Synonymy and polysemy diffusion in Asian Englishes

Edgar SchneiderUniversity of Regensburg, Germany

Varieties of English are mostly viewes as static entities in isolation. I suggest that the theory of Complex Dynamic (or “Adaptive”) Systems constitutes an enriching framework to enhance our understanding of the emergence of World Englishes, including Asian Englishes. This theory has been developed in the sciences and in biology (cf. Mobus & Kalton 2015) and offers a fruitful paradigm also for the development of languages (Ellis & Larsen-Freeman 2009; Kretzschmar 2015). In addition to the inherent value of the dynamically systemic perspective it credits to Asian Englishes the status of being distinctive, independent and complex entities. Some central ideas and assumptions of this theory are outlined briefly.
I apply these ideas to data from Asian Englishes showcasing processes of differential semantic diffusion. When a complex linguistic system is passed on through space and time, as has happened in the emergence of Asian Englishes, some components are strengthened and others are weakened. The mutual delimitation of semantic spaces is a particularly volatile domain, so the question is how meaning relationships between and within words have been passed on or modified in the process of Asian Englishes emerging. Based on suitable electronic text corpora, I provide a quantitative analysis of the shifting relative frequencies of (a) choices between quasi-synonyms (e.g. recall – recollect; assume – suppose) and (b) the main meanings of a few mental verbs (e.g. learn, expect). Results show emerging and innovative lexicosemantic preferences for specific concepts or, notably for Indian English, a process of “semantic focusing”, strengthening the core meaning of certain verb at the expense of more marginal ones.
The transmission of sub-systems through time and space with differential frequency shifts of units thus illustrates a few core properties of Complex Systems.

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