Regular and Idiosyncratic Meaning in The Roots of Words
University of Texas at Austin
Friday, October 20, 2023
12:30 p.m.2 p.m.
One of the most widely accepted facts about word meaning is that manywords share meaning in common, grouping words into classes, but that within each class there's something unique and idiosyncratic about each word. It is commonly assumed that the grammar of a language only "sees" the regular bits --- the idiosyncratic parts of a given words meaning are not really linguistically very significant, so much so that studying their individual content is not likely to be very fruitful. In this talk I explore this issue in detail, and suggest that hidden within the idiosyncrasies of individual words are types of regularity --- sometimes the very same regularities that define whole word classes --- that are significant for how the word is used grammatically. I draw on two primary case studies, one a broad, typological study of the ways subtly different cause/effect scenarios are described across a balanced sample of languages, and one on the diverse patterns of expressions of giving in English and the Bantu language Kinyarwanda. I conclude by suggesting that regularity and idiosyncrasy are not so different from one another, and form more of a continuum than a sharp division.