Words and Meanings: Cross-linguistic variability and regularity in the lexicon

Elisabeth Norcliffe and Asifa Majid

Typologists and documentary linguists have laid bare a striking amount of variation in the lexically named categories found in the world’s languages (Evans 2010, Koptjevskaja-Tamm & Vanhove 2012, Majid 2015, Malt & Majid 2013), reflecting the diverse cultural preoccupations and ecological interests of different communities of speakers. Indeed, substantial cross-linguistic diversity has been identified for every semantic domain that has so far been studied. The observed diversity concerns not only differences in the degree of lexical differentiation within domains, but also differences in the (often cross-cutting) dimensions along which languages lexically partition them (e.g., Bowerman 2005, Levinson 2003, Nerlove & Romney 1967).
At the same time, there are compelling recurring patterns to be found in the organisation of lexicons that imply general constraints on the evolution of form-meaning mappings. Recent years have seen a surge in interest in uncovering cross-linguistic commonalities and developing causal theories of how they arise (Carr et al. 2020, Jackson et al. 2019, Kemp et al. 2018, Xu et al. 2020, Youn et al. 2016). For example, according to one theory the lexical organisation of semantic domains reflects language-specific solutions to a communicative trade-off between simplicity and informativeness (e.g. Kemp & Regier 2012, Regier et al. 2015), and according to another the relative cross-linguistic frequency with which any two concepts colexify reflects the relative strength of conceptual relatedness between the two (Xu et al. 2020; see also Gentner & Bowerman 2009, Youn et al. 2016).
With the growing cross-disciplinary interest in variability and regularity in the lexical expression of meaning, it is timely and necessary to bring together the assorted approaches to the topic, in order to integrate findings, explore limitations of proposed theories, and generate new ideas. To this end, this session features contributions from across the language sciences that engage with lexical meaning cross-linguistically and the factors — cognitive, communicative, historical, socio-cultural – that shape and constrain it. A wide range of topics will be explored including colexification, the evolution of word meaning, word entropies, polysemy and learnability, metaphoric processes and the directionality of semantic change. The talks exemplify diverse empirical and theoretical perspectives and range from those exploring overarching principles regarding the lexicon as well as focused domain-specific studies (perception, temperature, motion, space). Taken together, this theme session uniquely brings together a wide range of speakers coming from diverse perspectives but who all bring new light to the conference topic of modelling language and cognition.


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