2017-2020: Historical Linguistics and Formal Semantics



The proposed research group sets out to better our understanding of natural language by combining two areas of linguistic research that have not been integrated so far: historical linguistics, the study of how and why languages change over time, and formal semantics, the study of linguistic meaning. These two subfields have developed from remote intellectual disciplines, the former from the philological world, and the latter from mathematical logic. Rooted in such different backgrounds, these two subfields of linguistics do not naturally converge in terms of their goals, methodologies, and research questions. These subfields of linguistics have drawn closer in the second half of the 20th century in the study of semantic change in grammaticalization, i.e., the complex process through which grammatical meanings develop from lexical meanings. Despite these endeavors semantic change is still poorly understood, primarily due to three factors: (1) a lack of in depth case studies from a wide range of languages; (2) a lack of an explicit theory of semantics underlying claims about semantic change; and (3) a poor understanding of the relationship between semantics, pragmatics, and syntax in language change.

Our proposed research group sets out to create a research paradigm that will fill this gap.  The group will jointly explore in a systematic manner how studies in historical linguistics and in semantics can contribute to one another, in an attempt to draw conclusions about the properties of a variety of semantic categories (e.g. negation, temporality, modality), their universality, and the mechanisms underlying recurring shifts in meanings over time, or paths of semantic change, within these categories.

Therefore, the goal of the proposed group is twofold: first, to formulate and test hypotheses about the motivations for and constraints on semantic change; and second, to investigate the extent to which language change sheds light on the nature of synchronic semantic categories.

The research group will be a forum for collaboration between semanticists, historical linguists, typologists, theoreticians, and philologists. The languages under investigation will include both modern and ancient languages, from a number of distinct language families: Semitic (in particular, Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, and Akkadian), Ancient Egyptian-Coptic, Romance (e.g., French, Spanish, Romanian), Germanic (e.g., English, Yiddish), Austronesian (e.g., Indonesian, Minangkabau). The group members have research expertise in these languages, which, importantly, have a documented historical record that allows study of language change. In particular, Semitic and Egyptian give us a historical perspective of 4500 years of documented texts. Other languages may be added, depending on the research students that will take part in the group’s work.

In terms of methodology, the group will employ (i) the toolbox of theoretical linguistics, i.e., the analytical methods provided by contemporary semantics, pragmatics, and syntax, and in addition updated methodologies in historical linguistics (ii) diachronic corpora in order to collect data from historically documented languages; (iii) cross-linguistic comparison (i.e., linguistic typology), which provides inductively valid statements about the distribution of synchronic structures in the world's languages, and thereby, by inference, hypotheses about the distribution of the processes of change that gave rise to the structures; (iv) experimental semantics and pragmatics, which are nascent fields that allow linguists to model, to an extent, the kinds of situations we think are implicated in language change.

The proposed research aims at shaping a new methodology of linguistic investigation. We are confident that this kind of research can find a natural home at Scholion.