Corpus-based evidence for the construal of adjectives with multiple meanings: The case of 'new'

Semantically complex linguistic structures have regularly presented a challenge to traditional accounts of semantics as well as cognitive semantics. In this respect, adjectival meaning has proved to be a particular challenge, which results from the mixed properties residing in the category adjective itself. Any account of adjectives is faced with the difficulty of having to accommodate both their lexical and grammatical meanings. Traditionally, an adjective’s primary function has consisted in assigning properties to the noun it premodifies. As will be shown, this is an oversimplification given that adjectives may assign different types of properties, which, inevitably, will have an impact on their construal. What is more, the findings of the corpus analysis at hand suggest that adjectival meaning cannot be restricted to adjective-noun combinations alone. Therefore, this paper sets out to demonstrate that the construal of adjectives chiefly occurs on the basis of contextual factors located outside the adjective-noun combination. It will be argued that the constraining influence of contextual input is particularly vital for the construal of adjectives with multiple meanings. The adjective new is a showcase for such an inquiry as its meaning potential reveals a complex meaning representation of two major clusters, according to which newness is either expressed in terms of temporal or categorial properties. Using corpus-based methodology, the study provides compelling evidence of highly recurrent patterns, i.e. colligations in which the adjective new is typically embedded in nominal constructions including several prepositional phrases. This important finding underlines that the construal of new relies on the contextual information available from the different layers of complex nominals. This layered (conceptual) structure of nominals manifests itself as contextual patterns including grounding elements or qualifications such as postmodifying prepositional phrases.

Keywords: Abstract nouns, adjectives, construal, context, corpus analysis, meaning potential, multiple meanings, new(ness), nominals, patterns, reification.

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