August 17, 2012
Collins Conference Room
George Starostin (Center for Comparative Linguistics, Russian State University for the Humanities, Moscow)
Abstract. Since the emergence of comparative-historical linguistics as a separate branch of science in the XIXth century, the study of semantic change has steadily remained one of its weakest areas. Unlike phonetic change, where regular patterns may be established on large amounts of lexical data, semantic shifts have always produced the impression of being random, individual, and completely unpredictable. Issues of whether phonetically corresponding words in different languages with significantly divergent meanings (such as English clean vs. German klein 'small', etc.) could go back to the same common ancestor were mostly resolved based on researchers' intuition, and uniform mechanisms of semantic reconstruction were non-existent.
Although the last several decades have seen a renewal of interest in the theoretical aspects of this problem (works by W. Labov, E. Traugott et al.), little has been done in the way of solving it in the interests of practically-oriented comparative linguists who are working on reconstruction of proto-language states. In the meantime, the emergence of such a new subdiscipline as macro-comparative linguistics (research on deep-level genetic relationship between languages) has exacerbated the issue: the larger the chronological distance between languages, the less reliable are the results of linguistic comparison that are based primarily on phonetic correspondences / similarities and downplay the semantics of the compared items.
Ongoing research by participants of the Evolution of Human Languages (EHL) program shows that semantic change is not as unpredictable as it is often considered, especially within the so-called «basic lexicon», consisting of items that are generally stable over vast stretches of time and are therefore of crucial importance to genetic classification and historical reconstruction. In fact, the majority of semantic shifts, reliably attested in this area of the vocabulary, can be reduced to a highly limited number of possibilities, commonly observed either within particular geographical areas or world-wide. Consequently, at this juncture, it would make sense to focus on building up a database of typical or trivial semantic shifts, which may then be used as an objective basis for evaluating the semantic component of etymological research and for proper semantic reconstruction, rather than spend time on trying to formulate general laws of semantic development, which, in and out of themselves, have relatively little value for the practicing historical linguist.
Purpose: Research Collaboration
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