University of Hong Kong > School of Humanities

Semantic load as a constraint on contact-induced language change
- Eileen Waegemaekers

Thu 27 Oct 2016, 3:00-4:30 pm
Room 4.04, 4/F Run Run Shaw Tower, Centennial Campus, HKU

Semantic load as a constraint on contact-induced language change

HKU Linguistics Seminar Series

Semantic load as a constraint on contact-induced language change

A question many linguists have asked is whether there are cognitive constraints that can explain why languages change in a certain direction and not the other (Croft 2000; Matras 2009). Building on work by Mufwene (2001), Croft (2000), Ansaldo (2009) and Aboh (2009), it is assumed that language change at the individual level results from contact with different idiolects, and that features of those idiolects that the speaker has been in contact with will compete for selection. In this paper the focus is on competition and selection between features from different linguistic systems in the Singaporean context, hypothesizing that semantic load is a cognitive constraint that affects selection. Research on contact-induced language change suggests that for a feature to be replicated in the mixed variety it needs to have salient semantic content in either L1 or L2 (Aboh and Ansaldo 2006; Siemund and Kintana 2008). Following this line of thought and assuming that the primary locus of language contact is the mind, I hypothesize that when a speaker has the option to select features from different systems, the feature with a higher semantic load is more likely to get selected. In my approach, semantic load is quantified as the relative contribution of an individual morpheme to the overall meaning of the sentence. To test this, a recursive neural network trained on learning abstract bilingual sentence representations of Chinese and English (Le and Zuidema 2014; Hermann and Blunsom 2014) is employed that incorporates principles of distributional and compositional semantics. These models have shown success in capturing meanings of words and sentences (Erk 2012), and can enable us to quantify the semantic load of individual morphemes cross-linguistically. The results from the English-Chinese bilingual model reveal the role of semantic load in the emergence of a mixed variety such as Singlish. By exploring several mixed constructions in different domains I discuss whether the data is better explained by the semantic load hypothesis or competing ones such as Bao’s (2015) lexical filter hypothesis.


Eileen Waegemaekers obtained her MA in Linguistics from the University of Amsterdam. She is now a 3rd year PhD candidate in the Department of Linguistics. Her interests include evolutionary theories of language creation, bilingual selection and competition models, as well as computational modelling of language development.


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