In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Semantic Maps

  • Introduction
  • Early Studies and Theoretical Foundations
  • Special Issues in Journals
  • Theoretical Debates
  • Semantic Maps in Diachrony
  • Semantic Maps in Language Contact
  • Computational Approaches
  • Digital Resources

Linguistics Semantic Maps
Thanasis Georgakopoulos
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0229


A semantic map is a method for visually representing cross-linguistic regularity or universality in semantic structure. This method has proved attractive to typologists because it provides a convenient graphical display of the interrelationships between meanings or functions across languages, while (at the same time) differentiating what is universal from what is language-specific. The semantic map model was initially conceived to describe patterns of polysemy (or, more generally, of co-expression) in grammatical categories. However, several studies have shown that it can be fruitfully extended to lexical items and even constructions, suggesting that any type of meaning can be integrated in a map. The main idea of the method is that the spatial arrangement of the various meanings reflects their degree of (dis)similarity: the more similar the meanings, the closer they are placed—in accordance with the so-called connectivity hypothesis. Within the semantic map tradition, closeness has taken different forms depending on the approach adopted. In classical semantic maps (alternative terms: “first generation,” “implicational,” “connectivity” maps), the relation between meanings is represented as a line. This is the graph-based approach. In proximity maps (alternative terms: “similarity,” “second generation,” “statistical,” “probabilistic” maps), the distance between two meanings in space— represented as points—indicates the degree of their similarity. In this scale- or distance-based approach, the maps are constructed using multivariate statistical techniques, including the family of methods known as multidimensional scaling (MDS). Both classical and proximity maps have been widely used, although the latter have recently gained interest and popularity under the assumption that they can cope with large data more efficiently than classical semantic maps. However, classical semantic maps continue to be useful for studies aiming to discover universal semantic structures. Most importantly, classical maps can integrate information about directionality of change by drawing an arrow on the line connecting two meanings or functions. Beyond the choice between the two types of maps, one of the issues that has sparked debate and critical reflection among researchers is the universal relevance of semantic maps. The main question that these researchers address is whether semantic maps reflect the global geography of the human mind. Another much discussed issue is the identification of the factors that increase the accuracy of semantic maps in a way that allows for valid cross‐linguistic generalizations. Such factors include the choice of a representative language sample, the quality of the collected cross‐linguistic material, and the establishment of valid cross-linguistic comparators. Acknowledgments: The author wishes to thank one anonymous reviewer for their useful comments. For discussion of the material in this article, the author is grateful to Stéphane Polis.

Early Studies and Theoretical Foundations

The references in this section include the representative early treatments in the literature on semantic maps as well those studies that establish the theoretical foundations for the semantic map approach. Interest in semantic maps began with three articles in the early 1980s. Anderson 1982 is the first influential and detailed article that set the foundations for the research that followed. Among other things, it explains the representational conventions used for constructing a map, e.g., closeness of meanings reflecting similarity to each other and curved closed lines indicating language-specific category boundaries. Anderson 1986 establishes a map of evidential space. It illustrates the inductive method for constructing such a map and the logic behind the inference of similarity of meanings based on similarity of form. It also explains the challenges of such an approach for explaining meaning shifts. Lazard 1981 discusses the nature of semantic universals and devotes a small section to uncovering the universal semantic structure of “past” grammatical markers through the use of a map. Kemmer 1993 is a systematic study on the semantic relations holding among middle and other situation types. Stassen 1997 discusses the domain of intransitive predication and adds a wider typological perspective, since the sample employed in the study comprises 410 languages. Haspelmath 1997 is a good resource for finding details about the many distinct ways languages carve up the semantic space in the domain of indefiniteness. Van der Auwera and Plungian 1998 offers an integrated map of modality, suggests additional means to enrich maps, and discusses, in detail, the adjacency requirement imposed by the map (analyzed also in Haspelmath 1997). Croft 2001 highlights the multidimensional nature of the method and provides many examples to illustrate its scope. It also articulates the general principles governing the model, most importantly the semantic map connectivity hypothesis, which states that “any relevant language-specific and construction-specific category should map onto a CONNECTED REGION in conceptual space” (p. 96). Deviating from the terminology employed in most studies, Croft uses the term conceptual space to refer to language-universal conceptual structure and the term semantic map to describe language-specific semantic patterns. All studies of this first era use the graph-based approach, which explains why, at a later point, this approach was called “classical” or “first generation.” Several studies, such as Anderson 1982, Anderson 1986, Kemmer 1993, and van der Auwera and Plungian 1998, underscore the fact that the diachronic dimension should be treated as an inseparable part of the model.

