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.
For a long time, I have been wondering about the origin of the German wordlist in the Intercontinental Dictionary Series (Key and Comrie 2016. Not only are many of the words given as translations for the large concept list of 1310 items very archaic variants, which are no longer in use, we also find many annoying problems, such as unusual spellings (consequently avoiding the letter “ß”, which is still in use, even if some people think differently), wrong translations, and, of course, no phonetic transcriptions. Already during my doctoral studies, I therefore started to work on a refined list, but I soon had so many other things on my plate, that I never really managed to finish this work. Recently, however, I realized that my previous work which I had done years ago was far more complete than I had thought, and I had even added information on potential borrowings, extracted from Kluge’s (2002) etymological dictionary. Given that this list can come in handy in various ways, I decided to finish the work and publish the list officially in a very first version.
The CLICS database in its current format makes direct use of the data assembled by the Concepticon project in order to aggregate lexical data from different sources. At the same time, the CLICS database itself can be seen as an interesting conceptlist, providing information on concept polysemy and semantic similarity.
One of the crucial steps in creating a database of lexical cognates is the selection of concepts one wants to use for a given study. While many scholars use the classical Swadesh list of 200 items) (Swadesh 1952) for this purpose, or the combined list of 207 items, in which the former has been merged with Swadesh’s updated list of 100 items (Swadesh 1955), and which is often mistakenly attributed to Swadesh himself, although the first official reference seems to be Comrie (1977), it is useful to give the selection of concepts some more thought initially.
When dealing with linguistic datasets, we may often want to export only a small part of our data, for example, only vocabulary in a certain range, such as the Swadesh list of 200 items or the list of 35 items by Yakhontov (originally published in Starostin 1991. Thanks to the
pyconcepticon API and LingPy’s built-in export functions for wordlists, this task can be done just in a few lines of code, as we will see below. If you prefer to see the raw code instead of the step-by-step explanation below, you can find a GitHub Gist here.