Volume 8 Issue 1 (2010)
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We Just Lag Behind, or Phonetics Is Ahead of Semantics, as
Author’s reply to ‘The Dynamic Potential of
Probabilistic Semantic Maps’ by Andrea Sansò
University of Bern
I fully agree with Sansò (2010) that diachrony is an
important issue for any kind of semantic map, but I do not think this is any
fundamental theoretical problem for probabilistic semantic maps. There are
considerable practical problems, as Sansò points out. The crucial
question is how to obtain the right sets of data. But who would have believed
fifty years ago that many answers for fundamental theoretical questions of
language change will come not from ancient texts, but from fresh datasets in
It is very convenient to represent diachronic changes in a strong data
reduction mode. In phonetics, we have the mechanic Neogrammarian sound laws, and
in semantics we can rely on the irreversible grammaticalization paths that can
be framed in terms of categorial metaphors. As far as phonetics is concerned, it
has become clear especially from the work of Labov (1994) that sound change is a
stochastic phenomenon and that standard statistical methods such as multivariate
analysis, linear regression models, and multidimensional scaling can reveal much
stronger regularities in the seemingly irregular exemplar data than any discrete
analysis could show. It is easy to model a diachronic development as a vector
connecting mean values of different stages of exemplar data (Labov 1994:59).
This is standard in sociolinguistics. Determining differences between phonemes
based on exemplar data by calculating mean values has long been practiced in
phonetics; see, for instance, Disner (1983) and Ladefoged (1984). But change is
also visible without data reduction: “The new and vigorous changes that we
have located in various cities usually show long, elliptical distributions in
the direction of the change, as opposed to the more globular distribution of
stable vowels” (Labov 1994:457).
Ladefoged (1984) found that “out of chaos comes order”, and
Labov (1994:465) finds “regularity within irregularity”. But, as
Labov (1994:450) points out, “[t]he Neogrammarian viewpoint must of course
be modified to accept stochastic regularities in place of absolute rules”,
and he speculates that “[the Neogrammarians] would not have been as likely
to welcome the tools of statistical analysis and probabilistic reasoning, since
they were committed to discrete solutions” (1994:470). In the same way, it
cannot be expected that contemporary students of grammaticalization will be
over-enthusiastic about probabilistic semantic maps. I fully agree with van der
Auwera (2008) that the use of classical semantic maps should be continued if not
understood as a rejection of additional alternative methods. After having
realized that sound laws are stochastic, it is still very convenient to
represent them in discrete terms. In many cases, there is no other choice due to
a lack of appropriate data. The same holds for semantic maps. The question is
not whether implicational or probabilistic maps should be preferred: they show
the same kind of phenomena, but with different levels of data reduction. It is
not the linguists’ choice which method to use. It is the data’s
choice. The linguist can only choose which kind of data will be
As is often the case in linguistics, semantics lags behind phonetics.
What we try to discover here for semantics, facing much resistance from some
colleagues for whom all this seems unprecedentedly odd, has in fact been common
knowledge in sociolinguistics and phonetics for at least fifteen years.
Disner, Sandra F. 1983. Vowel quality: The relation between
universal and language-specific factors. PhD dissertation, University of
California, Los Angeles. (UCLA Working Papers in Phonetics 58).
Labov, William. 1994. Principles of linguistic change: Internal
factors. Oxford: Blackwell.
Ladefoged, Peter. 1984. ‘Out of chaos comes order’:
Physical, biological, and structural patterns in phonetics. Proceedings of the
fourteenth annual meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society, ed. by S.
Axmaker, A. Jaisser and H. Singmaster, 121-141. Berkeley, CA: University of
Sansò, Andrea. 2010. The dynamic potential of probabilistic
semantic maps. Comment on Wälchli 2010. Linguistic Discovery, this
van der Auwera, Johan. 2008. In defense of classical semantic maps.
Theoretical Linguistics 34/1.39-46. doi:10.1515/thli.2008.002
Wälchli, B. 2010. Similarity semantics and building
probabilistic semantic maps from parallel texts. Linguistic Discovery, this
Author’s contact information:
Institut für Sprachwissenschaft
3000 Bern 9, Switzerland