Formal diachronic semantics: a new research direction

Besides my main focus within linguistics, i.e. formal semantics, I have always liked historical linguistics. Therefore it has been a passion of mine to try to combine the rigor of formal semantics with the general mechanisms of semantic change in historical linguistics. It seems to me now that a new field called Formal Diachronic Semantics has successfully emerged in both Europe and the USA.

The following is a brief account of the origin and development of formal diachronic semantics as I know it. My account is probably not the most accurate and I apologize in advance if any major research papers or any major figures are not described accurately in my account here.

So here we go. Although the idea of a formal treatment of diachronic semantics can be traced as far back as 1995 when Kai von Fintel published a paper titled “The formal semantics of grammaticalization” (Proceedings of the North East Linguistics Society (NELS) ed. by Jill N. Beckman, 175-190. Amherst, MA: GLSA), the new research direction did not pick up any steam for 10 years after that. There were probably only a couple of papers that dealt with such topics within these 10 years. Then in 2006, Regine Eckardt published a book titled “Meaning Change in Grammaticalization: An Enquiry into Semantic Reanalysis” (Oxford: Oxford University Press). I think this is another milestone in the development of formal diachronic semantics as a new research direction. Regine Echardt is the de facto pioneer in this new field, and she has been the leading figure in bringing researchers together to do formal analyses on diachronic semantics. After Eckardt (2006), formal diachronic semantics still did not attract much attention among researchers. But indeed more researchers were starting to look at semantic change from a formal semantic perspective after 2006. Probably a handful of papers were published in the subsequent years until 2015 when Ashwini Deo published a paper titled “The semantic and pragmatic underpinnings of grammaticalization paths: The progressive to imperfective shift” (Semantics and Pragmatics 8, 14: 1-52). Personally I think this is the third milestone. Ashwini Deo has been one of the leading figures in formal diachronic semantics, especially in the USA.

In 2016, the first conference in this field was held from September 12 to 14 at the University of Konstanz in Germany organized by Regine Echardt. I think it was at this conference that the current name “Formal Diachronic Semantics” was officially introduced to the field of linguistics. I was calling this field “Formal Historical Semantics” before I heard about this conference. I guess the word “diachronic” is a more specific and more accurate term than “historical”. But at any rate, I think ever since 2016, this new field has started to become more active and I am very excited about this new research direction. The Formal Diachronic Semantics conference is abbreviated as “FoDS”. FoDS 1 was held in 2016 as just mentioned. FoDS 2 was held from November 20 to 21, 2017 at Saarland University in Germany. Now FoDS 3 will be held from September 13 to 14, 2018 at the University of  in Norway. The Call for Papers can be found here. For more information and a bibliography of formal diachronic semantics, please visit Łukasz Jędrzejowski’s page here. According to his page, the FoDS conferences in 2019 and 2020 will be in Germany and Israel. Hopefully the conference will also be held in the US at some point.

I have also been doing my own research in formal diachronic semantics. Some of the topics that I have looked at include formal diachronic lexical semantics, aspect markers, topic markers, etc. Some of my research can be found here, here, here, and here. I am also going to present a paper on the formal diachronic semantics of the grammaticalization of deictic words into topic markers, at the 30th North American Conference on Chinese Linguistics (Ohio State University, Columbus, OH)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *