Skip to content Skip to navigation

The HOW and WHY in Language Change - A N​ew Perspective in Historical Semantics

Roland Mühlenbernd and Dankmar Enke
Tübingen and Munich
March 29, 2016 - 12:00pm
Margaret Jacks Hall, Greenberg Room (460-126)

Grammaticalization phenomena often display a typologically universal diachronic course: i) in the so-called aoristic drift (Meillet 1909), the ‘present perfect’ invades the domain of the ‘past tense’; ii) in the progressive imperfective cycle (cf. Deo 2015 and refs. therein) a morphologically expressed ‘progressive’ marker emerges as an optional way to express progressive meanings, and then generalizes to cover the whole imperfective domain; iii) in the Jespersen Cycle (cf. Dahl 1979) a marker for ‘emphatic negation’ eventually invades the Domain of Negation and drives out the former marker. It can be shown that a very similar diachronic schema emerges in such different empirically observed cycles. This suggests that the factors creating such a schema must be quite general. Evolutionary modeling can help us to understand those factors. Namely, we can define computational models which in very general terms capture potentially relevant properties of the three cycles we mentioned above. Then we can run those models and test particular conjectures to see whether they support the reproduction of the historical trajectories that we actually observe.

In our talk we present an evolutionary model for the progressive-to-imperfective cycle (Enke, Mühlenbernd & Yanovich 2016) that effectively provide microfoundations for Deo’s (2015) game-theoretic macro model of the cycle. Then we introduce previous evolutionary work on the aoristic drift (Schaden 2012) and the Jespersen cycle (Ahern & Clark 2014) to discuss a generalized framework for analyzing the cycles of this form. We outline how different stages of the relevant cycles can be modeled as strategies of mapping forms and meanings employed by language-learning agents, and how various factors can change the strategies that agents adopt.


Ahern, C. & R. Clark (2014). Diachronic Processes in Language as Signaling Under Conflicting Interests. In: E.A. Cartmill, S. Roberts, H. Lyn, H. Cornish (eds.), Proceedings of the 10th International Conference on the Evolution of Language (Evolang X), pages 25–32.

Dahl, Ö. (1979). Typology of Sentence Negation. Linguistics 17, 79–106.

Deo, A. (2015). The Semantic and Pragmatic Underpinnings of Grammaticalization Paths: The Progressive to Imperfective Shift. Semantics & Pragmatics 8, Article 14.

Enke, D., R. Mühlenbernd & I. Yanovich (2016). The Emergence of the Progressive to Imperfective Diachronic Cycle in Reinforcement-learning Agents. In: S.G. Roberts, C. Cuskley, L. McCrohon, L. Barcel´o-Coblijn, O. Feher & T. Verhoef (eds.), The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 11th International Conference on the Evolution of Language (Evolang XI), Article 191.

Meillet, A. (1912). Introduction a l’´etude comparative des langues indo-europ´eennes. Paris: Hachette.

Schaden, G. (2012). Modelling the 'Aoristic Drift of the Present Perfect’ as Inflation: An Essay in Historical Pragmatics. International Review of Pragmatics 4, 261–292.

Event Type: 
Construction of Meaning Workshop