Re: Semantic leeway

From: gprosti
Message: 59626
Date: 2008-07-24

--- In, Piotr Gasiorowski <gpiotr@...> wrote:
> On 2008-07-23 03:22, gprosti wrote:
> > A general methodological question: what criteria do you think should
> > be used to distinguish a probable semantic change from an improbable
> > one? Is it possible that comparative linguistics has not yet developed
> > any such criteria?
> If you want formal criteria that work infallibly, I don't think it's
> possible to lay them down. Of course there is a gradient of
> plausibility, from what is the _most_ probable (meaning no change at
> all, e.g. 'wolf' > 'wolf'), to what may be likely under certain
> circumstances (a slight shift of meaning, e.g. 'wolf' > 'jackal', in a
> country where jackals predominate),

What I'm wondering is: what empirical evidence is this gradient of
plausibility based on? For example, the empirical evidence for the
probability of semantic continuity ("wolf" > "wolf") is (I would
suspect) that linguists constantly see semantic continuity over the
history of the languages they research, suggesting a high probability
of occurrence. I have never seen this type of justification offered for
the probability of a given semantic change. To clarify what I mean:
one could offer a single example of the change "wolf" > "jackal", but
that would be one example out of hundreds or thousands of potential
cases. To establish the likelihood of the change, it seems one would
have to use a larger sample size than one.

However, it may simply be due to my lack of experience as a linguist
(whence my original question) that I have not yet seen such
argumentation used.

"Wolf" > "jackal" seems like a "slight" shift in meaning to some
people, myself included, but how can I know that this isn't a mostly-
or entirely subjective impression on my part without empirical evidence?

Semantic change may
> involve the figurative use of words, fossilised metaphors, unexpected
> associations, unpredictable misunderstandings etc. That's how the human
> mind works. Still, the more complex change you posit, the more
> justification should be given, preferably indicating the particular
> circumstances responsible for it, parallel examples from other
> languages, etc. The only thing that doesn't require an explanation is
> semantic continuity.
> Piotr