Evolution of Word Meanings through Metaphorical Mapping: Systematicity over the past Millennium
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Cognitive Psychology (August 2017)

One way that languages are able to communicate a potentially infinite set of ideas through a finite lexicon is by compressing emerging meanings into words, such that over time, individual words come to express multiple, related senses of meaning. We propose that overarching communicative and cognitive pressures have created systematic directionality in how new metaphorical senses have developed from existing word senses over the history of English. Given a large set of pairs of semantic domains, we used computational models to test which domains have been more commonly the starting points (source domains) and which the ending points (target domains) of metaphorical mappings over the past millennium. We found that a compact set of variables, including externality, embodiment, and valence, explain directionality in the majority of about 5000 metaphorical mappings recorded over the past 1100 years. These results provide the first large-scale historical evidence that metaphorical mapping is systematic, and driven by measurable communicative and cognitive principles.
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