Data d'edició: 09 de Maig de 2012
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Heterosemy is a variant of polisemy. Heterosemy supposes that the various interrelated meanings of a morpheme are associated with different grammatical categories.

An example of heterosemy is the verb To Go, which functions as a full verb of motion (I go to the swimming pool), but also as an auxiliary verb in verbal periphrases meaning future tense (I’m going to tell you the truth).


Related concepts
Basic bibliography
Further readings


The concept of heterosemy was coined by Linchtenberk (1991) in a paper about Oceanic languages. Heterosemy is the consequence of a semantic and syntactic change that originates words with different —but related— meanings, which pertain to different grammatical categories.

A representative example is the verb To Have, which can be used in different meanings and with different grammatical values. Hence, in (1), (2), and to some extent in (3), To Have functions as a possessive verb.

(1)   I have a yellow car

(2)   Irene has a fertile imagination

(3)   I have many mails to send/I have a lot of mails to send

In (1) there is a prototypical example of a possessive verb (‘to have a tangible object’); in (2), however, the notion of possession is metaphorical: imagination is not an object that may be held in literal terms. In (3) the possessive meaning is less defined, since it is near that of (4)/it is close to that of (4), where To Have is an auxiliary verb. That is, the utterance of (3) is ambiguous between a possessive reading (I have many mails) and a deontic sense (I have to send many mails). In (4), instead, the order of elements in the sentence favors that the sentence would be interpreted as an obligation.

(4)  I have to send many mails/a lot of mails

On the one hand, the posposition of the complement many mails/a lot of mails weakens the possessive sense: many mails is now the direct object of send. And, on the other hand, the new order makes impossible that que functions as a relative, and, in consequence, reinforces the deontic sense of the whole construction (Tener + que + infinitive).

The above examples show that the different, but related, meanings of a morpheme can be related to different grammatical contexts. This kind of polisemy is that which defines heterosemy.

Related concepts

Semantic change
Syntactic change

Basic bibliography

Lichtenberk,Frantisek (1991), “Semantic Change and Heterosemy in Grammaticalization”, Language, Vol. 67, No. 3, pp. 475-509.

Further readings

Ameka, Felix K. -  Dench, Alan Charles -  Evans, Nicholas (2006), Catching Language: The Standing Challenge of Grammar Writing. Trends in linguistics, 167, Berlin, M. de Gruyter.