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Title:The submorphemic structure of Amharic: toward a phonosemantic analysis
Author(s):Ayalew, Bezza
Director of Research:Bokamba, Eyamba G.
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Bokamba, Eyamba G.
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Benmamoun, Elabbas; Hualde, José Ignacio; Shosted, Ryan K.; Unseth, Peter
Department / Program:Linguistics
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Sound Symbolism
Abstract:Since the emergence of structural linguistics most of the linguistic studies have been conducted with the declared assumption that there is no systematic relationship between sound and meaning until a certain number of sounds are combined and arbitrarily associated with certain meanings to form the basic meaningful units known as morphemes. The pervasiveness and success of this paradigm over the decades has apparently discouraged the search for potential sound-meaning relation below the morpheme presumably because such an association is difficult to establish empirically. This study represents an attempt to explore and address this nexus based on one African language: Amharic. It addresses the systematic correspondence between sound and meaning that is observable in the Amharic language’s lexicon across varieties of roots, which are generally believed to be the basic meaningful units. Contrary to the fundamental assumption that restricts sound-meaning association to the morphemic level, the study shows that roots in the Amharic language exhibit phonetic and semantic relationship with one another. This fact suggests the existence of lower level phonetic and semantic structure that has not been recognized as meaningful, and thus substantiates similar sub-morphemic sound meaning correspondences that have been observed in various languages of the world, including the phonaesthemic analyses of English and other Indo-European languages. The initial phase of investigation on a comprehensive database of Amharic roots extracted from Kane’s (1991) Amharic-English dictionary confirmed that there is a systematic sound-meaning correspondence between roots that share subsets of their consonants to such extent that the shared semantic properties of the roots can be abstracted as the semantic descriptions of the common sub-morphemic pairs and single consonants. The study was followed by a sound-meaning matching experiment with native speakers based on a series of constructed non-sense words/ roots and the abstracted semantic descriptions of the individual consonants. The findings showed the same results as the initial phase thus confirming those findings: a. The cross-root semantic relations indicate correspondence in phonetic form and in semantic association between the shared components of the roots. b. The core meaning of a root can be described as the composition of the associated semantic properties of its consonants. Statistical analysis of the results of the experiment confirmed that the observed sound-meaning correspondences are not mere coincidences, but systematic relationships that occur at the sub-morphemic level. To the extent that the statical analyses are correct, this finding is argued to be an important contribution to linguistic theory in general with respect to the redefinition of what constitutes the basic unit of meaning in natural language. It is suggested that form-meaning association in language trickles down to the phoneme level. Further, with respect to Amharic and potentially other Semitic languages, the finding in this study has necessitated the dichotomization of the concept of root and etymon which is defined as the phonetic and semantic base of related stems. It is argued that this distinction is vital in understanding the morpho-semantic characteristics that occur in Amharic and related languages, and in accounting for certain diachronic phenomena in the language. The practical and theoretical implications of these findings are examined in the study.
Issue Date:2013-08-22
Rights Information:Copyright 2013 Bezza Tesfaw Ayalew
Date Available in IDEALS:2013-08-22
Date Deposited:2013-08

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