Evolution of Semantic Systems

Are the semantic categories coded in words and grammar universal, a product of non-linguistic cognition?

Or are they largely conventions, free to vary arbitrarily from community to community? And what governs the variation that exists: can it be explained by geographic and/or genealogical processes, or is it essentially random? Questions such as these have elicited extreme and contradictory opinions from scholars over the centuries. In the Evolution of Semantic Systems project, we aim to test predictions arising from these positions by conducting a large-scale empirical study on meaning over extant Indo-European languages.

Answering these questions has broad implications. For cognitive science, this allows us to investigate whether some semantic domains are more prone to environmental, cultural influence than others. For linguistics, it allows us to trace the evolution of both form and meaning. For anthropology, we can discover how cultural history constrains or enables change in the meanings that we express in language.

The main aim of the Evolution of Semantic Systems project is to investigate how meanings vary over space and change over time. We focus on different kinds of categories: containers (kinds of objects), colour (attributes of objects), body parts (parts of objects), and spatial relations (how objects are related to one another).

Read more about about the aims of the project and the elicitation protocol.

Originally started at the Max Planck Institute for Psychoinguistics in 2011, this study has collected data from 20 participants in each of 67 languages from the Indo-European language family.

The project is carried out by members of the EoSS research consortium.