Re: Semantic leeway

From: gprosti
Message: 59636
Date: 2008-07-26

--- In, Piotr Gasiorowski <gpiotr@...> wrote:
> On 2008-07-24 23:03, gprosti wrote:
> > 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.
> To assess its _probability_ (empirically, and ex post), yes, one would.
> But this branch of linguistics is a historical discipline; it often has
> to deal with phenomena that don't happen often enough in replicable
> conditions to be approached statistically.

If statistics can't serve as support for a claim of semantic change,
what can? That isn't meant as a rhetorical question. If I proposed a
given semantic change and found a single example of this change
elsewhere, then my proposal would have a small degree of support, but
I don't see how it would have *convincing* support.

Semantic change, in
> particular, is influenced by various extralinguistic factors dependent
> on the local circumstances (whether natural of cultural). How could one
> ever quantify such things? On could easily invent a formal semantic
> model with a metric according to which the distance between, say,
> and 'jackal' (both, say, [+animal, +terrestrial, +carnivore, +canine,
> +bad, ...]) would be reasonably close. But what about 'wolf' and
> 'jarring note'?

It seems to me that one could just as easily invent a scale along
which "wolf" and "jarring note" were similar. Such a scale might be a
rather abstract one, but abstraction doesn't necessarily equal
implausibility. It is easy to systematize linguistic (and other) data,
but it is a different question whether the systematization corresponds
to something in external reality.

Here the connection, while real, is extremely indirect.
> In fact, to understand it, one has to know some completely extraneous
> facts, like the old belief (popularised by philosophers from Albertus
> Magnus to Descartes) in the natural antipathy between wolves and sheep,
> extending posthumously to their guts used for musical strings. And
> are many similarly accidental connections, e.g. the link between Juno
> Moneta in Rome and 'money'/'mint'. The best we can offer here is an
> entirely _convincing_ story, which is, however, unique, and so its
> probability cannot even be defined.

I would call Moneta > "money" a documented change. My initial question
was about non-documented changes: that is, about how one can
convincingly argue for a change that has not been documented. Maybe
you understand this already, but I wanted to make it clear in case you

> Other historical sciences have similar limitations. Take evolutionary
> biology. What is the probability that a given species of animal will
> evolve the ability to fly within the next twenty million years?
Well, it
> should have some features "preadapting" it to such a career -- whales,
> hippos and giraffes, for example, can be ruled out as candidates. But
> even such "obvious" constraints are subjective and can be wrong. All
> that we can base our reasoning on is the known precedents (just as in
> historical linguistics).
The required features may, however, evolve in
> the future, quite unexpectedly. Looking at the ancestors of whales --
> small terrestrial artiodactyls -- who would have thought?
> Piotr