Tomaz Potocnik (UCL) - 2019-20 Students

Language change and why it happens

My main research objective is to study language change in progress. I am especially interested in (1) communicative and cognitive constraints and (2) the mechanisms that drive the language change, as well as in (3) contributing to the development of research methods in diachronic Latin semantics. 

By studying language change in progress, I have in mind studying the linguistic process of change itself and describing not only the initial stage and the end stage of an instance of change, but also intervening stages, as far as the corpus method (the only one available) allows.

The question immediately arises how one can trace the development of an unchanging form. One way to do this is studying the context of an expression. In the case of deictic expressions, one might observe the participants in the utterance/event/state of affairs; in the case of modal verbs (which, for the purposes of the project, are understood as deictic expressions), the infinitive which they introduce serves as an important indicator of the stage of development (e.g. think about the diachronic development of licetlicet loqui licet videre > sci-, videlicet). The methodology of studying context, is borrowed from grammaticalization studies.

As stated above, I will study the mechanisms that propel the language change; in other words: Why does the change in a particular expression occur at all, what motivates it? The processes in historical linguistics identified in the course of various studies include analogy, grammaticalization, semantic bleaching, frequency, subjectification, metaphor, metonymy, etc. In the initial stage, I will focus on metaphor and frequency; grammaticalization and semantic bleaching will figure prominently throughout the study. 

The study will be based on a corpus of Latin texts (the limited validity of written data in language change studies will be taken into account). In order to answer my research questions, I will focus on a range of deictic expressions which (as evidenced by decades of study on grammaticalization, cognitive linguistics and modality) are highly susceptible to change. The expressions studied will be chosen among spatial deictic expressions (unde, hic), modal expressions (licet, oportet, possum, etc.), temporal deictic expressions (adverbs of time, expression of the future in Latin) and others. 

An important and deliberate characteristic of the project is its interdisciplinarity. It draws not only from Classics and historical linguistics, but also from cognitive studies, digital humanities, corpus linguistics and theoretical semantics. The findings will ideally be useful to Latin linguists, researchers of modality and grammaticalization, as well as linguists working on Greek and Romance linguistics.

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