Published August 8, 2023 | Version v1
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Coexpression and synexpression patterns in lexical and grammatical typology

  • 1. Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology


Both lexical and grammatical typology are often concerned with different ways in which languages map meanings onto minimal forms. Very often, for example, we observe that one language has a single polysemous word where another language has two distinct words (e.g. German Tasche ‘bag; pocket’, contrasting with English bag vs. pocket). Similarly, we often observe that one language has a single polysemous grammatical marker where another language has two distinct markers (e.g. English to ‘dative; allative’, contrasting with Arabic li ‘dative’ vs. ʔilaa ‘allative’).

     Such situations form the basis for semantic maps showing coexpression patterns: patterns of grammatical coexpression (or cogrammification) for grammatical markers expressing notions such as case or tense-aspect (often called “syncretism”), and patterns of lexical coexpression (or colexification) for lexical items. As semantic maps summarize cross-linguistic patterns, and the meanings (or functions) whose expression is studied are comparison meanings, a type of comparative concept. “Coexpression diagram” is a more appropriate name a semantic map, because it does not necessarily show polysemy patterns. Polysemy refers to language-particular multiplicity of meanings, whereas coexpression merely records cross-linguistic correspondences (cf. Georgakopoulos & Polis 2022 for recent discussion).

     In addition to coexpression differences, languages also frequently show synexpression differences: A minimal form may simultaneously express several meanings that in a another language are expressed by two cooccurring forms. For example, German Handschuh (lit. ‘hand-shoe’) corresponds to English monomorphic glove, or English brother-in-law corresponds to German monomorphic Schwager. We can say that German Schwager syllexifies the meanings ‘same-generation male kin’ and ‘affinal’, which are circumlexified in English. In grammatical markers, too, we find syngrammification patterns (often called “cumulative exponence”), as when Latin has a suffix -orum expressing simultaneously plural and genitive (e.g. libr-orum ‘of the books’). Again, such synexpression patterns make use of comparison meanings, not (necessarily) language-particular meanings.

     Colexification and syllexification patterns have often been called “lexicalization patterns” (e.g. Levin & Rappaport Hovav 2019), but the term “lexicalization” is more commonly used in a diachronic sense (e.g. Brinton & Traugott 2005). It is therefore better to distinguish the synchronic concept of lexification from the diachronic concept of lexicalization.

     This paper has a methodological focus, but I will also ask to what extent coexpression and synexpression patterns are cross-linguistically general and how the generalizations can be explained. I will make the following suggestions, based on earlier findings in lexicon and grammar: (i) the limits on coexpression are mostly due to (im)possible diachronic paths of change, not simply to “related meanings” (e.g. Xu et al. 2020), because not all types of relatedness result in coexpression patterns (for example, ‘six’ and ‘seven’ are closely related, but languages don’t colexify them; Brochhagen & Boleda 2022); and (ii) the limits on synexpression in lexicon and grammar are mostly due to frequency of use, as greater frequency leads to shorter coding, which often means synexpressed coding. The general idea of greater differentiation of more frequent items was formulated clearly by Mańczak (1970), but the causal link remains to be explicated and explored further.



Brinton, Laurel J. & Traugott, Elizabeth Closs. 2005. Lexicalization and language change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brochhagen, Thomas & Boleda, Gemma. 2022. When do languages use the same word for different meanings? The Goldilocks principle in colexification. Cognition 226. 105179. (doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2022.105179)

Georgakopoulos, Thanasis & Polis, Stéphane. 2022. New avenues and challenges in semantic map research (with a case study in the semantic field of emotions). Zeitschrift für Sprachwissenschaft 41(1). 1–30. (doi:10.1515/zfs-2021-2039)

Levin, Beth & Rappaport Hovav, Malka. 2019. Lexicalization patterns. In Truswell, Robert (ed.), Oxford handbook of event structure, 395–425. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mańczak, Witold. 1970. Sur la théorie die catégories “marquées” et “non-marquées” de Greenberg. Linguistics 8(59). 29–36. (doi:10.1515/ling.1970.8.59.29)

Xu, Yang & Duong, Khang & Malt, Barbara C. & Jiang, Serena & Srinivasan, Mahesh. 2020. Conceptual relations predict colexification across languages. Cognition 201. 104280. (doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2020.104280)



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