Research Topic

The Evolution of Meaning: Challenges in Quantitative Lexical Typology

About this Research Topic

This Research Topic deals with a challenge in linguistics: the mechanisms of the evolution of word meaning. Word meaning is often variable and composite, and the meaning of words may turn out differently depending on how words are used (Tamm et al 2021, Jackson et al 2019). Research on the cross-linguistic generality of polysemy and usage-based meaning is currently in its infancy (Majid 2012, Youn et al. 2016, Rzymski et al. 2020, Jackson et al. 2019). In addition, relatively little is known about how principles of semantic change (Traugott and Dasher 2002, Sweetser 1991) apply beyond localized studies of specific semantic fields and well-described languages and language families (Juvonen & Koptjevskaja-Tamm 2016). Through semantic typology we may establish lexical concepts, but we have limited knowledge of the generality of these estimations (Jackson et al 2019). Some basic lexical concepts are supposedly common to all languages (Haspelmath 2009, Mathilde et al 2021). These common words are evolutionarily stable—they have low change rates and are seldom borrowed (Tadmor & Haspelmath 2009, Greenhill et al 2017, Gast and Tamm 2021) due to their high saliency and frequency (Pagel et al 2007, Vejdemo et al 2016, Carling et al 2019). However, other semantic fields remain understudied (List et al. 2016), and it is unclear if the same general mechanisms of semantic evolution (Traugott and Dasher 2002, Dubossarsky 2018, Hamilton et al. 2018) apply across fields, languages, and language families.

Word meaning is known to be highly unstable and difficult to define. Meaning can change from one generation to another, and the usage and meaning of a word may deviate from one speaker to another. This is the particular reason why evolution of word meaning has been a highly complicated scientific domain. Nevertheless, with new large-scale data (Rzymski et al 2020) and new models and methods for analyzing them (List et al. 2016, 2017, Dellert and Busch 2018, Dubossarsky 2018, Hamilton et al. 2018, Bowern 2019, Georgakopoulos et al. 2021, Tahmasebi et al. 2021), we are now in a position to approach the topic of semantic evolution in a renewed fashion. This collection will deal with the evolution of word meaning from various perspectives, with a focus on quantitative and computational models and their advantages and shortcomings for assessing general trends in the evolution of meaning.

We especially welcome studies that contribute to one of the following themes:

• Quantitative approaches to aspects of meaning change, especially those that focus on understudied families (Jordan 2011), understudied semantic fields (Georgakopoulos & Polis 2021), and the evolutionary process itself, such as studying rate (Verkerk 2015, Vejdemo & Hörberg 2016, Gast & Koptjevskaja-Tamm 2021), sources of variation (Georgakopoulos et al. 2021), universal attractors, etc. This includes quantitative and/or phylogenetic work on polysemy and semantic shift.
• Computational approaches to semantic change using word embeddings (Xu & Kemp 2015, Dubossarsky 2018, Hamilton et al. 2018, Yao et al. 2018, Tahmasebi et al. 2021), especially those that use diachronic corpora and address understudied languages and language families. Work on diachronic corpora could focus on how much word embeddings of the same word change over time. Work on one or more sets of cognates could focus on how much word embeddings of the same etymon change over time within a set of language families.
• The role of semantic change in phylogeny building, including work on etymologies (Wilkins 1996, List 2016).


Keywords: language typology, meaning, lexicon, quantitative methods, large data, etymology, semantic change, semantic evolution


Important Note: All contributions to this Research Topic must be within the scope of the section and journal to which they are submitted, as defined in their mission statements. Frontiers reserves the right to guide an out-of-scope manuscript to a more suitable section or journal at any stage of peer review.

This Research Topic deals with a challenge in linguistics: the mechanisms of the evolution of word meaning. Word meaning is often variable and composite, and the meaning of words may turn out differently depending on how words are used (Tamm et al 2021, Jackson et al 2019). Research on the cross-linguistic generality of polysemy and usage-based meaning is currently in its infancy (Majid 2012, Youn et al. 2016, Rzymski et al. 2020, Jackson et al. 2019). In addition, relatively little is known about how principles of semantic change (Traugott and Dasher 2002, Sweetser 1991) apply beyond localized studies of specific semantic fields and well-described languages and language families (Juvonen & Koptjevskaja-Tamm 2016). Through semantic typology we may establish lexical concepts, but we have limited knowledge of the generality of these estimations (Jackson et al 2019). Some basic lexical concepts are supposedly common to all languages (Haspelmath 2009, Mathilde et al 2021). These common words are evolutionarily stable—they have low change rates and are seldom borrowed (Tadmor & Haspelmath 2009, Greenhill et al 2017, Gast and Tamm 2021) due to their high saliency and frequency (Pagel et al 2007, Vejdemo et al 2016, Carling et al 2019). However, other semantic fields remain understudied (List et al. 2016), and it is unclear if the same general mechanisms of semantic evolution (Traugott and Dasher 2002, Dubossarsky 2018, Hamilton et al. 2018) apply across fields, languages, and language families.

Word meaning is known to be highly unstable and difficult to define. Meaning can change from one generation to another, and the usage and meaning of a word may deviate from one speaker to another. This is the particular reason why evolution of word meaning has been a highly complicated scientific domain. Nevertheless, with new large-scale data (Rzymski et al 2020) and new models and methods for analyzing them (List et al. 2016, 2017, Dellert and Busch 2018, Dubossarsky 2018, Hamilton et al. 2018, Bowern 2019, Georgakopoulos et al. 2021, Tahmasebi et al. 2021), we are now in a position to approach the topic of semantic evolution in a renewed fashion. This collection will deal with the evolution of word meaning from various perspectives, with a focus on quantitative and computational models and their advantages and shortcomings for assessing general trends in the evolution of meaning.

We especially welcome studies that contribute to one of the following themes:

• Quantitative approaches to aspects of meaning change, especially those that focus on understudied families (Jordan 2011), understudied semantic fields (Georgakopoulos & Polis 2021), and the evolutionary process itself, such as studying rate (Verkerk 2015, Vejdemo & Hörberg 2016, Gast & Koptjevskaja-Tamm 2021), sources of variation (Georgakopoulos et al. 2021), universal attractors, etc. This includes quantitative and/or phylogenetic work on polysemy and semantic shift.
• Computational approaches to semantic change using word embeddings (Xu & Kemp 2015, Dubossarsky 2018, Hamilton et al. 2018, Yao et al. 2018, Tahmasebi et al. 2021), especially those that use diachronic corpora and address understudied languages and language families. Work on diachronic corpora could focus on how much word embeddings of the same word change over time. Work on one or more sets of cognates could focus on how much word embeddings of the same etymon change over time within a set of language families.
• The role of semantic change in phylogeny building, including work on etymologies (Wilkins 1996, List 2016).


Keywords: language typology, meaning, lexicon, quantitative methods, large data, etymology, semantic change, semantic evolution


Important Note: All contributions to this Research Topic must be within the scope of the section and journal to which they are submitted, as defined in their mission statements. Frontiers reserves the right to guide an out-of-scope manuscript to a more suitable section or journal at any stage of peer review.

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Submission Deadlines

31 July 2022 Abstract
30 December 2022 Manuscript

Participating Journals

Manuscripts can be submitted to this Research Topic via the following journals:

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Topic Editors

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Submission Deadlines

31 July 2022 Abstract
30 December 2022 Manuscript

Participating Journals

Manuscripts can be submitted to this Research Topic via the following journals:

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