‘Give’ and semantic maps

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Words and constructions regularly have multiple meanings, and it may be difficult delineating these meanings and whether they are instances of monosemy or polysemy. This paper discusses this problem with regard to some uses of ‘give’. Some uses fall under the definition of a literal meaning ‘cause someone to obtain something’ (e.g. give someone a present) while others are more figurative such as give someone a slap. A problem for delineating these different senses comes from ‘bridging contexts’ such as give someone a kiss, which can be marginally construed as ‘causing someone to obtain a kiss’ but also as a figurative usage meaning ‘kiss someone’. Evidence for this comes from syntactic tests such as the dative alternation (in which for example give a kiss to your mother is more acceptable than ?give a slap to your mother or *give a wash to the car), and polysemy tests such as zeugma, which yield contradictory results when applied to such bridging contexts. A hypothesis is that individual usages may be situated along a continuum, with no necessity for a sharp cut-off point between different senses. A way of representing this continuum is a semantic map in the sense of Cysouw (2010), with different individual uses separated by a certain ‘semantic distance’ reflecting semantic and syntactic behaviour. The ‘semantic map’ idea is suggested to be a solution to the general problem of how to delineate word senses, and in particular a semantic map which represents a ‘family tree’ of individual uses.


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