Nerthus Project

The Verbal Semantic Poles of Old English

Javier Martín Arista
Nerthus Project-Universidad de La Rioja

This is a visualization of the verbal semantic poles of Old English, for which Gephi Graph 0.9.1 Visualization and Manipulation software has been used, in collaboration with José Manuel Valle Melón and Álvaro Rodríguez Miranda, of the Laboratory for the Geometric Documentation of the Heritage of the University of the Basque Country (

This visualization represents verbal polysemy by means of a three-dimension semantic map based on graph theory. The hypothesis of semantic poles, defined as areas of semantic space that express a core meaning, draws on the semantic primes of the Natural Semantic Metalanguage ( The semantic primes selected for this visualization correspond to the categories Mental predicates (KNOW, THINK, WANT, DON’T WANT, FEEL, SEE, HEAR), Speech (SAY), Actions, events, movement, contact (DO, HAPPEN, MOVE, TOUCH), Location, existence, possession, specification (BE) and Life and death (LIVE, DIE). Be someone´s is interpreted in this analysis as HAVE. EXIST has been preferred over THERE IS, while BE subsumes ‘to become’ and the causative ‘to cause to become’.

The data comprise 1150 Old English, retrieved from the lexical database of Old English Nerthus ( These verbs are more or less direct exponents for the universal meanings conveyed by semantic primes. The method of description is as follows. The inclusion of an Old English verb into the semantic space of a pole takes two steps. Firstly, the definiens of each semantic pole are listed. There are no constraints on the number of definiens per semantic pole. For instance, ‘to be angry’, to become angry’ and ‘to make angry’ fall within the scope of the semantic pole BE, while ‘to order’, ‘to promise’ and ‘to summon’ belong to the semantic pole SAY. Secondly, a definiens is assigned to each definiendum (an Old English verb that qualifies as a suitable candidate for inclusion into one of the semantic poles). Thus, (ge)belgan ‘to be angry; to become angry; to make angry’ is attributed to the semantic pole BE and (ge)hātan ‘to order; to promise; to summon’ to SAY. Through the relevant definiens, each definiendum has been attributed to a maximum of three semantic poles, as in forhwierfan ‘to turn aside’ (MOVE), ‘to become’ (BE) and ‘to change for the worse’ (BE). The assignment of semantic pole and definiens to the definienda has been guided by the standard dictionaries of Old English.

The semantic map of polysemy as represented by means of graphs linking semantic poles to definiens and definienda displays two types of polysemy: simplex polysemy, affecting one semantic pole, as in andsacian ‘to dispute; to deny; to abjure’ (SAY), and complex polysemy, involving two or more semantic poles, as is the case with gegangan ‘to go; to happen; to accomplish’ (MOVE, HAPPEN, DO).

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