Predicting the past: Reconstructing the Slavonic colour lexicon

Project Overview


Predicting the past: Reconstructing the Slavonic colour lexicon

Project members:

Prof Greville G. Corbett
Prof Ian R. L. Davies
Dr Andrew Hippisley

Period of award

November 1998 - October 2000


Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)

This interdisicplinary project combined work on Slavonic languages, historical linguistics, computational modelling, and psycholinguistics. We showed how change in meaning can be plotted through time by concentrating on a specific particularly interesting domain, namely the terms for colour. A language family for which we had extensive data, Slavonic, was examined, by using DATR, a computational tool for modelling lexical knowledge. Underpinning DATR is the notion of default inheritance (knowledge is organised so that generalisations can be elegantly captured).

The objectives were:

(1) to deliver a full account of Slavonic’s colour term system;

(2) to make a typological contribution by comparing the situation in Slavonic with
well-established work on possible colour systems;

(3) to show how default inheritance can be used to relate different languages, as
well as different stages of a single language’s development;

(4) to demonstrate the viability of this computational approach to historical

Based on the available sources on Slavonic colour, for example dictionaries of different periods, we built default inheritance hierarchies of information on colour extending back to Proto-Slavonic. We checked against Berlin and Kay’s colour term hierarchy, which gave hypotheses as to the evolution of colour terminology.