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Book review

Towards a cognitive theory of semantic change

Grygiel, Marcin. 2005. Towards a cognitive theory of semantic change. Semantic Development of English Historical Near-synonyms of MAN/MALE HUMAN BEING in Panchronic Perspective. PhD dissertation, University of Rzeszów.

Reviewed by Marisa Carpenter, Department of Spanish and Portuguese, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

This dissertation offers an all-inclusive approach to the study of semantic change using a cognitive-based model called conceptual blending. The author presents semantic change as a non-linear, multidirectional, and cognitively driven phenomenon that is most effectively studied from a panchronic perspective through the analysis of lexical items belonging to the same conceptual domain (i.e., near-synonyms). Specifically, Grygiel analyzes the semantic development of over 120 historical near-synonyms of MAN/MALE HUMAN BEING. Through the application of Blending Theory (BT), following Fauconnier and Turner (2002), the author seeks to determine which conceptual domains may act as sources or targets in the development of lexical items with the meaning of MAN/MALE HUMAN BEING.

The dissertation is divided into three chapters. Chapter 1 points out the problematic aspects of previous research and demonstrates the need for an innovative theoretical model for the historical treatment of semantic change. Chapter 2 introduces the proposed theoretical model, focusing on conceptual blending as the mechanism for semantic change and the panchronic and non-linear nature of this phenomenon. Chapter 3 applies the theoretical model in a case study on the development of English near-synonyms of MAN/MALE HUMAN BEING.

Chapter 1: Critical Review of the Literature

In this chapter, Grygiel discusses the major historical approaches to the study of semantic change. Starting from the early inquiry into the development of meanings in the 19th century and working up to modern cognitive theories of the late 20th century, Grygiel concludes that previously proposed taxonomies are inadequate because they fail to provide a comprehensive explanation for semantic changes. He presents a vast array of linguistic terms put forth among the various taxonomies and resolves to provide a more general mechanism that will incorporate all of them.

Chapter 2: Proposed Model

Based on the assumption that semantic change operates via cognitive processes, the author subscribes to the hypothesis that alterations in meaning follow regular and universal patterns independent of space and time. He argues that one of the main hindrances to the success of previous approaches has been the rigid separation of synchrony and diachrony (p. 95) and predicates the panchronic applicability of BT.

Additionally, Grygiel proposes conceptual blending as a sort of blanket mechanism of semantic change that incorporates all other proposed mechanisms (e.g., metaphor, metonymy, etc.). In its simplest form, the mechanism can be described as a formula by which two substances combine to form a new one: Two conceptual domains (input structures) that share a mental space containing semantic elements of both domains (the generic space) are combined in the mind of the speaker. Once identified as being related by this generic space, conceptual blending can occur whereby a new structure is formed, allowing for lexical variation. In this way, conceptual blending accounts for the original trigger that often leads to semantic change. According to Grygiel, this approach supersedes other cognitive approaches, particularly those championed by prototype theory (cf. Geeraerts 1997), with its capacity to identify actual mechanisms and processes involved in patterns of semantic change. For example, Grygiel uses conceptual blending to explain how words meaning 'boy' often acquire the meaning of 'servant' (and viceversa): The input structures 'boy' and 'servant' combine in a generic space sharing elements such as 'Low hierarchical status' and 'Obedience' and the word for 'boy' or 'servant' comes to mean 'boy in service'.

Chapter 3: A Case Study

Through the application of BT to more than 120 words found in secondary sources, Grygiel identifies nine major conceptual domains as possible sources and targets in the semantic development of lexical items meaning MAN/MALE HUMAN BEING: PROPER MALE NAME (e.g., Joe, Jack), ANIMAL/HUMAN (e.g., stud, dog), OCCUPATION/PROFESSION (e.g., chap, groom), WARRIOR/SOLDIER (sun of a gun, galoot), MASTER/LORD (e.g., sire, gentleman), COMPANION/FRIEND (e.g., mate, fellow), HUSBAND/MALE SPOUSE (e.g., were, husband), FOOL/STUPID PERSON (e.g., mush, bozo), and PENIS/MALE ATTRIBUTE (e.g., prick, pisser).

The author does not expressly describe the methodology followed in the case study. For instance, the inclusion of various dialects is apparent but left out of focus. Additionally, we learn from the discussions that the study is not restricted to words that fully acquire the sense of 'man', but rather also includes slang, literary word play, etc. Grygiel does state his purpose to 'investigate to what extent the semantic development of English historical near-synonyms of MAN/MALE HUMAN BEING is motivated by timeless cognitive processes and to what extent it is caused by extralinguistic factors specific to the socio-cultural conditions of a historical epoch' (p. 118). To achieve this, the author offers a brief etymological description for each near-synonym, including a discussion on possible socio-cultural influences.


By focusing on one language (English), this dissertation provides an example of how evidence of language universals may be obtained through cross-generational and cross-dialectal analysis, given the universal nature of language development as a cognitive process. Nevertheless, Grygiel provides additional evidence that trends found in English also apply to other languages (e.g., Turkish, Spanish, Japanese, etc.).

Due to the large number of tokens, all taken from secondary sources, the discussion on the data is not profound and it is somewhat challenging to follow, but appropriate when we consider the author's main goals for the study: to demonstrate both the need for and the successful application of an all-inclusive mechanism for the study of semantic change. Grygiel explicitly states, '[o]ur purpose is not [...] to give an exhaustive presentation of any particular integration network but, rather, to account for the cognitive processes by which they all work' (p.162, emphasis added).

Given that the main purpose is to offer a cognitive model for the study of semantic change, the dissertation includes surprisingly little about the cognitive advances from the past three decades, especially with regard to the onomasiological study of lexical fields (cf. Blank & Koch 1999). Despite this gap in the review of the literature, the author provides a thorough examination of the most prominent themes in the field. Grygiel argues for a panchronic analysis of semantic change (as a non-linear, multi-directional phenomenon) that promises to increase our understanding of its processes through the application of a mechanism that encompasses all types of change. The case study provides convincing evidence of the panchronic, non-linear and multidirectional nature of semantic change, and BT effectively accounts for how lexical variation (i.e., the trigger for possible change) occurs and is repeated across time and space.

The author does not claim to have solved the entire problem, but rather suggests that BT be used to compliment other theories of cognitive grammar. Another major claim of this dissertation is that BT is the only theory to date that is flexible enough to account for the vast complexities of the human mind in language processing. Through the application of BT to over 120 words across many different dialects, languages, and time periods, the author achieves his goal of providing an all-inclusive cognitive theoretical model for the study of an extremely complex linguistic phenomenon.


Blank, Andreas & Peter Koch (eds.). 1999. Historical Semantics and Cognition. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Fauconnier, Gilles & Mark Turner. 2002. The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind's Hidden Complexities. New York: Basic Books.

Geeraerts, Dirk. 1997. Diachronic Prototype Semantics. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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