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Lecture | LUCL Colloquium - Spring 2014

LUCL Colloquium: Evolution of Semantic systems

  • Michael Dunn (Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen)
Friday 28 February 2014
Cleveringaplaats 1
2311 BD Leiden
Room 227

Evolution of Semantic systems


In order to  properly understand the variation of culturally transmitted systems we must consider the role of diachronic, evolutionary processes. While linguistics and the evolutionary sciences have been closely linked from the beginning (e.g. Schleicher 1869), the focus of "evolutionary linguistics" has been on the abstract and easily isolable properties of language such as sound change and morphological innovation. An evolutionary approach to higher order aspects of language has come much later, and work on large scale historical semantics can barely be said to exist at all. This has led to certain lacunae: In the controversies the pro- and anti-universalist positions on lexical classification (notably in the domain of colour semantics) the role of the language family has been neglected. While it has been noted that "naming patterns are the result of diachronic, not just synchronic, processes" (Malt 2010), there are a number of broad, empirical questions that have not been adequately addressed: Do semantic systems in closely related languages tend to resemble each other more than their more distant relatives? To what extent does this vary in different semantic domains? Can we distinguish patterns due to inheritance from patterns due to contact? What is the connection between the variation in categorisation and the variation in labels?

The Evolution of Semantic Systems consortium is carrying out an ambitious empirical study of semantic variation, led by Michael Dunn, Fiona Jordan and Asifa Majid of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen. Over the course of the study, we will collect extensional semantic (naming) data in four different semantic domains from 20 individuals from each of 50 Indo-European language communities, sampled from Iceland to Sri Lanka. We investigate the domains of colour naming, body parts, spatial relations, and object classification, using methods from computational phylogenetics and ecology to investigate the principles underlying semantic variation in our sample. In this talk I will present preliminary results from the Germanic branch of Indo-European. These results show (i) that there are different degrees of phylogenetic patterning for the different semantic domains, independent to the role of geographical proximity, and (ii) that lexical histories do not necessarily map onto the history of the categories that they name.


  • Malt, B. C. 2010. Naming Artifacts: Patterns and Processes. In "The Psychology of Learning and Motivation", ed. B. Ross. Elsevier.

  • Schleicher, August. 1869. Darwinism Tested by the Science of Language. London: John Camdem Hotten. [originally published as "Die Darwinsche Theorie und die Sprachwissenschaft", 1863]

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