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Semantic Changes in Apparent Time

Abstract : Semantic changes have been scientifically studied for more than 150 years (Nerlich 1992). All along this history, successive generations of scholars have adopted at least three different theoretical frameworks (Magué 2005). Chronologically, the first trend focused on the identification of the different kinds of semantic changes a lexeme can undergo. This taxonomist trend culminates with Ullman (1962). The second trend adopts a typologist point of view and is characterized both by the advocacy of cross-linguistic studies and the focus on semantic field rather than isolated lexemes. A typical work in the trend is Viberg (1983). Finally, a cognitivist trend has more recently emerged, which aims at explaining the cognitive mechanisms that underlie semantic change (e.g., Sweetser 1990). Despite the great variety of theoretical approaches the study of semantic changes has gone through, the methodologies used have surprisingly remained the same: only completed semantic changes are studied, either by the analysis of synchronic manifestations, i.e., polysemy or sets of cognates, or by the analysis of the development of a new meaning from corpus evidences. What makes this fact even more surprising is that, on the other hand, the study of phonological changes has undergone a methodological revolution (which has entailed theoretical breakthroughs) during the last 40 years with the emergence of the Labovian variationist sociolinguistics (Labov 1963, 2001). Sociolinguistics studies the correlation between linguistic variation and socioeconomic factors. Among those factors, age of the speaker is of particular interest. Assuming the Apparent Time Hypothesis (Bailey et al. 1991), which holds that speakers acquire their idiolect mainly during a critical period in their childhood, correlation between age and linguistic variation is the synchronic manifestation of a change in progress. Most of ongoing linguistic changes observed that way are phonological changes (Labov 1963), few are morphosyntactic ones (Parrott 2002), but, to our knowledge, semantic changes have remained left aside from variationist sociolinguistics. A possible explanation for this state of affairs lies in methodological difficulty to measure precisely and objectively enough the semantic variation. While phonetic variation is directly observable from speakers' productions, since sounds are precisely the public part of linguistic communication, meanings are mental entities and are not directly made public during communication. The experimenter who wishes to study the semantic variation faces thus the double challenge of obtaining an objective representation of the private mental meaning and of measuring semantic variation from this representation. The goal of this paper is to present a method to achieve this double challenge. The method presented here is based on the work in the field of quantitative anthropology of Romney et al. (2000) which addresses the issue of inter-cultural differences in the representation of various cultural domains. The main idea it relies on, is to apply statistical treatment to semantic similarity judgments performed by speakers between words belonging to a same semantic field.
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Jean-Philippe Magué. Semantic Changes in Apparent Time. 32nd Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society, 2006, Berkeley, United States. ⟨halshs-00802034⟩

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