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Colexification, together with its associated verb colexify, are terms used in semantics and lexical typology. They refer to the ability, for a language, to express different meanings with the same word.


Colexification describes the case of different meanings being expressed by the same word (i.e., “co-lexified”) in a language. For example, the two senses which are distinguished in English as people and village are colexified in Spanish, which uses pueblo 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]

The opposite of “co-lexify” is “dis-lexify”, i.e. 'express two meanings using different lexical forms'.[2] Thus, Russian colexifies 'arm' and 'hand' using the single word рука, but Spanish dislexifies these two meanings using two distinct words, respectively brazo v. mano.


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’
Mota pane- ‘arm’ ‘hand’ ‘wing’
Italian ciao ‘hello’ ‘goodbye’
Vietnamese chào
LSF ‘hello’ ‘thanks’
LSF (sign) ‘(s.o.) kind, nice’ ‘( easy’

Use in linguistic studies[edit]

“A given language is said to colexify two functionally distinct senses if, and only if, it can associate them with the same lexical form.”

The term was coined by the 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 that example to propose a method for constructing lexical semantic maps.

Several studies have taken up the concept of colexification and applied it to different semantic domains and various language families.[4]

Colexification is also the object of a dedicated database, known as CLiCS “Database of Cross-Linguistic Colexifications”.[5] 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,[6] and to visualize semantic networks[7] based on empirical data from the world's languages.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ See Schapper et al. (2016).
  2. ^ François (2022:95).
  3. ^ See also François (2022):95): “A language colexifies two distinct senses if it can express them using the same lexical form.”.
  4. ^ See the bibliography.
  5. ^ See List et al. (2018) and Rzymski et al. (2020).
  6. ^ For example, the colexification pair ‘hear’–‘feel’.
  7. ^ For example, the subgraph around the notion { BRAVE }


External links[edit]

  • CLiCS “Database of Cross-Linguistic Colexifications”.