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Productive Signs. A Computer-Assisted Analysis of Evolutionary, Typological, and Cognitive Dimensions of Word Families

Project description

Understanding word families through computer modelling

Words which share a common origin within and across different languages are called word families. Through dynamics of language use, these families interact and evolve, a fact that remains largely ignored in the language sciences. The EU-funded ProduSemy project will create computer models to standardise word family data across languages. The models will be applied to data from historical, typological, and cognitive linguistics and help to learn more about the numerous ways in which word families are composed and structured in these disciplines. In this way, the project will contribute to the integration of methods and data in linguistics, cognitive science and psychology.


All human languages have simple and complex words. Simple words refer to meanings regardless of their form, while complex words are formed from other words, and their formation can be semantically motivated. Since words can share lexical material, we can group them into families. Word families can vary greatly in size, ranging from small ones – comprising only a few members –, to large ones – spanning several hundred words –, but it is still unclear why some words are more productive than others in forming new words. Lexical compositionality has received some attention in historical linguistics, linguistic typology, and cognitive linguistics, but so far studies have mostly concentrated on the morphological complexity of individual words and languages, while the fact that words form families which interact during language change and language use has been typically ignored. As a result, many questions regarding word family formation remain unresolved, and we do not know 1) how word families evolve along language phylogenies, 2) which semantic processes underlying word family formation are universal, and 3) to what extent human cognition influences the productivity of lexical roots to form families. The project will tackle these three target questions by unifying evolutionary, typological, and cognitive insights into lexical compositionality. Building on a computer-assisted framework that reconciles classical and computational approaches in historical linguistics and linguistic typology, the project will design new models to standardize cross-linguistic data on word families, apply them to integrate data from historical linguistics, linguistic typology, and cognitive linguistics, and develop new methods for the computer-assisted inference of word families, their underlying motivation patterns, and their evolutionary histories in large datasets. In this way, the project will deepen the integration of cross-linguistic studies in cognitive and psychological sciences.

Host institution

Net EU contribution
€ 2 000 000,00
94032 Passau

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Bayern Niederbayern Passau, Kreisfreie Stadt
Activity type
Higher or Secondary Education Establishments
Total cost
€ 2 000 000,00

Beneficiaries (2)