Semantic data are notoriously difficult to handle. In contrast to the form-part of the linguistic sign, meanings are not organized sequentially, but rather network-like (List 2014: 34f). As a result, we often encounter problems when trying to model complex relations between different meanings, specifically in those cases, where we have only tables as our base material. This blog post tries to summarize how major types of semantic data are handled in the Concepticon project and how they can be accessed in code.
Establishing a standardized annotation framework for communicating rhyme judgments identified in historical texts will both ease the use of computational tools for rhyme analysis, and hopefully inspire greater collaboration amongst scholars interested in historical linguistics. The framework we have proposed (List, Hill & Foster 2019), was designed with simplicity, exhaustiveness, and flexibility in mind (p. 30), with the intension of eventual inclusion in the Cross-Linguistic Data Formats initiative (https://cldf.clld.org). Further testing of the framework is desired to demonstrate its utility and identify areas requiring refinement. This study presents such a test on rhyming in the Cang Jie pian 蒼頡篇, an ancient Chinese scribal treatise only recently reconstructed from a complex corpus of surviving manuscript fragments. In a follow-up study, the proposal will be formally evaluated by providing code to test the annotations.
In lexicography, there are two commonly used types of semantic data categorization: semantic domains and semantic labels. The difference between the two approaches is simple: semantic domains presume that each lexical meaning belongs to one and only one group (or sub-group of a larger group). Semantic labels do not have such limitations.
A major problem for data reuse in computer-assisted historical linguistics, especially when employing data collected with no computational workflows in mind, is linking datasets in terms of the meanings of the words (or, technically, “forms”) they carry. Just as linking languages across different datasets is not as straightforward as one might naively assume, demanding a complex reference catalog such as Glottolog, linking the concepts used in a wordlist (a “concept list”) to our Concepticon project might well be the most intensive task in preparing a dataset for cross-linguistic studies.
In language comparison, there is a long history of using concept-based wordlists to get insights into the degree of similarity between languages, going back at least to Morris Swadesh (Swadesh 1950). For these purposes, words from different languages that share the same meaning are compared, either manually or with computational methods. The latter have the advantages of being both faster and more consistent. However, there are also limits to what computer-based methods can detect for the time being.
One of the biggest problems in this context is that none of the currently available methods for automatic cognate detection can infer partial cognates directly if no information on morpheme boundaries is provided by the user. As a result, if morpheme boundaries are missing and morphological differences are frequent in the data one wants to investigate, automatic cognate detection can be seriously hampered (List, Greenhill, and Gray 2017).