Near Synonymy and Syntactic Variation

Project Co-ordinators:

Heather Burnett (LLF, CNRS-Université Paris Diderot)  
Berit Gehrke (LLF, CNRS-Université Paris Diderot)
Tatiana Nikitina (LLACAN, CNRS-INALCO)


We are organizing a one-day workshop on meaning, interaction and optimization in Paris on September 9th, 2016. Find out more here!

Short project description:                            (See a longer description here)

Although natural languages frequently possess grammatical means to form multiple syntactic structures expressing the same idea, it has often been claimed that, rather than allow absolute synonymy, speakers will end up associating these different syntactic structures with slightly different meanings (Bloomfield 1913, Goodman 1949, Cruse 1986, among others). 

Although it is empirically well supported, the phenomenon of absolute synonymy avoidance seems to be at odds with another well-documented and pervasive empirical phenomenon: syntactic variation and change. More specifically, the common idea that “natural languages abhor absolute synonyms just as nature abhors a vacuum” (Cruse 1986: 270) appears to be challenged by the observation that change from one linguistic stage to another is characterized by intermediary periods of variation in which synonymous syntactic structures, called variants in the sociolinguistics literature, co-exist in the grammar and are used by speakers as alternative ways of saying the same thing (Labov 1966 et seq.). Furthermore, research in variationist sociolinguistics has shown that speakers can exploit this meaning equivalence to both construct and express belonging to particular subgroups of their linguistic communities through distinctive patterns of alternation between variants. Finally, depending on the social organization of the community, these periods of variation can result in the complete replacement of an older syntactic form by a newer syntactic form, i.e. a complete instance of language change.

Our project explores the hypothesis that the tension between absolute synonymy avoidance, on the one hand, and syntactic variation and change, on the other, can be resolved through the development of a theory of near-synonymy; that is, the identification of a relation that holds between linguistic expressions which is weaker than absolute synonymy, yet is still strong enough for natural language speakers to treat linguistic expressions as equivalent for the purpose of making social distinctions and, ultimately, for diachronic replacement.