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). With our interactive maps we try to give a clear overview of such interactions between non-modal and modal meanings in synchrony and diachrony.

The interactive semantic 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 offered 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). The design and functionalities of the maps have been developed by Helena Bermúdez Sabel.




How to read the interactive semantic modal maps

Each map offers a diachronic visualisation of the semantic evolution of a lemma starting with its etymology (on the extreme left). A coloured bar (from dark blue to light blue) indicates the century from which a meaning is attested. Along with the different meanings of the lemma, the map includes the constructions in which the lemma appears (e.g. potestas and potestatem facio). The vertical order reflects the semantic groups to which a meaning belongs as delineated in the ThLL (this is the main reason why the constructions are not treated as separate elements after the meanings of the lemma and why an expression can appear more than once).

Each map can be visualised in a bilingual version or in a Latin one via the option ‘Select language’. In the bilingual Latin-English version, the English equivalents of each meaning of the headword appear inside the arrows. For constructions, the wording is indicated on the left outside the arrow and the meaning is specified inside the arrow. 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). A double click on any of the visible meanings allows the reader to reset the visualization.

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).

When you hover over a meaning, the first attestation appears (but see also caveat 2).

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.


  1. 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.
  2. When there is a semantic change from a non-modal (sometimes specifically pre-modal) to a modal reading and the general meaning doesn’t change, the attestations for both the non-modal and the modal reading appear. The change can be tracked by means of the colour-coding for the different readings. As the general meaning remains the same, there is no new translation and all the attestations appear when you hover over the translation.
  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.

Available maps