  • Anderson, Lloyd B. 1982. “The “perfect” as a universal and as a language‐particular category.” In Tense‐aspect: Between semantics & pragmatics, typological studies in language. Edited by Paul J. Hopper, 227–264. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

    DOI: 10.1075/tsl.1.16and

    Anderson is the first to use the term map to refer to the geometrical representation of meanings in space. These meanings are arranged in a way reflecting their degree of (dis)similarity. Crucially, similarity is defined on the basis of cross-linguistic comparison. The paper introduces some important notational devices that were used in many later studies. It also stresses the fact that for a map to have universal validity, the diachronic dimension must also considered.

  • Anderson, Lloyd B. 1986. Evidentials, paths of change, and mental maps: Typologically regular asymmetries. In Evidentiality: The linguistic encoding of epistemology. Edited by Wallace Chafe and Johanna Nichols, 273–312. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

    Anderson builds a map of evidential meanings, which gives information about which meanings are more closely related to each other synchronically as well as about certain patterns of historical development. The results of the study help to formulate historical hypotheses for evidentials in Tibeto-Burman and California Indian languages, and for moods and modalities in Indo-European languages.

  • Croft, William. 2001. Radical construction grammar: Syntactic theory in typological perspective. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198299554.001.0001

    Croft develops the notion of conceptual space (which is the term he uses to refer to semantic maps) in his Radical Construction Grammar. In this work, he introduces many of the guiding principles of the semantic maps model, most importantly the semantic map connectivity hypothesis. His case studies come from fundamental concepts in syntactic theory, mainly parts of speech and syntactic roles. Chapters 3 and 4 are the most relevant.

  • Haspelmath, Martin. 1997. Indefinite pronouns. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    One of the goals of Haspelmath’s book is to explain the variety of usage of indefinite pronouns in terms of a semantic map. Haspelmath builds such a map based on 40- and 100-language samples. The article makes explicit several important methodological decisions (e.g., the use of the term function rather than the term meaning) and highlights the fact that semantic maps can be thought of as making hypotheses about implicational universals.

  • Kemmer, Susan. 1993. The middle voice. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

    DOI: 10.1075/tsl.23

    Kemmer devotes a whole chapter of her book to the semantic relations between the reflexive and related situation types. Relying both on typological and on diachronic data, she places the various functions identified in the reflexive-middle domain on a semantic map and focuses on the predictions and hypotheses stemming from the semantic relations holding among these functions.

  • Lazard, Gilbert. 1981. La quête des universaux sémantiques en linguistique. Actes Sémiotiques—Bulletin 19:26–37.

    Lazard discusses the nature of semantic universals, which ultimately result from an experience of the world shared by all human beings. He distinguishes two approaches to semantic universals: one deductive and one inductive. The article argues in favor of the latter approach. To address the issue of cross-linguistic comparison, it suggests that the focus should be on the multidimensional semantic space occupied by a given signified (i.e., a linguistic form). Finally, the article proposes a map for “past” grammatical markers. Reprinted in Lazard’s Études de Linguistique Générale (Leuven, Belgium: Peeters), pp. 47–56.

  • Stassen, Leon. 1997. Intransitive predication. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This is a study of the predication of various semantic classes. Using a language sample of 410 languages, the author identifies four semantic predicate categories and visualizes them in the form of a semantic map that is language independent and determined by universal principles. The two main principles discussed are “relative time stability” and “locational specification.” The study also shows how the different languages carve up the semantic space.

  • van der Auwera, Johan, and Vladimir A. Plungian. 1998. Modality’s semantic map. Linguistic Typology 2.1: 79–124.

    DOI: 10.1515/lity.1998.2.1.79

    The article focuses on the domain of modality and proposes a semantic map that represents the cross linguistically relevant connections between the various meanings in this domain. This map is supposed to have universal relevance both in synchrony and in diachrony. The authors also show how the method allows the integration of different types of relationships, i.e., metaphor, metonymy, specialization, and generalization.

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