Semantic niches and analogy in word formation
Evidence from contrastive linguistics
Word formation, like other lexical phenomena, seems to be a difficult terrain for contrastive linguistics since it hardly allows for significant and insightful generalizations about the differences between two languages, as has been stated in the literature more than once. This paper investigates one factor leading to morphological differences and contrasts between historically related languages (Dutch and German). It is argued that word formation processes often show semantic fragmentation: in the course of time they develop ‘semantic niches’, i.e. groups of words (subsets of a morphological category) kept together by formal and semantic criteria and extendable via analogy. When looking at word formation from a contrastive point of view, these niches seem to allow for better generalizations in terms of systematic correspondences and differences between two languages than the category as a whole. As a consequence, productivity should not be seen as an absolute notion, but rather as a local and gradual phenomenon. Morphology should not only account for the possibility of coining new words but also for their probability, because language comparison shows that even allegedly equivalent word formation processes often differ with respect to the probability of their use. The paper therefore argues in favour of an analogy approach that takes the existence of semantic niches seriously.
Keywords: Dutch/German, word formation, analogy, productivity, semantic niche
Published online: 22 October 2009
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