Research

I’m a cognitive and historical linguist interested in what we can learn about the mind by observing changes in linguistic meaning. Below are listed my academic publications and some descriptions of research projects I’ve been involved in. For more details, please see my CV.

Publications:

Current projects:

Historical Bible comparison

We can look at semantic change from two perspectives: by following a word through its various meanings over time (semasiologically) or by following a concept as various words evoke it over time (onomasiologically). To apply an onomasiological approach to corpus linguistics, you need to be able to compare texts from different times that use different words to talk about the same concepts. The easiest way to do this is by comparing subsequent translations of the same material, and few materials have been translated as often or as early as the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. I’m working on assembling an aligned corpus of French Bible translations, some quite old and others quite recent, to allow for broad and quantitative onomasiological analysis of the lexicon. This corpus will help me to answer questions such as: At what rate does the lexicon change? Are particular categories of meaning more prone to lexical replacement than others? This corpus may also be of interest to scholars of translation and religious history.

The students in my History of French class play an important part in this research, helping to transcribe and correct OCR for some of the oldest French Bible manuscripts.

Metonymic argument alternations

Linguistic constructions have slots that are filled with particular semantic roles. In some constructions, a few different roles can fill the same slot, such as “The mayor denied the allegations” or “The press release denied the allegations”. Alternations like these are examples of metonymy, where one item stands for another that it’s closely related to. I look for instances of these metonymic argument alternations in historical data to see how the use of particular metonymies has changed over time. Metonymy is a fundamental mechanism in cognition and language, so observing how its usage varies over time may help us to better understand how cultural and linguistic associations that we take for granted have developed.

Past projects:

Semantic change in body-part terms

It’s notoriously difficult to identify patterns in lexical semantic change. One domain where there has been some progress is words for parts of the human body. Prior researchers have found that new words for body parts tend to come from particular sources. However, a close look at data on this subject in the Romance languages (especially within the DECOLAR database) shows a surprising number of exceptions to these patterns. I explore why these exceptions occur and how we can revise our understanding of universal trends in semantic change.

Nasal vowel misspellings

The French nasal vowels have shifted over time to the point that the way they’re spelled is not very reflective of how most people actually pronounce them, especially in certain dialects. In formal writing, the force of spelling standards is stronger than any phonological influence. But on Twitter, where people pay less attention to accidental misspellings and feel more free to use creative spellings intentionally, nonstandard spellings of nasal vowels appear that more closely match modern pronunciation. I collected nonstandard spellings of nasal vowels from Twitter to see which words receive shifted spellings most often and why.