Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Through a glass darkly

In an earlier blogpost I mentioned the now largely abandoned discipline of lexicostatistics that was in vogue in the 1950s, originally initiated by Morris Swadesh (1909-1967; Swadesh 1950, 1952, 1955), but abandoned in the 1960s and henceforth often labeled as some kind of a failed theory that was explicitly proven to be wrong.

The crucial idea of Swadesh was to investigate lexical change from the perspective of the meaning of words. This perspective is contrasted with the perspective which takes similar (cognate) word forms in different languages as a starting point and compares to which degree they differ in their meanings. Swadesh's perspective, instead, starts from a set of meanings and investigates by which word forms they are expressed, and is also called an onomasiological perspective (which "names" are assigned to concepts?), while the other perspective is called a semasiological perspective (which "meanings" can words have?).

From a semasiological perspective, we would start from a set of related words and investigate their meanings. In this way, we could compare English head with German Hauptstadt "capital city" or English cup with German Kopf "head". Through such an analysis, we would learn that there was a semantic shift from the German word Haupt, which originally meant "head", to a more abstract meaning that is now probably best translated as "capital" or "main", and only occurs in compounds, such as Hauptstadt "capital city", Hauptursache "main reason", etc.

From an onomasialogical perspective, we would start from a set of meanings and investigate which words are use in order to express them in different languages:

No. Items German English Dutch Russian
1 hand Hand hand hand ruka
2 arm Arm arm arm ruka
3 mainly hauptsächlich mainly hoofdzakelijk glavny
4 head Kopf, (Haupt) head hoofd, kop golova
5 cup Tasse cup kop stakan
... ... ... ... ... ...

When looking at specific meanings in this way, one can find interesting patterns within one and the same language whenever a language uses the same or similar words to express what are different concepts in other languages. Russian thus uses the same word for "hand" and "arm", Dutch shows the same word for "head" and "cup", and Russian, Dutsch, and German have similar forms for "mainly" and "head". These patterns can be historically interpreted by reconstructing patterns of semantic shift. In the case of English cup, German Kopf, and Dutch kop, for example, the original meaning of the words was "vessel" or "cup". Later on, the word changed its meaning and came to denote "head" in German. The transition is still reflected in Dutch, where the word can denote both meanings.

We can model this situation by assuming that every word in a language has a certain reference potential (Schwarz 1996: 175; Allwood 2003; List 2014: 21f, 36). This means that every word has the potential to denote different things in the world, due to the concept it denotes primarily. In List (2014: 21), I have tried to depict this as follows:

Reference Potential of the Linguistic Sign

In this visualization, a word form refers to a meaning, and the meaning itself has the potential to denote various things in the world, but with different probabilities. A word that primarily means "head", for example, may likewise be used to denote the "first person", as in the "head of a group", and a word that primarily means "melon" may also be used to denote a "head", due to the similarity in form. We can investigate the reference potential of words by simply looking at different translations in dictionaries. As an example (from List 2014: 36), when looking at our three words English cup, Dutch kop, and German Kopf, we find the following rough arrangement with respect to the reference potential of the word (the thickness of the arrows indicating differences in denotation probability):

Reference Potential of Words Across Languages

Why do I mention all of this? First, I wanted to show that lexical change, no matter which perspective we take, is a very complex phenomenon. In a simplifying model, we could think of a lexicon as a bipartite network consisting of nodes that represent word forms in a language and nodes that represent meanings, and weighted links between word forms and meanings denoting the frequency by which a word is used to denote a given meaning. In such a network representation, lexical change could be modelled as the re-arrangement of the edges between word forms and meanings. If a word form looses all its edges, this word is lost from the language, but we could also think of new words entering the language, be it that they are borrowed, or created from the language itself. Such a model would be very simplistic, ignoring aspects like word compounding, by which new words are created from existing ones. But it would be much more realistic than the idea that lexical change is just about the gain and loss of words, as assumed in the quasi-standard model of lexical change in phylogenetic reconstruction.

This brings us to my second point. When Swadesh introduced lexicostatistics, and his very specific onomasiological perspective on lexical change, he established a model of lexical change that would deliberately ignore all interesting processes underlying the phenomenon. Since then, we have been looking through a glass darkly. This is like a crime inspector having no other means but watching potential suspects through the windows of their apartments, noticing changes, like the differently coloured words in state A and state B in the Figure below, but never knowing what was really going on inside those flats (state C).

Trough a Glass Darkly: The lexicostatistic perspective on lexical change (A, B), and what is really going on (C).

Yet, when being honest with oneself, the problem of looking through a glass darkly does not pertain to the lexicostatistic perspective alone, but effectively applies to all of our research on language change. It is just the size and the number of windows that we survey, and the cleanliness of the glasses, that may make a little difference.

  • Allwood, J. (2003) Meaning potentials and context: Some consequences for the analysis of variation in meaning. In: Cuyckens, H., R. Dirven, and J. Taylor (eds.): Cognitive approaches to lexical semantics. Mouton de Gruyter: Berlin and New York. 29-65.
  • List, J.-M. (2014) Sequence comparison in historical linguistics. Düsseldorf University Press: Düsseldorf.
  • Schwarz, M. (1996) Einführung in die kognitive Linguistik. Francke: Basel and Tübingen.
  • Swadesh, M. (1950) Salish internal relationships. Int. J. Am. Linguist. 16.4. 157-167.
  • Swadesh, M. (1952) Lexico-statistic dating of prehistoric ethnic contacts. With special reference to North American Indians and Eskimos. Proc. Am. Philol. Soc. 96.4. 452-463.
  • Swadesh, M. (1955) Towards greater accuracy in lexicostatistic dating. Int. J. Am. Linguist. 21.2. 121-137.

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