On the viability of cognitive morphology for explaining language change
The dichotomy nature vs. nurture has been defined as “[t]he fundamental question of the developmental sciences” (MacNeilage 1997: 302). Nature has to do with the cognitively grounded endowment specific of human beings, whereas nurture can be seen as the result of a learning process, which only indirectly reflects cognitively grounded properties of the language faculty. The diachronic dimension provides a bridge between nature and nurture, in the sense that linguistic change results, at least partially, from the action of selective cognitive abilities associated with the single components (or dimensions) of the language faculty. On the other hand, these selective cognitive abilities may give rise to conflicts among the different dimensions of the language faculty, in that a certain linguistic change, locally resulting from a natural process, may produce along other dimensions unnatural structures or configurations requiring nurture.
On this background, the paper will tackle the question whether morpheme homonymy can to a large extent be traced back to well-defined “natural” patterns of diachronic development based on cognitively grounded processes of semantic extension such as metaphor and metonymy. On the basis of two case-studies, it will be shown that on the one hand an apparently idiosyncratic phenomenon such as the occurrence of the verb ginn ‘give’ as passive morpheme in the Middle-Rhine German dialects is easily analysed as a natural extension pattern based on common metaphors and metonymies (cf. Gaeta 2005). On the other, the apparently clear-cut case of agent / instrument polysemy (cf. Panther & Thornburg 2002, Ischtuganowa 2004) as attested in Romance languages (cf. It. ascoltatore ‘listener’ / frullatore ‘mixer’) must rather be treated as the result of the casual collision of two different suffixes because of the blind effect of phonological change (cf. Rainer 2004), in other words it is a case for nurture.
Unless a previous conceptual contiguity among semantic categories is postulated, which is allegedly supposed to motivate and induce the homonymous outcome (cf. Leiss 1997 and Gaeta 2006 for a critical review), it is necessary to put to interest the conceptual means offered by cognitive linguistics in the analysis of the languages as historically determined systems, carefully investigating the single linguistic phenomena before projecting them onto a risky universal explanatory level.
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