structure of word meaning is not autonomous but exists against a background of our general assumptions about the world (sociocultural beliefs included), and word meaning is frequently prototype-based rather than composed of checklists of features.

Lakoff and Johnson (1980) have further proposed that linguistic usages frequently reflect our inherently metaphorical understanding of many basic areas of our lives. Our cognition operates metaphorically much of the time in that there is a cognitive principle of exploiting old means for novel functions. Therefore, concrete concepts are employed in order to understand, explain, or describe less concrete phenomena. In this way, clearly delineated or structured entities are recruited to conceptualize less clearly delineated or structured entities, and nonphysical experience is understood in terms of physical experience, time in terms of space, cause in terms of time, or abstract relations in terms of physical processes or spatial relations.Meanings of words are rooted in cognitive experience of cultural, social, mental, and physical worlds and words do not randomly acquire new senses.

To sum up, language is shaped by cognition, and any adequate account of language cannot be separated from human cognition. Meaning, as a central concern of language, is a mental phenomenon that must eventually be described with reference to cognitive process.

(2)Metaphor and Semantic Change

Metaphor is commonly regarded as a cognitive mechanism by which people understand and experience one kind of thing in terms of another; it involves the processes of inference across conceptual boundaries and the processes of systematic mappings from one domain to another that is motivated by analogy and iconic relationships. Its directionality of transfer is generally from a basic, concrete meaning to a more abstract one (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980; Claudi and Heine, 1986; Heine et al., 1991; Hopper and Traugott, 1993). For an example of metaphorical mapping, Hopper and Traugott (1993) raise a "mind-as-body metaphor," following Sweetser (1990):

①I see/grasp the point of your argument.

The relatively concrete concept of seeing and grasping is used to express the relatively abstract one of knowing and understanding. Since bodily experiences are conceptually more basic to human cognition than psychological states, the former serves as a source of vocabulary for the latter. The metaphorical process involved here is the "image-schemata" with concrete sources being mapped onto abstract concepts (Sweetser, 1988). To generalize what is "conceptually more basic/concrete" and what is "more abstract," and thus to generalize a direction of metaphorical mapping, Heine et al. (1991) propose the following hierarchy of basic categories:


Based on human egocentric distance, the hierarchy indicates that the categories to the left are relatively more basic and concrete than those situated to their right. Thus, the categories to the left serve as metaphorical vehicles for those situated to their right. Following this basic tendency, we metaphorically understand more abstract and complicated concepts in terms of systematic mappings from more concrete and highly structured experience. Metaphor is known as one of the major factors in semantic change in general. In the process of grammaticalization, metaphor also plays an important role:

the vehicle of a metaphor and the lexeme undergoing desemanticization are governed by an arrangement of conceptualization which is unidirectional and proceeds from concrete to abstract, and from concepts which are close to human experience to those that are more difficult to define in terms of human cognition. (Claudi and Heine, 1986: 328)

In other words, metaphor defines the direction of semantic change in grammaticalization. The development of bodily part terms into locatives and the development of spatial into temporal are governed by "categorial metaphors" such as SPACE IS AN OBJECT and TIME IS SPACE. For instance, a body part noun behind meaning back' as in sentence (2a) metaphorically extends to a spatial term behind as in (2b), and which subsequently extends to take on a temporal meaning after' as in (2c):

②a. He bounced them out on their behinds.b. He is behind the building.c. We are behind in paying our bills.

These shifts are in accordance with the above hierarchy, proceeding from OBJECT to SPACE and to TIME and represent the direction of semantic change, that is, from concrete to abstract.

That metaphor works in grammaticalizaiton is apparently manifested in the historic development of spatiotemporal terms in the language of the world. Nearly every preposition or particle that is locative in English is also temporal and the prepositions for, since, and till, which are temporal rather than spatial in Modern English, "derive historically from locatives"; furthermore, those prepositions which have both spatial and temporal uses develop their temporal meanings later in all instances (Traugott, 1975).

3. Communication and Semantic Change

(1)Communication and Pragmatic Inference

Grammaticalization is the process whereby language uses are conventionalized to be grammatical components (Levinson, 1983). Thus, grammaticalization does not occur in the abstract, out of contexts. Rather, it happens in real communicative situation.

