The interactive visualisation of semantic modal shifts

Lexical modal markers are words which can convey non-modal (e.g. certus ‘defined’) as well as modal (certum scio… ‘I know for sure that…’) meanings. This type of polysemy can appear in synchrony as well as in diachrony (e.g. the construction certum habeo seems to develop modal meanings about two centuries after its first attestations). Moreover, a fine-grained representation of semantic shift must take into account not only the shift from one meaning to another, but also the synchronic presence of other meanings which could potentially have had an influence on that shift (e.g. the modal development of certum habeo could have been influenced by the modal construction certum est, whose modal reading is by far more ancient). We think that this complexity can be represented in interactive diachronic maps so as to give a clear overview of such interactions between non-modal and modal meanings in synchrony and diachrony. Besides presenting our work concerning Latin modal markers, we also offer the community an open tool so any user can easily design a semantic (modal) map, Pygmalion (Dell’Oro et al. 2020).

The interactive diachronic maps are the results of the research as well as of the joint skills and efforts of the WoPoss team (cf. in particular Bermúdez Sabel, Dell’Oro & Marongiu 2020b). Our goal is to plot a semantic map for each of the modal markers annotated according to the WoPoss Guidelines. Each map is based on an accurate synthesis of the description of a lemma as offered by the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae (ThLL) (Marongiu & Dell’Oro, in preparation). If the ThLL has not yet compiled a lemma, the synthesis is provisionally based on the description supplied by the Oxford Latin Dictionary (OLD). In our syntheses information about the etymology of each lemma mainly relies on the Etymological Dictionary of Latin (EDL), the Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue latine (Ernout & Meillet 1932) and in some cases the Historische Laut- und Formenlehre der lateinischen Sprache (Meiser 1998).




How to read the interactive diachronic modal maps

We provide two visualisations that highlight different types of information. In the first visualisation, we can access a very detailed representation of each meaning with very rich information like the date of emergence and disappearance or its first attestation(s). On the other hand, the second visualisation entails a network graph, which is suitable to have a quick overview of all the meanings and their relationships.

Visualisation 1

Each map offers a diachronic visualisation of the semantic evolution of a lemma starting with its etymology (on top). A coloured bar (from dark blue to light blue) indicates the century from which a meaning is attested. Each meaning appears in a arrow whose length depends on the first (and, if pertinent, the last) attestations of that meaning. Along with the different meanings of the lemma, the map includes the collocations in which the lemma appears (e.g. potestas and potestatem facio). The meanings can be reordered according to different criteria, thus the user can select an organisation by semantic group, by collocation or by chronology (please be aware that collocations won’t appear explicitly if you choose the ‘chronological’ or the ‘group’ option).

For each map, we present a bilingual version and a Latin one. In the bilingual Latin-English version, the English equivalents of each meaning of the headword appear inside the arrow. For collocations, the wording is indicated on the left outside the arrow and the meaning is specified inside. In the monolingual version the arrows contain synonyms or an explanation of the meaning.

When you click on a meaning, the meanings with which it has some specific semantic relations appear (while only loosely related meanings disappear). Semantic relations can be synchronic (relations between meanings attested during the same timespan) or diachronic (relations between meanings attested at different points in time). The type of line connecting the meanings provides information about the type of relation between them, that is, the direction of the relation. A double click on any of the visible meanings allows the reader to reset the visualisation.

The main modal types – dynamic, deontic and epistemic – and the pre-modal and post-modal meanings are colour-coded (see the legend above each map). If a meaning has two (or more) modal readings, an individual arrow with its specific dating will be present for each modal reading.

When you hover over a meaning, the first attestation appears.

Visualisation 2

The network graph conveys both the diachronic and the modal information using colours. The background colour of each node tells us the time a meaning first appears (the darker the blue, the most ancient the meaning is). The border of the node discloses the modal meaning.

Similarly to the first visualisation, the network graph presents different type of arrows between the meanings to reveal the direction of the relation.


  1. It is important to highlight that the actual version of the map reflects our knowledge of the history of a lemma as described in the ThLL. Future research and data, as derived e.g. from the annotation of the WoPoss corpus, may bring some changes to the description of the modal evolution.
  2. The actual version of the visualisation relies on syntheses which have been worked out on the basis of the ThLL. The ThLL does not usually specify whether a sense ceases to be attested. On this point more research is therefore needed.
  3. In our early chronology, we do not take into consideration very ancient passages (before the 3rd c. BCE) attested only as quotations by more recent writers, as there is no certainty that the linguistic material is quoted exactly. This is for example the case for ancient laws.

Diachronic modal maps

Corpus-based maps


Dictionary-based maps