Aidan Pine and Mark Turin
The world is home to an extraordinary level of linguistic diversity, with roughly 7,000 languages currently spoken and signed. Yet this diversity is highly unstable and is being rapidly eroded through a series of complex and interrelated processes that result in or lead to language loss. The combination of monolingualism and networks of global trade languages that are increasingly technologized have led to over half of the world’s population speaking one of only 13 languages. Such linguistic homogenization leaves in its wake a linguistic landscape that is increasingly endangered.
A wide range of factors contribute to language loss and attrition. While some—such as natural disasters—are unique to particular language communities and specific geographical regions, many have similar origins and are common across endangered language communities around the globe. The harmful legacy of colonization and the enduring impact of disenfranchising policies relating to Indigenous and minority languages are at the heart of language attrition from New Zealand to Hawai’i, and from Canada to Nepal.
Language loss does not occur in isolation, nor is it inevitable or in any way “natural.” The process also has wide-ranging social and economic repercussions for the language communities in question. Language is so heavily intertwined with cultural knowledge and political identity that speech forms often serve as meaningful indicators of a community’s vitality and social well-being. More than ever before, there are vigorous and collaborative efforts underway to reverse the trend of language loss and to reclaim and revitalize endangered languages. Such approaches vary significantly, from making use of digital technologies in order to engage individual and younger learners to community-oriented language nests and immersion programs. Drawing on diverse techniques and communities, the question of measuring the success of language revitalization programs has driven research forward in the areas of statistical assessments of linguistic diversity, endangerment, and vulnerability. Current efforts are re-evaluating the established triad of documentation-conservation-revitalization in favor of more unified, holistic, and community-led approaches.
Agustin Vicente and Ingrid Lossius Falkum
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Please check back later for the full article.
Polysemy is characterized as the phenomenon whereby a single word form is associated with two or several related senses (e.g., run a marathon, run some water, run on gasoline, run a store, etc.). It is distinguished from monosemy, where one word form is associated with a single meaning, and homonymy, where a single word form is associated with two or several unrelated meanings, represented as different lexemes (e.g., bank). Although the distinctions between polysemy, monosemy, and homonymy may seem clear at an intuitive level, they have proven difficult to draw in practice. For instance, none of the linguistic tests devised for this purpose give clear-cut answers, either because they are context-sensitive (sometimes, only a slight manipulation of the context may give rise to a different sense), or because they do not track the intuitive distinctions, identifying some kinds of polysemy as monosemy and others as instances of homonymy.
Polysemy proliferates in natural language: virtually every word is polysemous to some extent. Still, the phenomenon has been largely ignored in the mainstream linguistics literature, as well as in related disciplines. One notable exception is the cognitive linguistics framework, where polysemy has played an important role in theorizing from the outset. However, it is only recently that polysemy has been seen as a topic of relevance to linguistic and philosophical debates regarding lexical meaning representation, compositional semantics, and the semantics-pragmatics divide.
Early accounts treated polysemy in terms of sense enumeration: each sense of a polysemous expression is stored as an individual representation in the lexicon (this approach has been called the Sense Enumeration Lexicon, or SEL, for short). Polysemy and homonymy are treated on a par, both being resolved by language users selecting a sense from among the list of lexically stored senses, which then feeds into the semantic composition process.
The SEL approach has been strongly criticized on both theoretical and empirical grounds. Today, most researchers converge on the hypothesis that the senses of at least many polysemous expressions derive from a single meaning representation. One contemporary debate revolves around the status of this representation: Are the lexical representations of polysemous expressions informationally scarce and under-specific with respect to their different senses? Or do they have to be informationally rich in order to store and be able to generate all these polysemous senses? Alternatively, are senses computed from a literal, primary meaning via semantic or pragmatic mechanisms such as coercion, modulation, or ad hoc concept construction?
A related issue that has recently attracted interest is how polysemy is generated or constructed in the course of discourse, a question that has important implications for accounts of semantic change. If this process is not entirely arbitrary (i.e., the senses are related to each other in semi-predictable ways), what are the underlying mechanisms? While it is widely agreed that two important sources of polysemy are metaphor and metonymy, the question of what consequences the source of a polysemy may have (if any) for lexical representation and sense activation remains a largely unexplored question.