As William Croft once states, "Language does not change, people change language" (1990), grammaticalization is inseparable from language users, and its semantic change results from the meaning negotiation between the speaker and the hearer, from their pragmatic inference in communicative situation. In communication, according to relevance theory, rational communicators have unconscious of assumption of the principle of relevance given as follows:

The principle of relevance (Sperber and Wilson, 1995: 260/270)

A. Human cognition tends to be geared to the maximization of relevance

B. Every act of ostensive communication communicates a presumption of its own optimal relevance, such that

(a)The ostensive stimulus is relevant enough for it to be worth the addressees effort to process it.

(b)The ostensive stimulus is the most relevant one compatible with the communicators abilities and preference.

Accordingly, in order to achieve relevance of communication, a rational speaker will make sure that his utterance is informative and expressive enough to be worth hearer's processing effort and tailor the utterance in the linguistic communication in such a way that the hearer will make least effort to create a context that will allow him / her to arrive at the intended interpretation. At the same time, since "every individual's entire behavior is governed by the Principle of Least Effort" (Zipf, 1949: 6), the speaker will make least effort to produce the utterance i.e. to say no more than he must. This economy of language use which itself is based on the speaker's estimation of the hearer's inferential ability and current knowledge state will result in indeterminacy of the meaning of the utterance and require an inferential process of comprehension.

As far as the hearer is concerned, according to relevance theory, he will assume that the speaker's utterance is relevant and try to seek the most unambiguous and relevant interpretation. In doing this, he has to answer the following questions:

What did the speaker say?

What was he talking about?

Why did he bother to say it?

Why did he say it in the way he said it?

In other words, what the hearer has to do in communication is not only to decode the utterance but also to make inference in the communication. When the hearer infers out the intended message of the speaker, the communication goes smooth and the process provides an enriched interpretation consistent with the context of the utterance and the speakers encyclopedic knowledge. “Such inference is, by definition, conversational implicature”(Levinson, 1983: 103). It is conversational implicature that plays an important role in semantic change in grammaticalization.

(2)Pragmatic Inference and Semantic Change

With regard to the question of what role pragmatic inference plays in grammaticalization, toward the end of his seminal article "Logic and conversation," Grice tentatively states: "it may not be impossible for what starts life, so to speak, as a conversational implicature to become conventionalized" (1975: 58). In communication, once some condition happens to be fulfilled frequently when a certain category is used, a stronger association may develop between the condition and the category in such a way that the condition comes to be understood as an integral part of the meaning of the category. As far as a word is concerned, at first speakers retain awareness of the literal meaning of the word but associate with it a new meaning through implicature and then they lose consciousness of the original meaning, retaining only the conversational meaning. This process is a gradual process of conventionalizing conversational implicature. Morgan (1978) vividly compares it to a short-circuited conversational implicature. According to him, at first if a construction A acquires an implication b in certain context, pragmatic inference (Ai) is a must; but as the construction A is frequently used, the inference (Ai) will not be necessary; instead, the implication b will be directly collected with the construction A. We can schematize this as:

To sum up, semantic change in grammaticalization is inseparable from language use. Due to the fact that human communication is characteristic of inference making, the communicators efforts to make inference and seek optimal relevance will undoubtedly result in conversational implicature. And once frequently used, the conversational implicature will be conventionalized to be an integral part of a certain category, then, semantic change will be realized.

4. Paths of Semantic Change in Grammaticalization

Generally speaking, semantic change in grammaticalization has three tendencies. The first one is that the meaning based on the external situation develops into the meaning based on the internal situation. By the external situation, we mean the objectively existent world which is independent of the influence of the human being. The internal situation is the situation perceived or understood by a sentient being, not necessarily the speaker. Tendency Two refers to the transition from the meaning based on the external or internal situation into the meaning based on the textual situation. As one of the three macrofunctions of language, textual function can make any stretch of spoken or written discourse into a coherent and unified text. Once a construction bears this function, it has textual meaning. Besides, in grammaticalization, some meanings tend to become increasingly situated in the speaker's subjective belief, state, and attitude toward either the external or internal situation. The historical development of preference adverb and connective rather than is a case in point. According to Traugott and Konig (1991), the origin of rather than is sooner than. In the long history of its development, it came to mean preferably', via man's inference that the sooner, the better.

As semantic change in grammaticalization is the result of the interplay of human cognition and language use, it is not strange for its paths to show the characteristic of subjectification.Semantic change in grammaticalization is characterized by subjectification. Grammaticalization is a process of fossilization of people'ssubjective construal of the world, both external and internal, and meaning always changes towards being more and more grounded in people's world, either reasoning, belief or metatextual attitude to the discourse.


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