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Colexification, together with its associated verb colexify, are terms used in semantics and lexical typology.


Colexification describes the case when different meanings can be expressed by the same word (i.e., “co-lexified”) in a language. For example, the two senses which are distinguished in English as time and weather are colexified in French, which uses le temps in both cases.

Colexification is meant as a neutral, descriptive term that avoids distinguishing between vagueness, polysemy, and homonymy. Some cases of colexification are common across the world (e.g. ‘blue’ = ‘green’); others are typical of certain linguistic and cultural areas (e.g. ‘tree’ = ‘fire’ among Papuan and Australian languages).[1]

Examples of colexification[edit]

Language Word form sense 1 sense 2 sense 3
Basque herri ‘village’ ‘people’ ‘country’
Spanish pueblo ‘village’ ‘people’
Catalan sentir ‘feel’ ‘hear’
French femme ‘woman’ ‘wife’
grand ‘large’ ‘tall (in size)’ ‘grown up (in age)’
English uncle ‘mother's brother’ ‘father's brother’ ‘aunt's husband’
draw ‘pull, drag’ ‘depict w/ lines’
Kriol gilim ‘hit’ ‘kill’
Russian мир mir ‘peace’ ‘world’
Chinese tiān ‘sky’ ‘heaven’ ‘day’
Japanese ki ‘tree’ ‘wood’
LSF ‘hello’ ‘thanks’
LSF (sign) ‘(s.o.) kind, nice’ ‘( easy’

Use in linguistic studies[edit]

The term was coined by linguist Alexandre François in his 2008 article “Semantic maps and the typology of colexification”. This article illustrated the notion with various examples, including the semantic domains of { STRAIGHT }, { CALL }, { BREATHE }. The latter notion is at the source of a colexification network that is attested in several languages, linking together such senses as ‘breath’, ‘life’, ‘soul’, ‘spirit’, ‘ghost’...: Skr. आत्मन् ātmán; Anc. Gk ψυχή, πνεῦμα; Lat. animus, spīritus; Arab. روح rūḥ, etc. François built on this example to propose a method for constructing lexical semantic maps.

Several studies have taken up the concept of colexification, applying it to different semantic domains and various language families.[2]

Colexification is also the object of a dedicated database known as CLiCS “Database of Cross-Linguistic Colexifications”.[3] Based on data from more than 2400 language varieties of the world, the database makes it possible to check the typological frequency of individual instances of colexification,[4] and to visualize semantic networks[5] based on empirical data from the world's languages.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ See Schapper et al. (2016).
  2. ^ See the bibliography.
  3. ^ See List et al. (2018) and Rzymski et al. (2020).
  4. ^ Example: the colexification pair ‘hear’–‘feel’.
  5. ^ Example: the subgraph around the notion { BRAVE }


  • François, Alexandre (2008), "Semantic maps and the typology of colexification: Intertwining polysemous networks across languages", in Vanhove, Martine (ed.), From Polysemy to Semantic change: Towards a Typology of Lexical Semantic Associations, Studies in Language Companion Series, 106, Amsterdam, New York: Benjamins, pp. 163–215.
  • Gast, Volker & Maria Koptjevskaja-Tamm. 2018. The areal factor in lexical typology. In D. Olmen, T. Mortelmans & F. Brisard (eds), Aspects of Linguistic Variation, 43–82. Berlin: DeGruyter.
  • Georgakopoulos, Thanasis, Daniel A. Werning, Jörg Hartlieb, Tomoki Kitazumi, Lidewij van de Peut, Annette Sundermeyer & Gaëlle Chantrain. 2016. The meaning of ancient words for ‘earth’: An exercise in visualizing colexification on a semantic map. In Gerd Graßhoff & Michael Meyer (eds), Space and Knowledge. Special issue of eTopoi. Journal for Ancient Studies 6. 418–452.
  • Jackson, J.; Watts, J.; Henry, T.; List, J.-M.; Mucha, P.; Forkel, R.; Greenhill, S.; Lindquist, K. (2019). "Emotion semantics show both cultural variation and universal structure". Science. 366 (6472): 1517–1522. doi:10.1126/science.aaw8160 (inactive 2020-01-16). PMID 31857485.
  • Juvonen, Päivi & Maria Koptjevskaja-Tamm. 2016. The Lexical Typology of Semantic Shifts (Cognitive Linguistics Research 58). Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.
  • List, Johann-Mattis; Greenhill, Simon; Anderson, Cormac; Mayer, Thomas; Tresoldi, Tiago; Forkel, Robert (2018). "CLiCS²: An improved database of cross-linguistic colexifications assembling lexical data with the help of cross-linguistic data formats". Linguistic Typology. 22 (2): 277–306. doi:10.22425/jul.2015.16.2.63.
  • Pericliev, Vladimir. 2015. On colexification among basic vocabulary. Journal of Universal Language 16(2). 63–93. doi:10.22425/jul.2015.16.2.63.
  • Rzymski, C.; Tresoldi, T.; Greenhill, S.; Wu, M.; Schweikhard, N.; Koptjevskaja-Tamm, M.; Gast, V.; Bodt, T.; Hantgan, A.; Kaiping, G.; Chang, S.; Lai, Y.; Morozova, N.; Arjava, H.; Hübler, N.; Koile, E.; Pepper, S.; Proos, M.; Epps, B.; Blanco, I.; Hundt, C.; Monakhov, S.; Pianykh, K.; Ramesh, S.; Gray, R.; Forkel, R.; List, J.-M. (2020). "The Database of Cross-Linguistic Colexifications, reproducible analysis of cross- linguistic polysemies". Scientific Data. 7 (13): 1–12. doi:10.1038/s41597-019-0341-x.
  • Schapper, Antoinette, Lila San Roque & Rachel Hendery. 2016. Tree, firewood and fire in the languages of Sahul. In Päivi Juvonen & Maria Koptjevskaja-Tamm (eds.), The Lexical Typology of Semantic Shifts. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter.
  • Urban, Matthias. 2012. Analyzability and semantic associations in referring expressions. Leiden University PhD dissertation.

External links[edit]

  • CLiCS “Database of Cross-Linguistic Colexifications”.