21 Sep 2022
My article “Regularity of semantic change in Romance anatomical terms” has just been published in the Journal of Historical Linguistics. Changes in word meaning (like silly ‘blessed’ > ‘foolish, funny’ or mouse ‘animal’ > ‘computer device’) are often viewed as idiosyncratic, despite efforts to identify regular trends in the kinds of changes that are likely or unlikely. It would be really useful to know what trends exist cross-linguistically to help historical linguists reconstruct dead languages and to help us understand how the mind and communication work more generally. In the 80s and 90s, some researchers compared semantic changes among anatomical terms (head, arm, knee etc.) across many of the world’s languages and proposed a handful of trends that they observed. My paper updates this research with a more detailed investigation of 14 Romance languages (including major ones like Spanish and those with fewer speakers like Sardinian). I looked at the history of terms for 97 body parts, borrowing data from a great resource called DECOLAR (le Dictionnaire Étymologique et Cognitif des Langues Romanes). I classified the semantic changes to see how well they fit into these previously described trends.
I confirmed most of the trends, such as how it’s common for terms for animal body parts to come to refer to human body parts (like gamba, which referred to a part of a horse’s leg in Classical Latin, but refers to a human leg in Italian). However, I found counterexamples to the claim that changes only occur in the direction PART > WHOLE (so a word for ‘upper arm’ can come to mean ‘entire arm’, but never the reverse – except I found the reverse!). This shows why it’s important in typological research to not only look broadly at lots of different languages (like previous studies did), but also in depth at lots of words and understudied languages (like my study did). I also found a difference in the kinds of semantic changes that you see with “marked” concepts (unusual or specific concepts like ‘back of the knee’ or ‘uvula’) and “unmarked” concepts (basic concepts like “arm” or “leg”). If you’re a historical linguist trying to reconstruct a dead language, you should be suspicious of too many metaphorical changes with unmarked concepts, but metaphor is the most frequent kind of change for marked concepts. This is something I’ll need to keep in mind as I study semantic change in other areas beyond body parts: two concepts that belong to the same domain (like body parts, emotions, colors, etc.) may show very different kinds of change if one is more marked than the other.
You can read my article on the journal’s website, where it’s currently published Online First before it will be assigned to an issue later.