Meaning change in a petri dish: constructions, semantic vector spaces, and motion charts

Martin Hilpert 1  and Florent Perek 2
  • 1 Université de Neuchâtel – English, Espace Louis Agassiz 1, Neuchâtel 2000, Switzerland
  • 2 Universität Basel – Englisches Seminar, Basel, Switzerland
Martin Hilpert and Florent Perek


This paper explores how the visualization tool of motion charts can be used for the analysis of meaning change in linguistic constructions. In previous work, linguistic motion charts have been used to represent diachronic frequency trends and changes in the morphosyntactic behavior of linguistic units. The present paper builds on that work, but it shifts the focus to the study of semantic change. How can motion charts be used to visualize semantic change over time? In order to answer this question, we draw on semantic vector space modeling to visualize aspects of linguistic meaning. As an analogy to this approach, the title of this paper alludes to a petri dish in which the growth and development of biological microorganisms can be observed. On the basis of diachronic corpus data, we monitor developments in the semantic ecology of a construction. This allows us to observe processes such as semantic broadening, semantic narrowing, or semantic shift. We illustrate our approach on the basis of a case study that investigates the diachrony of an English construction that we call the ‘many a NOUN’ construction.

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