Through a Glass Darkly

Investigating the meaning part of the linguistic sign is incredibly complex. It is extremely fuzzy, and we have no direct means to observe what a word actually means. There are, of course, ways, how one can investigate how the meaning of words changes over time, but it remains very difficult to model the exact processes. When Swadesh introduced lexicostatistics, he also introduced a way to investigate lexical change by fixing (controling) the meaning part of the linguistic sign and looking at words from an onomasiological perspective which asks, which words we use to denote a concept, rather than asking what concepts words can denote. This perspective can be very fruitful in many respects. However, whenever I look at Swadesh lists from different languages, I have this feeling of looking at a big house with many illuminated windows. I can see movement in the windows, and people appearing and disappearing, but from looking at the house, I will never really know what is going on inside. One could say that lexicostatistics is just old stuff from the 1950s and there is no need to care about it anymore, but the lexicostatistic perspective on the lexicon of human languages lives on in our modern phylogenetic approaches, and I am often asking myself whether it is really enough to look at lexical evolution through the window of some 200 meanings, or whether there is something more we can do. I discuss this question in more detail in a new blogpost I wrote for David Morrison's blog The Genealogical World of Phylogenetic Networks and which you may find here.