Semantic systems in closely related languages

Asifa Majid*, Fiona M Jordan, Michael Dunn

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

45 Citations (Scopus)
655 Downloads (Pure)


In each semantic domain studied to date, there is considerable variation in how meanings are expressed across languages. But are some semantic domains more likely to show variation than others? Is the domain of space more or less variable in its expression than other semantic domains, such as containers, body parts, or colours? According to many linguists, the meanings expressed in grammaticised expressions, such as (spatial) adpositions, are more likely to be similar across languages than meanings expressed in open class lexical items. On the other hand, some psychologists predict there ought to be more variation across languages in the meanings of adpositions, than in the meanings of nouns. This is because relational categories, such as those expressed as adpositions, are said to be constructed by language; whereas object categories expressed as nouns are predicted to be “given by the world”. We tested these hypotheses by comparing the semantic systems of closely related languages. Previous cross-linguistic studies emphasise the importance of studying diverse languages, but we argue that a focus on closely related languages is advantageous because domains can be compared in a culturally- and historically-informed manner. Thus we collected data from 12 Germanic languages. Naming data were collected from at least 20 speakers of each language for containers, body-parts, colours, and spatial relations. We found the semantic domains of colour and body-parts were the most similar across languages. Containers showed some variation, but spatial relations expressed in adpositions showed the most variation. The results are inconsistent with the view expressed by most linguists. Instead, we find meanings expressed in grammaticised meanings are more variable than meanings in open class lexical items.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-18
Number of pages18
JournalLanguage Sciences
Publication statusPublished - May 2015

Bibliographical note

Available online 12 December 2014


  • Semantics
  • evolution
  • colour
  • body parts
  • containers
  • spatial relations
  • Germanic languages


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