Matthew Whelpton

A semantic elicitation experiment on North American Icelandic

This paper reports on a semantic elicitation experiment carried out among speakers of North American Icelandic (hereafter NA Icelandic; cf. Arnbjörnsdóttir, 2006 and references there) and local Canadian English during a trip to Manitoba, Canada, in April and May 2013. The experiment builds on work already conducted as part of a large European project studying the semantics of Indo-European languages, including Icelandic: the Evolution of Semantic Systems project (EOSS; Majid, Jordan, & Dunn, 2011). The aim is to compare the properties of Icelandic spoken in its native context (hereafter Icelandic) with the NA Icelandic spoken in a Canadian English context.

The EoSS project is organised by the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands (Principal Investigators: Asifa Majid, Fiona Jordan, Michael Dunn)i. It aims to collect data from 50 Indo-European languages 2011-2013 in order to assess the degree and nature of variation in semantic categories over space and time. It uses statistical phylogenetic methods to project the degree of historical relatedness between languages on the basis of their lexical inventory in four domains: colours (attributes), body parts (parts), containers (objects), and spatial relations (relations).ii
Data was collected for Icelandic in 2011 by Matthew Whelpton and his master´s student, Þórhalla Guðmundsdóttir Beck. Participants were presented with picture stimuli in the four domains and asked to name the item or relation shown. This method elicits not only the lexical forms used by the speakers but also the semantic extensional range of each form (e.g. what kinds of things are described as dish vs plate or bolli ‘cup’ vs krús ‘mug’). A volume comparing results for various Germanic languages is currently in preparation for the journal Language Sciences and reveals interesting differences in strategies deployed by speakers even of these closely related languages. For instance, Icelandic has a much stronger tendency to use complex prepositional terms for spatial relations than German, Swiss German, Frisian and even Norwegian (Berthele, Whelpton, Næss, Duijff, & van Scherpenberg, 2013); and Icelandic makes much more productive use of compounding strategies in container naming than Dutch (Whelpton, Jordan, & Guðmundsdóttir Beck, 2013).

During the Manitoba trip, the EoSS experiment was re-run for three domains (containers, body parts and spatial relations) for speakers of both NA Icelandic and local Canadian English. The data allows us (a) to assess the range of lexical forms available to heritage speakers and the influence of local English on vocabulary stock, as well as shifts in inflectional paradigm; (b) to assess whether the extension of NA Icelandic forms more closely resembles the extension of Canadian English forms or NA Icelandic forms; (c) to assess the degree to which NA Icelandic maintains the distinctive strategies of Icelandic speakers, e.g. compounding or complex preposition usage. Initial impressions suggest extensive lexical gaps in NA Icelandic (e.g. for body parts such as úlnliður ‘wrist’), shifts in inflectional class (e.g. weak masculine bolli ‘cup’ produced as strong masculine bollur), extensional shifts towards English (e.g. the extension of fótur restricting to English foot), much less use of compounding but nevertheless a continued use of complex prepositional forms.

This paper will present the first systematic analysis of the Manitoba data in comparison to the EoSS Icelandic data.

Arnbjörnsdóttir, B. (2006). North American Icelandic – the Life of a Language. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press.
Berthele, R., Whelpton, M., Næss, Å., Duijff, P., & van Scherpenberg, C. (2013). Static spatial descriptions in five Germanic languages. Language Sciences, in preparation.
Majid, A., Jordan, F., & Dunn, M. (2011). Evolution of Semantic Systems Procedures Manual. Nijmegen: Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics.
Whelpton, M., Jordan, F., & Guðmundsdóttir Beck, T. (2013). The semantics and morphology of household container names in Icelandic and Dutch. Language Sciences, in preparation.


Matthew Whelpton – Abstract