Project Aims

The Evolution of Semantic Systems (EoSS) project investigates 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).

These choices are motivated by questions like:

  • How variable are semantic categories across languages?
  • Are categories of relations between objects more cross-linguistically variable than simple categories of objects? Are the categories of attributes more stable than those of parts?
  • What is the variation in the patterns and processes of historical change of different classes of semantic categories?

Our focus is on one aspect of meaning, namely extensional semantics, i.e., how similar, or different, are the referential ranges (“boundaries”) of words across languages. Does gelb ‘yellow’ in German cover the same hues as geel in Dutch? Does the meaning of arm across languages include or exclude the hand?

Previous studies of semantic change have focussed on change in the meaning of individual words. They also rely primarily on meanings which can be extracted from texts. Our project has a novel perspective. We investigate how words are used to categorise objects of various sorts. By using an objective grid of comparison across languages we can quantify similarity, difference and change across languages.

We take a phylogenetic approach, incorporating a class of analytical techniques developed to deal with hierarchically related entities such as species or languages. The phylogenetic approach to variation further distinguishes this project from previous cross-linguistic studies of meaning, which have advocated using a sample of diverse languages from around the world. However, nothing is known about what constitutes “diverse” for this aspect of linguistic structure. Moreover, existing studies typically over-represent easily accessible, national languages with a long literary history, but do not control for similarities due to relatedness.

We address these problems directly by studying all languages in the single well-resolved Indo-European family. By tracking form and meaning in a single language family, we use phylogenetic methods to understand the evolutionary dynamics of semantic change. These methods allow us to directly address similarity due to history and geography, but more importantly, we can investigate directional processes of change, reconstruct ancestral meanings, and explore dependencies between words and concepts. This project is innovative in scope, bringing together linguistics, evolutionary anthropology and cognitive science in a synthesis which promises an enriched account of conceptual structure and semantic relations.