Diachronic dynamics of metonymy in French semantic frames

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2020-04-14

Authors

Law, James Merrill

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Abstract

In cognitive linguistic frameworks, metonymy is seen as one of the primary mechanisms of semantic change. While it is acknowledged that conceptual metonymies are cross-linguistically variable, little systematic research has explored diachronic variability in the metonymies that are frequently exploited in a language and that contribute to lexical semantic shifts. Much is still unknown about how metonymies arise, develop, and become entrenched in linguistic constructions. This study considers metonymic links between elements of three semantic frames in French: SPENDING, ATTRIBUTING CAUSE, and REVEAL SECRET. I annotated the syntactic realization of these semantic frame elements in sentences containing 66 lexical units evoking these frames found in a diachronic corpus spanning from the 12th to the 20th centuries. Metonymies in the REVEAL SECRET and SPENDING frames were increasingly exploited over time, beginning in particular contexts where the metonymy serves a specific communicative purpose and gradually expanding to other contexts and lexical units. Other metonymies in the ATTRIBUTING CAUSE frame and also in the SPENDING frame were observed less in later centuries. A general trend is the use or non-use of metonymy to shift focus away from semantic roles referring to individuals, tied to a shift in French writing towards essays and other genres where depersonalization is useful. The results support the hypothesis that semantic change occurs at the level of the frame or domain, and only secondarily at the individual lexical level. They also offer insight into how cross-linguistic or cross-dialectal variation in the use of figurative language might arise.

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